A CHURCH IN SCHISM: An African Perspective on the Theological Impasse in The UMC

UMVoices on February 15, 2021

The Rev. Forbes Matonga is a Pastor in the Zimbabwe West Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and the Secretary of the denomination’s Africa Central Conference.  He recently shared with us his paper, “A Church in Schism: An African Perspective on the Theological Impasse in The United Methodist Church.” 

His reflections draw on his extensive leadership experience in our denomination, including serving as the secretary of his annual conference (2000-2012), a member of the UMC Connectional Table (2004-2012), and a board member of the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. He has served as a delegate to every session of the Africa Central Conference since 2000, and was elected as a delegate to the 2004, 2016, 2019, and 2021 General Conferences. 

Part 1 of his paper, found below, offers an African perspective on the nature and aftermath of the special 2019 General Conference. Part 2, which will be posted tomorrow, offers a much more nuanced review of African United Methodist perspectives than is often heard outside of Africa. Part 3 will conclude with an African perspective on the future of United Methodism and on the choices facing African United Methodists. 

UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction.

The theological impasse and the pending schism of The United Methodist Church has many implications for the future of The United Methodist Church both globally and indeed in Africa. As we now move past the year 2020 which disrupted the Global Gathering of this Church due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Church is bracing itself for the now-rescheduled General Conference in August/September of 2021. Even when the Commission on General Conference has not yet decided how the said General Conference is going to do its business, it is now likely that the General Conference will be held either physically or virtually come August 2021.

Whatever the case will be, what is needed now is for us to look deeply on what is likely to be the outcome of the much-awaited Conference and implications of the outcome to the denomination in general and to African United Methodists in particular. Before we do that we need to give a brief background of what happened to The United Methodist Church since The General Conference of 2019 from an African delegate’s point of view.

THE 2019 GENERAL CONFERENCE

Unlike the General Conferences before, the 2019 General Conference was explicitly focused on the issue of Human Sexuality. The liberal wing of the the Church came geared to ensure that the position of the Church was going to change thereby allowing the denomination to conform to what is being referred to as “ American culture.” The push ignored an important factor in the demographics of the denomination where the centre of power is shifting to Africa. It is an undisputed fact that the Church is rapidly growing in Africa while it is on a sharp decline in the United States of America and Western Europe. Indeed Africa now accounts for over 40 percent of total membership of the Church though Africa is underrepresented when it comes to representation in the General Conference, the law making body of the Church. The Africans have a clearly known position when it comes to homosexuality: THE PRACTICE IS OF HOMOSEXUALITY SIMPLY UNACCEPTABLE. Though this well-known position is generally accepted across Africa, there is a difference especially between the delegates and some bishops regarding how to handle the case. We shall come back to this subject later. What we need to focus on at this point is how the General Conference was led to come to an agreement to refer the contentious issue to the Council of Bishops who then created the Commission on a Way Forward meant to solve the issue once and for all.

It is well documented that the Commission so constituted came up with three recommendations but was clearly pushing the One Church Plan which was meant to keep The United Methodist Church together but practicing different sexual ethics and with different ordination standards. This One Church Plan was heavily supported by the Council of Bishops as well as the most influential agencies of the UMC. In fact the traditional theological position of the Church was thrown in the dustbin as most leaders of The United Methodist Church did not like to defend it anymore. Only a minority insisted that the traditional theological position must be included as an option to be voted on together with the One Church Plan. The few African bishops on the Commission and a few traditionalists volunteered to craft the legislation almost towards the end of the timeframe given to the Commission to complete its Report. Though with a number of shortfalls, the legislation was done at least to meet the disciplinary requirements of The General Conference. At least there were now real choices to be made before the General Conference: either to embrace homosexuality or to maintain the traditional position of The United Methodist Church on human sexuality and ordination standards.

We must highlight at this point that some African bishops were for the One Church Plan together with their American counterparts. But the African delegates were against the One Church Plan. That created a void between these African bishops and African delegates. This divide continues to be a challenge to the African United Methodist Church as we shall see later.

