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.
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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.