Separatist forces suffered a major blow to their political strategy Sept. 8 when a majority of African bishops repudiated a special interest group and its traditionalist sponsor for “working to destroy our United Methodist Church.”
The “Statement from Africa Colleges of Bishops” was issued via the UMC’s Council of Bishops after a four-day meeting at United Methodist-founded Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Signers to the statement included all United Methodist bishops in Africa except Bishop John Wesley Yohanna, leader of Nigerian United Methodists. Yohanna is currently under church review because of charges against his administration, including allegations he has worked to take his region into the newly formed traditionalist Global Methodist Church.
The African bishops’ statement reads in part:
“Whereas the Africa Initiative is now working with Wesleyan Covenant Association to destroy our United Methodist Church;
“And whereas the Africa Initiative is working with and supporting the Global Methodist Church, a denomination that has not been recognized by the General Conference:
“We will not allow or entertain any activities of the Wesleyan Covenant Association who are wrongly influencing God’s people in our areas.”
“Therefore, we, the Bishops of The United Methodist Church in Africa, declare the following:
- We will dissociate from any activities of the Africa Initiative and will not allow any activities of the Africa Initiative in our areas.
- We will not allow or entertain any activities of the Wesleyan Covenant Association who are wrongly influencing God’s people in our areas.
- We will not tolerate anyone giving false information about The United Methodist Church in our areas.”
The Africa Initiative
Previously, African bishops had worked with the Africa Initiative, which their statement said was “created to advocate for African causes, issues and representation in The United Methodist Church agencies and gatherings such as the General Conference.” The bishops said the Africa Initiative now has “lost its original goal.”
The statement was seen as a crushing blow to conservative United Methodists, who for decades have based their political activities on an African strategy. Conservative United Methodists in the United States have banked on theological and cultural affinities with African United Methodists, particularly in rejecting LGBTQ persons’ acceptance, to maintain the UMC’s anti-LGBTQ policies.
UMC membership is growing in Africa while it’s declining in the United States, which gives African United Methodists more delegates to the church’s General Conference, the denomination’s legislative body that approves church doctrine and administration. Conservatives have been criticized for more than 25 years for holding pre-General Conference meetings with African delegates under the guise of teaching them the legislative assembly’s parliamentary workings when in fact the gatherings’ programs were revealed by attendees as sessions to instruct them how to vote on legislation.
African United Methodists have condemned conservatives’ actions as ‘neo-colonial’ efforts to manipulate the church in Africa.
However, since the special 2019 General Conference that tightened the UMC’s bans on same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ clergy, loyalist African United Methodists have condemned conservatives’ actions as “neo-colonial” efforts to manipulate the church in Africa. One such group, Africa Voice of Unity, has consistently decried both the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Africa Initiative for attempting to make African United Methodists tools of their political ambitions.
Praise for the bishops’ statement
Ande Emmanuel of Nigeria, a leader of Africa Voice of Unity, termed the bishops’ announcement “wonderful news.” His group issued a formal statement Sept. 9 supporting the bishops’ action.
“We celebrate the courage of our African bishops who, in coming out to make such a bold statement, have declared their willingness to lead us in the United Methodist Church beyond the next General Conference,” the statement read. “Their act of boldness is an example for all people of faith of what it means to embody one’s faith and leadership with wholeness and integrity.
“We affirm the call of our bishops to the Africa Initiative to desist from maliciously spreading false information about the United Methodist Church with an intent of wooing United Methodists in Africa into the Global Methodist Church,” the statement continued. “We call on all United Methodist Conferences in Africa to rally around our bishops as they lead the Church in Africa to a sustainable future we all desire to see as United Methodists in Africa.”
As of Sept. 9, neither the Wesleyan Covenant Association nor the Africa Initiative had published a response to the bishops’ action.
The African bishops’ statement comes on the heels of a summer of efforts by U.S. bishops and annual conference communicators to counteract falsehoods being spread about the UMC’s future identity. Usually reticent to address church politics, several United Methodist bishops including the Council of Bishops’ president, Thomas Bickerton of New York, publicly have confronted the WCA and its traditionalist companions such as the Good News caucus over misinformation that has influenced disaffiliation votes among local congregations.