The 2016 General Conference was closed in the hope that the Special General Conference to be called in 2019 was to bring a conclusion to the over four decades of controversy in the Church. This was an illusion. Little did we know that finality was only on condition of a certain position being taken. It was the position wanted by the majority of the Council of Bishops that was supposed to be the solution. Unfortunately, that was not the kind of the majority of the General Conference delegates. The delegates in their opinion and authority decided to keep the traditional theological position of The United Methodist Church intact. In fact, they even strengthened that position. The General Conference thus spoke clearly on this matter and that was supposed to be the logical conclusion of The Homosexuality Debate in The United Methodist Church.

How was this position reached by the majority of Delegates? This is a topic that requires a whole book to explain. So many conspiracy theories have been put across. From those who say African delegates were manipulated by the American traditionalists under the banner of Good News to those who actually think Africans were given money to vote the way they did and in between were those who actually think that the election process of the General Conference was manipulated. We have no time to look at these theories at this point. As an African delegate I want to just make a point clear that African delegates made their informed decision to uphold the current position of The United Methodist Church out of their conviction that this position is consistent with the teaching of the Bible. It must be said that in all previous General Conferences before 2016 the African delegates were overwhelmingly consistent. At no time did they ever support homosexuality. So there was no need to manipulate them to vote for a what they already supported.

Instead of producing a conclusion to the Great Controversy, the 2019 Special General Conference actually became the battlefield that ignited a real conflict in The United Methodist Church between the liberal-centrists and the Traditionalists-African Delegates.

The 2019 Special General Conference was a huge shock to many Africans. First the disruption of the flow of Conference business by the liberals was just something Africans never expected from civilized countries like the United States of America where law and order are viewed as sacred virtues. As if this was not enough, the aftermath of the Special General Conference was even more shocking as the denomination experienced a wave of lawlessness never seen in the history of the UMC where boards of ordained ministry and bishops vowed to disobey the laws of the Church. Some annual conferences and jurisdictions publicly declared noncompliance to the Discipline of the Church. Even some of the bishops who are supposed to be the custodians and enforcers of Church law vowed not to implement the provisions of the church as expected of their office. The United Methodist Church system broke down!

Africans expected to see their American counterparts who are generally perceived as champions of constitutionalism and democracy to show them by example how democratic institutions and systems work. This was a massive let down. We began to be taught new lessons that minority voices override majority vote. That when you don’t have it your way then you make the institution ungovernable. That you only follow the law when it is in sync with your cultural beliefs.

  1. Comment by Dan W on February 15, 2021 at 9:33 pm

    Reverend Matonga,

    Thank you for taking the time to share these articles. I can assure you a lot of us in the U.S. were also very surprised at the actions of some U.M. Leaders after the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences. They broke covenant with us. “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

  2. Comment by Star Tripper on February 15, 2021 at 10:44 pm

    Just as in 2019 it is now the seeds planted long ago in Africa and Asia by missionaries that have born fruit to maybe, just perhaps, save the lands that sent those missionaries.

  3. Comment by karl Goodfellow on February 16, 2021 at 11:02 am

    I am a retired pastor who is applauded at the direction many of our Bishops and boards have taken. I am thankful that our brothers and sisters in Africa are standing strong.

  4. Comment by Travis Dean Knoll on February 16, 2021 at 1:25 pm

    Thank you. We in America NEED to hear this voice and others like it loud and clear. We are better at talking than we are at listening. There might be a word for that, but I am certain that saying it will be perceived to be political. Thank you again.

  5. Comment by Martha Worsley on February 17, 2021 at 1:07 pm

    As a Life long Methodist I too am appalled that any Religion can all themselves a religion IF they do not hold the Bible as the basis for its faith. Society cannot just wipe away the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. The current discipline states we welcome gays to worship with us as we are all sinners but we do not condone their lifestyle.
    This is exactly what Americans should practice. Sin is sin, you either accept the Bible or you are NOT a Christian establishment.
    My parents and ancestors would be appalled at the current antics being displayed by the UMC US.
    SHAME on those who have fallen to the sins of society!

