The following is a speech delivered by Rev. Jerry Kulah, a Liberian District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church, against the proposed separate U.S.-only Regional Conference that was approved by the 2008 General Conference. In the Spring of 2009, annual conferences around the church will vote on approving these constitutional amendments. A two-thirds vote is required for passage. UM Action strongly opposes adoption of these constitutional amendments, arguing that they would separate the African Church from the American Church in order to prevent the involvement of Bible-minded Africans in certain issues.
West Africa Central Conference, Convening with the Liberia Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church, Tubman Memmorial UMC, Weaver Avenue, Paynesville Monrovia, 17-21 December 2008
By: Jerry P. Kulah
District Superintendent, Monrovia District Conference
Liberia Annual Conference, the United Methodist Church
Bishop Rose-Marie Wenner, Resident Bishop, Germany Area, and Representative of the Council of Bishops;
Bishop Felton May, General Secretary, General Board of Global Ministries, and Representative of the Council of Bishops;
Bishop Joseph Humper, President of the College of Bishops, West Africa Central Conference, and Resident Bishop, Sierra Leone Area;
Bishop Arthur F. Kulah, Acting Resident Bishop, Nigeria Area;
Bishop Benjamin Boni, Resident Bishop, Cote D’Ivoive Area;
Bishop John G. Innis, Resident Bishop, Liberia Area;
Distinguished Delegates to the seventh Quadrennial Session of the West Africa Central Conference, Observers, fellow United Methodists, my brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
I bring you Advent greetings in the gracious name of our Savior and Lord, Christ Jesus. I would like to thank the College of Bishops through Bishop John Innis for the invitation to address this august body on the Global Nature of the Church; that is, the United Methodist Church. I feel very honored by this invitation, and pray that my attempt to speak to the issue that has raised serious concerns in our global Church in recent times would contribute to our understanding and appreciation of the Church of Jesus Christ that we all belong to. It is also my hope that this presentation will strengthen our resolve to remain united as a global Church as we carry out our mandate to advance the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ until he comes.
The United Methodist Church, formerly, the Methodist Church, since its union with the Evangelical United Brethren Church on 23 May 1968 has its origin within the Church of England where John Wesley, its founder was a clergyman, as was his father, Samuel Wesley, before him. His mother, Susanna Wesley, a woman of zeal, devotion, and strength of character is said to have been the most influential personality in the life of John Wesley.
Following his radical Spiritual transformation at a prayer meeting on Aldrsgate Street, in London on May 24, 1738 Wesley proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ with two major emphases, which remain foundational to Methodism. First was the “The Gospel of God’s grace, offered to all (people) and equal to every human need”. Second was the “moral ideal which this gospel presents to (people)”-salvation from sin; call to social holiness of life that responds in the love and service of humanity (Scott, B. James and Molly Davis Scott. Restoring the Wesleyan Class- Meeting Dallas, Texas: Provident Publishing, 2008, p.3).The end result of Wesley’s ministry was its great spiritual transforming effect across England, America and now Africa, Asia and South America.
John Wesley did not actually begin a Church, but founded a Movement for fostering revival within the Anglican Church of England. During his day in the Anglican Church, the tradition was that an Anglican priest was not allowed to preach outside his parish. The Anglican Church at the time was a Church for only the elite, with no concerns for the poor and marginalized. In addition, Wesley saw a big contradiction in the Church’s stewardship of the Gospel intended for all people of the world, people of all conditions of life. Therefore, he went out into the byways and highways, into the coalmines, the prisons, the street corners, the market places to proclaim the Gospel.
Because of his evangelistic outreach, thousands of souls came to faith in Jesus Christ. For many of these saved souls he developed discipleship programs, and they became evangelists to their own people. When he was threaten with excommunication for taking the Gospel outside the walls of the Anglican Church, it was when he made that famous declaration, that if you would excommunicate me for preaching the Gospel to lost and helpless souls, then “The World is my parish!” The continued growth of that Movement led the Church across the Atlantic to the Colonies of America. Wesley then sent Francis Asbury and Thomas Cook there to oversee the work. At the famous Christmas Conference of 1784, Cook and Asbury were concentrated as Bishops to oversee the work of the Movement outside all off England and today the United Methodist Church has indeed taken on a global nature with its presence on five continents of the world (Europe, America, Asia, Latin America, and Africa). Even though we are today developing a global Church, yet the two images of being a Movement and a Church remains with us.