Bickerton decried what he called “a constant barrage of negative rhetoric that is filled with falsehood and inaccuracies.”
In his first address as council president, Bickerton decried what he called “’a constant barrage of negative rhetoric that is filled with falsehood and inaccuracies’ coming from backers of a breakaway theologically conservative denomination that launched in May,” according to an Aug. 23 report by Heather Hahn of UM News. Bickerton “specifically disputed claims that United Methodist leaders are abandoning the denomination’s doctrinal standards in the Articles of Religion, that they do not embrace the primacy of the Bible and that they do not believe Jesus Christ is the son of God,” Hahn wrote.
In addition, bishops such as Julius C. Trimble of Indiana and John Schol of Eastern Pennsylvania issued letters to their flocks condemning rumors like those Bickerton noted. In the Rio Texas Annual Conference in southwest Texas, Bishop Robert Schnase has scheduled five in-person gatherings in late September and October “to share his heart on the state of the church (and) offer his perspective on the future of The United Methodist Church and the Rio Texas Conference.” In the Arkansas Annual Conference, Bishop Gary E. Mueller and his cabinet have formed a new initiative called ReStart “to support those who will remain United Methodist even if their congregations ultimately disaffiliate.”
At the same time, communications directors in several annual (regional) conferences have published articles debunking WCA misinformation. United Methodist Communications, the church’s official information agency, has run a series, “Is the United Methodist Church REALLY …?” responding to misinformation that its Ask The UMC unit has fielded through emails, social media, texts and telephone calls. UMCom also has produced a slide presentation designed to help local congregations hold discussions about whether to stay or leave the UMC.
Next up: New bishops
The next major test of United Methodism’s future direction will come Nov. 2-5 in the United States, when its five jurisdictions will elect between 14 and 17 new bishops. Two jurisdictions, Southeastern and South Central, have announced they will elect fewer than the number of bishops allotted by their membership figures, presumably to save money because the UMC’s Episcopal Fund is dangerously low. Southeastern will elect three of its five potential bishops, and South Central will elect three of its four possible bishops. North Central and Northeastern jurisdictions have not yet said how many bishops they will elect; Northeastern could be entitled to two bishops and North Central to three.
The question looming over bishops’ elections will be what theology the candidates espouse and whether they will commit to upholding the UMC’s current LGBTQ bans. Bishops cannot legislate new church laws because they have no votes at General Conference, but they can influence delegates’ views on changing the Book of Discipline, the collection of UMC laws and doctrine.
A bellwether of the UMC’s future may come from the Western Jurisdiction, which covers a massive 12-state region stretching from Colorado to Guam. This year, Western leaders adopted a different procedure for vetting potential bishops that has resulted in a slate of 33 candidates for three vacancies. The new process, which has allowed candidates to nominate themselves rather than being endorsed by one of the seven annual conferences in the jurisdiction, has resulted in one of the most racially and gender-diverse slates in the UMC’s history.
The Western Jurisdiction made history previously — and incurred traditionalists’ wrath — in 2016 when it elected a married lesbian, Karen Oliveto of San Francisco, as bishop. Although her consecration was ruled out of order by the church’s “high court,” the Judicial Council, she has been allowed to remain in office by Western bishops. Thus, her election has been used by traditionalists as a sign that the UMC will alter its stance against LGBTQ acceptance. Currently Bishop Oliveto serves the Mountain Sky Area that includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and part of Idaho.
Outside the United States, the Philippines Central Conference has scheduled bishops’ elections for Nov. 24-26. Central and Southern Europe conference is considering meeting Nov. 16-20. The Philippines will elect three bishops and the European conference one. A time for bishops’ elections in the Africa Central Conferences hasn’t been announced. Meetings in Africa typically occur from October through February, which are spring and summer months south of the equator.
In the meantime, the African bishops’ repudiation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its Africa Initiative will continue to reverberate throughout the worldwide denomination.