  6. Comment by Charles Walkup Jr on February 17, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    Please continue to stand for God’s word. Too many false shepherds in the U.S. continue to mislead God’s precious sheep. As one who has dealt with same-sex attraction (never gay – LGBT are designations of sexual abnormalities, not identities), I am very grateful that Africans are standing on God’s word instead of being seduced by Satan’s lies.

  7. Comment by Loren J Golden on February 17, 2021 at 8:50 pm

    The 2019 Special General Conference was a huge shock to many Africans. First the disruption of the flow of Conference business by the liberals was just something Africans never expected from civilized countries like the United States of America where law and order are viewed as sacred virtues. As if this was not enough, the aftermath of the Special General Conference was even more shocking as the denomination experienced a wave of lawlessness never seen in the history of the UMC where boards of ordained ministry and bishops vowed to disobey the laws of the Church. Some annual conferences and jurisdictions publicly declared noncompliance to the Discipline of the Church. Even some of the bishops who are supposed to be the custodians and enforcers of Church law vowed not to implement the provisions of the church as expected of their office. The United Methodist Church system broke down!

     
    To anyone familiar with the history of Mainline American Protestantism in the past half century, this is by no means surprising.  Theological Liberals (or Progressives, as they prefer to call themselves nowadays), began grabbing for power in Mainline Protestant seminaries and denominational bureaucracies in the last few decades of the 19th century and continued their insidious invasion throughout the 20th.  By the time of the relatively bloodless but nevertheless far-reaching cultural revolution of the 1960s, they were entrenched in power in all the Mainline Protestant denominations.  And as they were in full agreement with everything the cultural revolution stood for, they were in positions of power from which they could mold the American Church to their liking.
     
    In the mid-1990s, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) announced that unless an injunction against homosexual practice was added to the denomination’s Book of Order, it would start ruling in favor of non-celibate homosexuals seeking ordination to office in the denomination.  And so in 1996, the PC(USA) General Assembly voted to add a clause to its Book of Order that stated, “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church.  Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.  Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”  This decision was ratified by a majority of presbyteries and thus was added to the PC(USA) Book of Order as §G-6.0106.b.
     
    Subsequent to the ratification of §G-6.0106.b, many teaching elders (aka ministers of Word and Sacrament) announced their intention to disregard/disobey it, and several presbyteries announced their intention not to enforce it.  Naturally many cases of violations of §G-6.0106.b came before the PJC, while several presbyteries sent overtures to the GA to either remove §G-6.0106.b, or else reword it to allow the ordination of fornicators who refused to repent of their sexual immorality.  The GA passed four of these overtures in 1997, 2001, 2008, and 2010, but all these proposed amendments to the Book of Order failed to receive ratification by a majority of presbyteries, except the 2010 amendment, resulting in the removal of §G-6.0106.b from the Book of Order.  Four years later, the GA voted to redefine marriage, and the resulting amendment was ratified and incorporated into the Book of Order.
     
    Similar situations have played themselves out across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Christian Church—Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America.  Ministers and Bishops in the United Methodist Church (at least stateside) have behaved similarly (the elevation of Karen Oliveto to the office of Bishop of the UMC’s Western Jurisdictional Conference being the most egregious example), and the Bishops’ “One Church Plan” was the latest effort to bring the UMC into conformity with the world’s ways of thinking about human sexuality.
     