Definition of Key Words
Permit me to begin by providing descriptive definitions of key words contained in our topic under consideration. They are the Church and the Global Church.
The Church: Several images are used in the New Testament to describe the Church as “the temple”, “the Body of Christ”, and “the Bride of Christ” to whom Christ has entrusted the responsibility to care, nurture, evangelize, worship, edify believers, give, study, pray , seek spiritual gifts and be holy. The Church is a community of true believers under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Persons divinely called preach the Word of God in this redemptive fellowship, and the sacraments are duly administered. In classical Greek, the Church is the “ekklesia” of God; a people called out and set apart for God; who have been brought into life relationship with Jesus Christ by faith and indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-5; 1 Pet. 2:9).
Hence, the Church is founded on the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:18). The Church is brought into being and empowered by the Holy Spirit, who is constantly developing the character of the Lord Jesus Christ in his people (Acts. 1: 8; 2; 4:11-12; 1 Pet. 2:4-6). The Church of Jesus Christ contains people of all races who thereby become one new people, one big family in the sight of God (John 17: 11, 20-21; 1 Cor. 12:12-13)
The Global Church: A Church is a global Church where there is a fair and proportionate representation of its members across the globe to all of its decision-making bodies (committees, agencies, boards, etc). It is a Church where all of its members love, support and respect one another, and perceive one another as indispensable members of the One Body of Christ. The Global Church is a Church that encourages all of its members to bring their resources (gifts, graces, skills, abilities, talents, expertise, material goods, etc) together for the common growth and development of the Church, and of one another until Christ comes.
Development Reality of the Methodist Movement across the Globe
As the movement grew and expanded across the Atlantic, it was caught between the tension of remaining a Movement and becoming a Church. For nearly 100 years following the death of John Wesley, the Methodist Movement started becoming more ecclesiastical; at the same time, the Church started becoming division-driven over various ideologies.
USA Methodists became somewhat distinct from the British Methodists. The division was primarily instigated by the political dynamics in America following its independence when the Anglican Church with which the Methodist Movement in America was associated was seen as part of the colonial oppressive system against American independence. Hence, the Movement was forced to disassociate itself from the Anglican Church and, thereby, become a Church of its own.
The division continued with the Methodist of the North in America separating from Methodist of the South, mainly because of the insistence of Methodists of the South on the practice of slavery as its source of economic prosperity and would not let go. This the Methodist of the North had rejected as contradicting Scripture and the American Constitution that declares freedom for all and equal rights for all.
In addition, White Methodists refused the inclusion of black Methodists in their Churches.. Their outright rejection of blacks was because they could not accept the fact that people who had been their slaves would now become their equals in the Christian faith by worshiping with them in the same Church. Thus, they refused to accept as equals African-American pastors and Churches. This racial tension was one of the major factors leading to the American civil war.
Steps Leading to Unity amongst Methodists
Following the end of the civil war where the American South lost, the Methodists of both North and South began to find ways to reunite, but still had the exclusion of blacks from the Church to deal with. As a compromise for reducing racial tension and for accommodating blacks within the Methodist Church, the General Conference created a Central Conference in the United States for all blacks while all whites remained in the Jurisdictional Conferences. Certainly, this step was a smart way of sustaining racism and segregating between blacks and whites in the Methodist Church.. Hence, racism in actuality was not dealt with, but, at least, all black Methodists could comfortably worship in an all black Church while the whites continue to worship in an all white Church.
However, by the 1900s, the Methodist Church began to move toward a greater sense of unity as oppose to division. In addition, the Church began to reflect a more global nature. The North and South became fully integrated; the black Central Conference was eliminated, black men and women were granted membership in white local Churches and Jurisdictional Conferences; black preachers became members of the Annual Conferences and Jurisdictional Conferences and were included in the leadership. Some of them even began to be elected Bishops over White annual Conferences. All this effort toward unity culminated into the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church into the United Methodist Church on 23 May 1968.
