The untimely death of a visionary African bishop and the disclosure of a traditionalist faction’s plans for a new denomination have reset the playing field for the United Methodist Church’s future. With that reset have come allegations of neocolonialism and white supremacy against traditionalist forces in the denomination.
The worldwide church still reels from the Aug. 16 death of Bishop John Yambasu, 63, of Sierra Leone. The bishop died from injuries he sustained in a one-car crash in bad weather outside the capital, Freetown. Only a year ago, Bishop Yambasu emerged as a pivotal leader of standing and conviction outside the UMC’s American base.
Bishop Yambasu’s emergence as a unifying force surprised American United Methodists, who historically have maintained an almost-unbreakable grip on the reins of church power. At the time of his death, in addition to being the resident episcopal leader of his West African church, Bishop Yambasu was president of African United Methodist bishops and incoming chancellor of UMC-related Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Furthermore, the bishop was an acknowledged civic leader in his own country, having led his fellow citizens through two disasters, a 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak and a 2017 mudslide outside Freetown that killed 1,000 people.
In a video about his efforts, the bishop said he was prompted to extraordinary action because he believed he had been challenged by the Holy Spirit to unify the church. He said his discernment came after U.S. United Methodists rebelled against stricter bans against LGBTQ persons enacted by a special legislative assembly in February 2019.
Bishop Yambasu said his discernment led him to call together representatives of various factions in July 2019 in hopes of overcoming the differences that still threaten to tear apart the denomination. After two months of fruitless discussions among the factions, however, Bishop Yambasu was persuaded to bring in a professional mediator to facilitate negotiations for an equitable separation of the denomination in hopes of preserving a viable UMC. United Methodist bishops approached the noted international mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who took on untying the Gordian knot of United Methodist fractiousness without a fee.
In December 2019, the ad hoc group Bishop Yambasu had created produced a document called “A Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.” The Protocol, as it became known, came in for harsh criticism from the moment it was announced.
Not only was the proposal brought forth after the legislative deadline for the UMC’s worldwide legislative assembly, the 2020 General Conference, it was negotiated outside typical United Methodist processes. Furthermore, the Protocol proposed to give $25 million in “seed money” for the formation of a traditionalist Methodist denomination, while allotting only $2 million for the development of any other Methodist expressions.
Anyone with even a small understanding of United Methodists’ nearly half-century of dispute could see potential in the unorthodox Protocol. It represented the first glimmer of hope in decades that United Methodism might not implode but instead scatter like seeds to blossom into new churches.
Ever optimistic despite resistance, Bishop Yambasu went “all in” on the Protocol. He and other bishops returned to their church regions and secured enough official approvals to get the Protocol added to the agenda for the General Conference that was scheduled for May 2020.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the unprecedented postponement of the 2020 General Conference. Momentum for the Protocol screeched to a halt while United Methodists and the rest of the world grappled with an invisible invader. Having come through the Ebola epidemic, Bishop Yambasu and other African bishops determined to focus on the public health crisis as their priority, leaving church politics aside for the moment.
Dissidents at work
However, while United Methodists pivoted to cope with coronavirus restrictions, dissident traditionalists doggedly pursued their vision of a new church. On Aug. 10, Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, unveiled the organization’s strategy for founding a new traditionalist Methodist church based on the terms laid out in the as-yet-unapproved Protocol.
Boyette’s announcement came on the heels of a newly recognized propaganda campaign that had been proceeding in Africa for several weeks, according to research by David W. Scott, mission theologian for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, the church’s missionary-sending agency. In two posts on the blog UM & Global, Scott outlined how the traditionalists attempted to convince African United Methodists to join the new denomination.
“Yet this summer’s developments go beyond U.S. traditionalists restating their global ambitions,” Scott wrote. “A number of articles have sought to undercut the African bishops as leaders and to assure Africans that their financial interests will be taken care of in a new, Traditionalist denomination.”
A second source, Lloyd Nyarota, a Zimbabwean pastor serving in Canada, confirmed publication of several critical articles. He cited essays appearing in the longtime conservative magazine, Good News, by its vice president Thomas Lambrecht and in Firebrand, a publication launched June 1 by the evangelistic ministry Spirit & Truth. Firebrand published an article by Forbes Matonga, a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Leadership Council. While not officially related to the WCA, Firebrand’s leadership includes members of the WCA’s global leadership council, including Firebrand’s lead editor, David F. Watson, and Joy Moore.
“The African bishops have been clear through Bishop Yambasu’s leadership that Africa will remain as The United Methodist Church,” Nyarota said in an email. “The WCA council members in Africa and their so-called coordinators … (are) even going to the extent of telling them how to lead their episcopal areas — something they would not do to an American bishop. This is a clear show of neocolonialism, power-mongering and white supremacist tendencies.”
Traditionalists claim racial justice
Boyette addressed issues of racial inequality in his announcement of the WCA’s plans: “Recent events have underscored the breadth of injustice and inequality present in the world. The WCA has established a task force to ensure that the new church will do all it can to provide for full racial and ethnic equality. This task force, composed of a diverse and global group of Methodists, is evaluating the WCA’s work to date to ensure it advances the cause of racial and ethnic justice, equality and reconciliation. It will also recommend next steps for the new church so from its very beginning it is dedicated to fostering a community where all God’s people are welcomed and included.”
UMC observers can only speculate now on Bishop Yambasu’s response to traditionalists’ efforts to poach African United Methodists for a new church. These latest developments prove that a lot can happen between now and the start of the next General Conference on Aug. 29, 2021. Only the General Conference can decide whether the denomination will break up, whether by the Protocol that Bishop Yambasu helped create or by some other plan.
One thing is for certain: as tributes to him attest, Bishop Yambasu’s tragic death has cost United Methodists a wise and compassionate spiritual leader whose influence could have lessened the political bloodshed lurking in the next round of UMC deliberations. At the moment, no one with his gifts and graces looms on the horizon.
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.