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.” Part 1, posted earlier, gave an African perspective on the nature and aftermath of the special 2019 General Conference. Then Part 2 offered a true insider’s outline of the views of African United Methodists, with far more details and nuances than are often included in American discussions about Africans. Part 3, posted below, concludes this paper with an African perspective on the future of United Methodism and on the choices facing African United Methodists.
Rev. Matonga’s 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.
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THE AFRICA INITIATIVE POSITION
The Africa Initiative was surprised that the Mediation Team who developed the Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation included representatives of all the major contenders in the controversy in the church but only one African, while Africa represents over thirty percent of the delegates to the General Conference. Indeed, Africa Initiative was not happy that only the USA caucuses were picked to be at the Negotiating Table. No American Caucus group was represented by a bishop, as bishops by virtue of their office should not be part of a caucus. As such, it’s a fact that Africa was not adequately represented at the Negotiating Table that produced the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. After reading the Protocol, the Africa Initiative agreed with the position reached that the best way forward for the UMC was to go separate ways. It however, did not agree with a considerable number of provisions in the Protocol and agreed to seek amendments to a few of them:
1. The Africa Initiative disagrees with the decision to give away the name and the logo to the liberal wing of the divide. Some of us feel the position that prevailed at the 2019 Special General Conference must be given the first right of refusal to use the name United Methodist. We have asked for provision to be made at least for United Methodists in Africa to continue using the “United Methodist” name and cross-and-flame insignia, with appropriate modifications, regardless of our choices in denominational alignment.
2. The Africa Initiative protests how the Protocol deems Africa to be aligned to the liberal Post-Separation UMC when its Traditionalist position is well documented. Some of us believes that for this significant decision, it should be mandatory to ALL annual conferences to vote on which position they want to take just as is required when voting on constitutional amendments. As a compromise, we have asked for the Protocol to at least be amended to set a vote of 57 percent as the basis for determining the decision of a central conference to separate from the liberal Post-Separation UMC, which is the same standard the Protocol sets for annual conferences in the United States, rather than the high threshold of a two-thirds super-majority vote.
3. The Africa Initiative is seeking to amend the Protocol legislation to “ensure that every central conference, annual conference, and local church be permitted to vote when it desires to do so under the processes of the legislation without any form of suppression or coercion by anyone.”
The Africa Initiative will thus seek amendments to the Protocol at the General Conference to accommodate these changes before approving The Protocol.
THE CHOICES AFRICAN UNITED METHODISTS HAVE TO MAKE
As is suggested by the title of this paper, The United Methodist Church is already in schism. It has already split. The theological differences are irreconcilable. We believe most United Methodists who are aware of the goings on have now passed the denial stage. This is what was made bare by the 2019 special called General Conference. We as United Methodists are unable to resolve this controversy that has haunted our denomination for the past forty years now. This is the context in which the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation must be understood. It is both an admission and realization that the two theological camps cannot resolve their differences. The only option is separation. What is disappointing for many Africans is that this is not being communicated clearly to them. In some regions in the Connection, like the USA and Europe information is being shared and debates encouraged. In some cases like in the Germany Central Conference, decisions have already been taken on where they stand on this debate. They chose to come open that they are in support of embracing homosexuality. In most African annual conferences people are not aware of this debate let alone the pending split. We are hoping that the delay brought by the Covid-19 pandemic will give Africa time to share as much information as is possible and allow people to debate from an informed standpoint so as to come to make choices for the future of the Church. We do pray that African will not be blindfolded into making decisions devoid of critical information.
With regard to the options before us, Africans have three choices before them should the 2021 General Conference adopt the Protocol, as is likely to happen:
1. Joining the Post-Separation UMC
According to the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, the name and logo will continue to be held by the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) and all agencies of the denomination shall be under the liberal wing of the Church which then shall be called the Post-Separation UMC.