Formation of African Central Conferences
While these developments were taking place in the United States, missionaries from both the north and south of America started moving into other parts of the world with the Gospel, including Africa. Their earnest labor produced rapidly growing Churches. These Churches soon formed into Annual Conferences. Moreover, the Annual Conferences soon created Central Conferences because of their rapid growth. Initially, Annual Conferences from outside the United States were not allowed to have representatives to General Conference commensurate with their membership. When they were allowed to General Conference, they were permitted to have only two (2) representatives/delegates. However, it was not long until the leadership of the General Conference recognized the injustices of this and began to change. Annual Conferences from outside the United States were now allowed to have representatives to General Conference commensurate with their membership.
Proposal for Regional Conference and its implications for African Central Conferences
At the most recent General Conference, some leaders of the United Methodist Church in America proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the UMC for the creation of “Regional Conferences.” Thus far, the idea proposed is that the Jurisdictional Conferences in the USA whose equivalent outside of the USA are our Central Conferences would remain unchanged. However, that a Regional Conference be created in the United States that is over all the Jurisdictional Conferences. At the same time, the proposal is requesting that African Central conferences change their name from Central Conference to Regional Conference.
Arguments for and Against the Proposal
Proponents of the amendment have advanced the following arguments:
The first is that we need to change our name from Central Conference to Regional Conference because this name has had a racial overtone in the USA. It is also alleged to have had a racial overtone outside of the USA, including Africa since it was the white missionaries who established Central Conferences here, thereby crating a paternalistic relationship between the Church in America and the Church in Africa by a mother-daughter relationship.
While this argument, on the surface, looks appealing and unifying, there is a serious problem with it. In the first place, the African Central Conferences are not the ones putting forth this proposal. Members of the United Methodist Church in America among whom there exist no Central Conference are putting it forward. The African Church is not complaining for bearing the name “Central Conference” neither does it know the history that once created a Central Conference for blacks in the States which was later eliminated. Therefore, the proponents of this proposal appear to have some peculiar motive that has not yet been disclosed to us.
Besides, ever since the Church transitioned from missionary leadership to African leadership several decades ago, the African Central Conferences became African institutions; self-governing, self-sustaining, self-theologizing, and largely, self-supporting. In addition, since our acceptance into full membership of the General Conference, in the structure of the UMC, a Central Conference is the same as the Jurisdictional Conference in the USA. Our Central Conferences, just like any American Jurisdictional Conference, enjoy the same representation commensurate with its membership; have the same authority, same responsibility. Therefore, this argument to change our name to Regional Conference is not yet relevant.
The second argument of proponents of this proposal is that “We need to cerate the possibility of a regional Conference in the USA to deal with cultural issues and other questions that do not concern the rest of the world. Again, there are several problems associated with this argument.
The American Regional Conference is not being defined in the amendment. In the first place, the Commission given the responsibility to study the global nature of the Church has not yet made its report to the General Conference. At the seat of the just ended General Conference, which we were privileged to attend, they brought in an incomplete report and asked for additional four years to study the globalization of the Church.
While their job is still incomplete, the Commission has asked the General Conference to pass an amendment to the Constitution to create the possibility or to authorize the “creation of a decision-making structure called the Regional Conference” that is yet undefined and that does not have an equivalent structure in Africa.
Certainly, this proposal, as it stands, has the propensity to create division and segregation within the global community of believers called the United Methodists. Therefore, we are constrained to ask the following questions to our American brothers (and sisters) who are making this proposal:
• Why are you trying to create a new structure in America, which will not affect the current structure of the Jurisdictional Conferences there, and are giving the name to the African Church without changing the name of the Jurisdictional Conference in America?
