In a bellwether of African response to the Protocol proposal for separating United Methodism into traditional and progressive denominations, Liberia’s annual conference on February 16 urged several amendments.
Liberia declared that for “the common good of the global UMC, we support the need for an arranged separation, since we can no longer exist and function as one denomination; cognizant of the fact that, ‘It is better to be separated on truth than to be united on error.’ But it also asked for better terms for United Methodists joining a new traditionalist denomination.
United Methodism has over 12.5 million members globally, nearly half of whom are in Africa, where the church is growing, while the church loses nearly 100,000 members annually in the U.S. Unlike other USA Mainline Protestant denominations, United Methodism has not liberalized sexually thanks to growing traditionalist overseas churches that align with USA evangelicals.
Last year’s special General Conference, organized by USA bishops with hopes of sexual liberalization, instead tightened church teachings affirming sex only within male-female marriage. Since then, there’s been a growing consensus that the denomination must divide between conservative and liberal wings.
The Protocol, unveiled last month, backed by USA conservative and liberal caucus groups, would create a new traditional Methodist denomination, while liberals would inherit the current United Methodist bureaucracy. All local conferences and local churches could vote themselves into the traditionalist church, by 57% for conferences and majority vote for congregations, who would retain their properties.
By unanimous vote of 725 delegates representing 148,000 United Methodists, the Liberian Annual Conference urged amending the Protocol by allowing Africans who join the traditionalist church to retain United Methodism’s name and logo with “appropriate modifications.” The resolution noted that “the insignia of the UMC (Cross & flame) bears great spiritual impact on our evangelism, mission, witness and service throughout Africa and the world.”
Liberia also urged a more equitable division of denominational assets. The Protocol assigns $25 million from post-schism United Methodism to the new traditionalist church. Liberia suggested that instead $120 million in undesignated assets from church agencies be divided evenly among five USA jurisdictions and seven global central conferences.
Liberia also insisted that central conferences and annual conferences should be able to join the traditionalist church by majority vote, not by two thirds required for central conferences and 57% for annual conferences by the Protocol. It asserted that “Central Conferences of Africa are traditionalists by law and by vote since the birth of the UMC in Africa, and do not therefore need to reaffirm its evangelical/conservative status, as required by the Protocol.” And it warned that “any attempt to align or subjugate all central conferences and their annual conferences and congregations to a post-separation UMC by default, as the Protocol proposes, would be viewed as an act of colonialism and injustice against the Central Conferences.”
The Liberians also reaffirmed their support for official United Methodist teaching on sex and marriage, “consistent with the Holy Bible and the traditional understanding and practice of the Christian church for more than 2000 years, and our current Book of Discipline,” that “marriage is defined as a sacred relationship between one man and one woman, not between any two consenting adults,” and upholding the “traditional understanding and teachings of the Christian church in our theology, polity, requirements for Ordination and Christian living.”
Some USA and African bishops have assumed and hoped that much of Africa would stay with post-schism United Methodism for financial reasons. The unanimous vote in Liberia signals that Africa would be unwilling to remain with liberalized United Methodism and instead wants better terms for Africans joining a new traditionalist church.
The Protocol and other proposals for dividing United Methodism will be debated in May at the General Conference in Minneapolis.