In terms of theology, this side will change the current teaching of the Church to embrace Homosexuality. The Church will undergo structural changes to accommodate this theological position. Another administrative layer will be added between the Central Conference/Jurisdictions and the General Conference. This layer will be called Regional Conferences. These will be responsible for adapting sections of the Discipline deemed harmful to regional contexts so as not to harm the ministry of the Church in these regions. For example, this is where the USA will change marriage and ordination standards to accommodate homosexuals so that they will feel at home in the Church. Should Africans want, in their Regional Conference they could also legalize polygamy and allow polygamists to become bishops of the Church but remain United Methodists. The Church will still have one Council of Bishops and still share the current Agencies as we have them in UMC today.
2. The Traditionalist Methodist Church
The second choice is joining The Traditionalist Methodist Church. This will be a new Church that will continue the current teaching of the UMC regarding human sexuality and ordination standards. Under the Protocol, the Church will not be allowed to carry the name United but can call itself a Methodist Church. Those supporting this brand have not finalized a name though there seems to be consensus among them that whatever the name they will come up with, it will contain the term Methodist. For our purposes in this paper, we shall call this Church The Traditionalist Methodist Church.
According to the Protocol, this Church will have to come up with its own Discipline and logo to distinguish itself from the Post-Separation United Methodist Church. As such, advocates for this Church are already working on these two issues, the name and the Discipline. The Wesleyan Covenant Association which is the vehicle created to lead this process and is spearheading this work.
According to the Protocol, this Church will be given freedom to keep the church properties of those congregations, annual conferences and central conferences that choose to go with them plus a $25 million settlement. Africa has a choice to go with The Traditionalist Methodist Church if they so choose.
3. An Autonomous African UMC
Within The Protocol, there is a provision for the creation of other denominations should there be those who feel they do not fit into the two above. These have been promised a sum of $2million dollars plus the properties they hold as well.
Since many Africans including African bishops are crying foul that they were not represented at the Negotiating Table that birthed the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, and the insistence by some African bishops that the African United Methodist Church will remain intact, then this may be their best chance. They could advocate for becoming autonomous.
ANALYSIS AND OPINION
Like with everything, there are pros and cons in all of the options above. That being the case, the worst Africa can do to itself is not taking a position. If they do not, still a position will be taken and be handed down to them.
The first option has been tried over the years using different shades but was consistently rejected by the General Conference. As recently as 2019 it came being sponsored by the Council of Bishops as the One Church Plan but was emphatically rejected by the General Conference. This position is supported by the two broad groups in the UMC known as the progressives and the centrists. It is overwhelmingly rejected by the traditionalists who are blamed for inflicting pain on the LGBTQ Community. Again, we must admit that several of our African bishops and some few delegates do support this position and wish Africa would join the Post-Separation UMC rather than The Traditionalist Methodist Church. The majority of Africans, Filipinos, and Eastern Europeans reject this choice.
The Traditionalist Methodist Church, which is the second choice, has tremendous support from most African delegates and other African Bishops. This position no doubt would be the position that most ordinary Africans would vote for should they be given the opportunity to choose. The challenge with it is that a number of the African United Methodist bishops do not support this, but prefer to be in the Post-Separation UMC. Thus there is tension and mistrust between some African delegates and bishops. Because the delegates are the ones who finally cast their vote to decide, then these are the most important people that must be given all support to represent us.
The Autonomy Choice is an option, yet this is the most unviable option of the three. Over the years the United Methodist Church has always given the option to its former mission posts to become autonomous. Those who liked this choice left the denomination long ago. Those that remained are those who really want to belong to something bigger and something global. We do not see Africa being persuaded to take such a route. Even the dangling of a two-million-dollar price won’t be attractive. Being in a worldwide connection brings a sense of honoring John Wesley who saw the whole world as his parish. The worldwide nature of the UMC is indeed a great gift the Church offers to the Protestant world.
In my humble opinion, I feel African United Methodists must choose number two. They naturally belong there if we go by the last three General Conference voting patterns. The African United Methodist Church is both Traditional and Evangelical.