• Why are you trying to create a new structure in America with no definition or clear description, no clearly stated objectives, while sustaining the Jurisdictional Conferences, which are the equivalent of the African Central Conferences? (Norlan B. Harmon, Understanding the United Methodist Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998, p. 100)
If this regional Conference idea is pursued and sustained, we are most likely to have a fractured church. In addition, we might not have a common Discipline and a unified way of doing the business of the United Methodist Church. Regional Conferences doing their own things could keep going their separate ways until new denominations eventually evolve. According to the first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul refers to the Church as members of one body but with many parts. Unless these parts effectively function together, the body is bound to suffer diverse consequences (I Corinthians 12: 12-27). The American Methodists might just be the hands, while their African brothers and sisters are the feet. We need each other to sustain the unity of the Church. The pursuit of Regional Conferences is not likely to enhance our unity but to divide us.
As long as an issue is ecclesial, biblical, and theological, it must concern the General Church. And we must jointly address it. For example, the issue of homosexuality, ordaining gay pastors and bishops, and approving of homosexual marriage, etc are all issues that concern the General Church. In addition, our primary source for answers to these issues remains the Holy Bible, not anyone’s culture or tradition.
The third argument surrounds the financial sustainability of the boards and agencies of the General Church. As the financial situation currently stands, it is a fact that almost all of the money to run the agencies comes from the United States. Therefore the unpublicized but vehement argument amongst some of the leaders of our American Methodist church is: Let the people who pay the money make the decisions about Church Structure.”
Based upon information we often gather from various UMC websites, African Central Conferences are not alone in their struggle to become financially self-sustaining. The Western Jurisdiction is also being subsidized by other jurisdictions, particularly the Southeast Jurisdiction. When one therefore uses this argument against the African Church, it has the tendency to be prejudicial and racist because the same argument is not being raised to the Western Jurisdiction. Besides, our financial challenges are not due to rapid lost in membership as does the Western Jurisdiction, but civil crises, wars, diseases, coupled with institutionalized corruption of some African leaders that affects every institution, including the Church.
However, in my opinion, this argument should serve as a wake up call to all African Central Conferences to face up to the reality of becoming more and more financially sustainable. Against this background, I am very delighted to share with this Conference that the Liberia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has already taken this path to financial sustainability. The Liberian Area has an endowment foundation call the Liberia Unite Methodist Empowerment Foundation. This Foundation, which has already raised over three hundred ($300,000.00) dollars, aims to raise ten million dollars within ten to fifteen years for the continued support of the projects and ministries of our Conference. We therefore call on other Annual Conferences within Africa to pursue this path to financial sustainability, if they have not yet begun to do so.
While it might be too early for the Central Conferences of Africa to out rightly reject the proposal that is still in its pupa stage of development, I wish to advance the following recommendations for the consideration of this Central Conference.
• That the Commission entrusted with the responsibility to study this proposal and make a report to General Conference first completes its studies and make its report.. It must give us its conclusions, and proposed changes with clear definitions. Then we as the Central Conferences of Africa will be able to make an informed decision based on our commitment to John Wesley’s dream to sustained a biblically directed, evangelistically functional, Spirit-filled, credible, accountable and unified global Church called the United Methodist Church.
• That the Commission to study the proposal be restructured to reflect a global team, since, in fact, the proposal is one that has global implications.. Leaders from the American UMC cannot plan for us in isolation and tell us what is best for us. The period of colonization and paternalism is over for the people and Church in Africa. Any decision regarding the future of the Church must involved leaders of the Church in Africa from its conception stage to the time it becomes a finished product. In this way, such a decision would be understood, owned by the people, and sustained by them.
What we Consider the underlining Factors for the Current Proposal
Until the Commission entrusted with the responsibility to study and make its report to the General Conference has done so, and clarifies to us why there is a need for this proposal, we are constrained to make the following assumptions:
Before Africans were allowed full representation commensurate with their membership, the General conference had committed itself or imposed upon itself a maximum of 1000 delegates of global representation to General Conferences. The current Church growth statistics shows that a good number of the Churches in the USA are in a state of decline for several reasons. One reason is due to migration. But a major reason is that some of the Churches have rejected biblical Christianity and settled for a liberal theology that denies cardinal biblical truths.