    Now that the “Traditional Plan” has passed, advocating the splitting of the UMC into separate denominations based upon acceptance of certain forms of sexual immorality proscribed in the Scriptures, those in positions of power in the UMC’s bureaucratic offices (i.e., bishops) will be leveraging their influence as much as possible to ensure that the maximum number of UMC congregations (and their real estate) will align with the Methodist denomination (at this point, the post-separation UMC) that best embodies the ideology, especially in matters concerning human sexuality, that they favor.  This, in turn, will mean messy separations in many local UMC congregations, as “Traditionalist” factions within those congregations part ways with “Moderate/Loyalist” and “Progressive” factions that are persuaded to stay with the bishops.  I would also not be surprised if some bishops actually coerced congregations in their jurisdictions to align with them.
     
    All of this might be “shocking” to our African brothers and sisters, but in America it’s all about divisive politics—not only outside the walls of the Church, but inside as well.

  8. Comment by Mary Lou Longworth on February 19, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    I’m surprised the UMC would follow in the footsteps of the Episcopal Church in its publicly-proclaimed and open acceptance of embracing practicing homosexuals as god-honoring, holy, and righteous behaviour. Anyone can look at the downward trajectory of the Episcopal Church due to its acceptance of homosexual behavior and see a decline in attendance and financial support. The diminishing funds and church attendance will continue.

    The progressive liberal branch of the UMC is not preaching repentance of sin and the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a shame they will most likely retain the real estate assets of the organization. Unless large individual donations are made, the UMC will not be able to sustain the salaries and building’s maintenance. They are embracing behaviors that are in opposition to the teachings of the bible, both old and new testaments.

    Ephesians 5:5-7 ‘For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; . . . ‘

  9. Comment by Donald on February 20, 2021 at 4:44 am

    Mr. Golden – Thanks for including the insidious history of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in your remarks. When I was ordained the denomination stood at almost 5.0M members; now somewhere just above 2.0M members. The apostasy of the denomination is one of the major causes for this drop; my presbytery lost ten of its largest churches as a result of it.
    Unfortunately, the Presbyterians in Africa appear to be moribund, in my limited experience there. I pray for our African brothers and sisters, that they stand strong. They are an encouragement to me and to those within the U.S. who are among those 500 whom the Lord revealed to Elijah.

  10. Comment by Duke Cheryl on February 20, 2021 at 8:46 am

    Tha nk you for this insightful article. From this PC USA pastor, I continue to be a dissenting conservative in a now liberal progressive family. I urge you to preach the Word faithfully, in season and out of season. It will be the Word of God, of repentance and saving grace. I wish my conservative brethern had stayed. But I serve a church which continues to minister to the hungry in body and spirit. God is in charge and leads us. Keep faith!!

  11. Comment by Lil B. on February 25, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    Mr. Matonga, your insightful words, your long history of leadership in Africa’s United Methodist Church, and your faithfulness to Scripture amidst a vast sea of unfaithfulness in America’s United Methodism, are all a wonderful breath of fresh air for those of us in America who are worn thin by the years and years of struggle in America with the explosion of unfaithfulness that has become a deadly cancer, eating away at our clergy, our District Superintendents and even our Bishops. Their poison positions have infected, eaten away, and contaminated many of the individual laity who have previously fought to hold the line on faithfulness to God’s Word. How grateful we are for Africa’s witness amidst this terrible turmoil. And oh, how much we need your votes, your prayers, and your biblical witness and leadership as we struggle to remain faithful in the face of the vicious attacks that our extreme liberal members have fired at us. We need your faithfulness and strength to stand as a vibrant banner before us, urging us onward in faith and obedience. God bless you. Stand firm in the Lord, and firmly on His Word. We will walk beside you and with you in this journey. We are your brothers and sisters in Christ, and together we will prevail, as the planned “divide” of United Methodism allows us to remove ourselves from an apostate denomination, and be allowed to unite together with those of like faith in the option that are available to us as God-honoring, Scripturally-faithful church alliances. ONWARD IN THE FAITH — TOGETHER!! We need your continued spiritual leadership and faithfulness to urge us on in America, to bear witness to the powerful truth of Scripture, and to link arms with us as your brothers and sisters in Christ. We need you to become one with us as we hold firm and stand in the truth of our faith. God bless you!

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