For example, some pastors and Churches in the United States no longer believe in the atonement, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ; the physical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and, hence, deny the authority of Scripture. They have lost their vision for the Church as taught in the Bible, and as John Wesley understood and taught it. As Rick Warren clearly points out in his book, the Purpose Driven Church, “Where there is no vision, the people go to another parish.” So many Methodists have left these liberal congregations for other denominations; some have even left the faith for a Christ less eternality, because the shepherds have not fed them with adequate spiritual food (Ezekiel 34: 1-13).
Another sad reason for their rapid decline is their gravitation towards and warm embrace of homosexual practices to the extent that they are even daring to coerced the General Church to accept.. These Churches described above have lost many of their members to other denominations and are in perpetual decline. In addition, the situation is not likely to change until they repent and return to the faith of our fathers (Biblical Christianity).
This means that as the African representation increases, the American representation decreases proportionately to keep the limit of 1000 membership at General Conference. As the Church in Africa has grown and the formula used to have representation at the General Conference applied, African representation has dramatically increased until nearly 30% of General Conference is now coming from outside of the USA!
The significance of this reality is that the missionaries who came to us in Africa and went to the rest of the world a hundred years ago brought to us a biblical faith. Our (African) delegates going to General Conference are going there with a biblical perspective. Because of our biblical perspective and continued growth, the liberals within the Church see their African brothers and sisters as threat to the control of the Church; just as about 140 years ago, whites Methodists in America saw black people as a threat to the control of the Church. Certainly, this divisive spirit should not be encouraged amongst brothers and sisters who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Christian Leadership in the Context of the Global Nature of the Church
The need for quality leadership to govern all the Societies created by the Methodist Movement was very central to the ministry of John Wesley. He accomplished this through the Class meetings. As David W. Kendall of the Free Methodist Church of North America points out, “The rise and spread of Methodism owed much to the Class-Meeting as a laboratory for developing a holy people, a people transformed by God’s grace who, in turn, had transforming impact upon their world.”
James and Molly Scott also observed, “Virtually all Church lay leaders came out of the Class-Meetings…mature both spiritually and practically. Young adults came out of the Class-Meeting grounded in biblical theology, spiritually alive, clear about their Christian values and prepared and motivated in a number of ways to serve the Church and Christ in the world”(Scott, B. James and Molly Davis Scott. Restoring the Wesleyan Class- Meeting, Dallas, Texas: Provident Publishing, 2008, p.3). Unfortunately, many of our Churches, Districts, and Conferences today ignore this method of developing leaders within our Church.
Wesley known that developing quality leaders was the most important task of any leader. He known also that if you lead a Movement or a Church and wish to develop quality leaders, you are responsible to (i) appreciate them for who they are; (ii) believe that they will do their best; (iii) praise their achievements and not envy their achievements; and (iv) accept your personal responsibility to them as their leader.
Wesley left this legacy with us. In addition, this is the kind of leader the global Church needs; a leader with a global mindset, a leader that is visionary. A global leader also develops other leaders around him or her; and therefore works as a team and not as a lone ranger.
As we endeavor to elect a leader for our Church for the Sierra Leone Area at this Conference, it is our prayer that God will guide the process and provides us a visionary leader who will stand on the shoulders of previous leaders to take our Church to greater heights.
As I end this presentation, I wish to call to mind a concern raised by John Wesley five years to his demise. He had entertained the fear that, the people called Methodists would not cease to exist across the globe but that they would exist as a mere sect, having the form of godliness but having no power to live for Christ. And that would certainly be the case unless they held to the faith, doctrine, and discipline with which they first set out. I am afraid that the current trend within global Methodism wherein some are calling for segregation within the Church in the name of Regional Conferences might well be confirming Wesley’s fear.
Let us recommit ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to an undivided commitment to the supremacy of the Holy Bible as our final authority for faith and practice. We must ensure that after our labor on earth is done; we shall leave behind positive legacies that future generations would build upon. We must build upon and leave behind a United Methodist Church, as did John Wesley and others before us. I thank you.