By Thomas Lambrecht
This week, 14 new bishops are being elected in the five jurisdictions of the United States. In a few weeks, three bishops will be elected in the Philippines and one bishop in Central and Southern Europe. All these newly elected bishops will be replacing bishops who have retired or are retiring by the end of this year.
At the same time, Africa is scheduled to elect zero new bishops this year. A sidebar announcement coming out of a recent Council of Bishops meeting stated new bishops for Africa would be elected following the 2024 General Conference.
This situation developed, of course, as a result of the repeated postponements of General Conference occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since General Conference was not held, the jurisdictional and central conferences did not meet as usual to accept episcopal retirements and elect new bishops. Some bishops started retiring anyway, which meant that remaining active bishops had to assume additional duties to supervise those areas vacated by the retiring bishops. By the end of this year, 20 bishops will have retired in the U.S., meaning the remaining 26 bishops would have had to pull almost double duty to fill in for them.
The Council of Bishops attempted to rectify this situation by securing permission from the Judicial Council to call a special session of the jurisdictional conferences to elect replacement bishops. Although bishops can call special sessions of a jurisdictional conference, the Discipline only allows election of bishops in the U.S. jurisdictions within two years after the holding of a General Conference. Since General Conference did not meet, new bishops could not be elected without special permission.
Judicial Council Decision 1445 permitted the bishops to hold special sessions of the jurisdictional conferences to elect replacement bishops for those retiring, outside the parameters of normal church law and practice. Those are the sessions being held this week.
What About Central Conferences?
The Judicial Council decision applied only to the jurisdictions and electing new bishops in the U.S. The Book of Disciplineallows bishops to call special sessions of the central conferences at any time and for any purpose, including to elect bishops. Election of new bishops is required during the first year after a General Conference meeting. But unlike for U.S. bishops, the Discipline does not restrict bishops from being elected at other times.
The College of Bishops in the Philippines has called a special central conference to elect three bishops there. The bishop of Central and Southern Europe (there is only one) has called a special central conference to elect his replacement. But the three African colleges of bishops have refused to call special central conferences for their regions to elect new bishops there.
There are four African bishops who have already reached the mandatory retirement age for clergy of age 72. One bishop is in the West Africa Central Conference, one bishop is in the Congo Central Conference, and two bishops are in the Africa Central Conference (in East Africa).
Discipline Par. 357.1 says, “Every clergy member of an annual conference who will have attained age seventy-two on or before July 1 in the year in which the conference is held shall automatically be retired.” The provisions for central conference bishops to retire (Par. 408.1b) require bishops who reach their sixty-eighth birthday on or before the opening day of his or her scheduled [central] conference to retire “no later than three months following the adjournment of General Conference.” This requirement prevents any bishop from reaching their 72ndbirthday during the quadrennium. So the mandatory retirement by age 72 applies for all clergy and bishops.
Since General Conference did not meet in 2020 as scheduled, the four bishops in Africa are refusing to retire, even though their 72nd birthday has already passed! Once again, the Discipline is being disregarded with impunity. The Council of Bishops presumably did not exert pressure on the African colleges of bishops to call special central conference meetings to elect new bishops. The announcement that no such special sessions would be held arose out of a Council of Bishops meeting. It was discussed in that meeting.
An Additional Opening
In addition to having one bishop past the mandatory retirement age (and also in poor health), the West Africa Central Conference has another episcopal opening due to the tragic death of Bishop John Yambasu in August 2020. Since that time, retired Bishop Warner Brown from the U.S. has been filling in as the part-time bishop of Sierra Leone and will do so for (apparently) another two years. The Sierra Leone Annual Conference this past summer endorsed two nominees for bishop under the assumption that elections would be held this fall. Now, that is all on hold.
So, two of the four episcopal areas in West Africa need new bishops, but the college of bishops is declining to call a central conference meeting to elect them.
The Need for More Bishops in Africa
Within the past two years, the number of United Methodist members in Africa surpassed the number of members in the U.S. Yet the number of bishops in Africa is only 13, compared to 46 in the U.S. The U.S. has three times as many bishops for the same number of members. Add to that the difficult travel conditions in Africa, and one can readily see that the church in Africa is significantly underserved when it comes to having enough bishops to adequately lead and supervise the church there.
That is why the 2016 General Conference authorized the addition of five more bishops in Africa, to be elected in 2020. A task force identified the areas that would receive the new bishops and submitted a proposal to the 2020 General Conference. Of course, since the conference did not meet, it could not approve the proposal, and the new bishops could not be added.
The third postponement of General Conference has meant that Africa will be four years delayed in receiving the additional bishops sorely needed there to lead the church. That delay only compounds the problem caused by the failure to elect new bishops this year to inject new blood and provide new leadership to the fastest-growing part of the UM Church.
Call for Elections by Africa Initiative
The Africa Initiative has issued a call for the election of new bishops and the retirement of bishops who have reached the mandatory retirement age. Africa Initiative is an association of African clergy and lay leaders who are committed to partnering with people in all the annual conferences and provisional annual conferences in Africa to equip the church for leadership and growth.
Their statement reads in part, “Why dash the hopes of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference and that of other annual conferences who are looking forward to electing new bishops to replace bishops due for retirement? Why treat the central conferences of Africa in such a demeaning manner as if we do not matter? We consider this action on the part of African College of Bishops, with the acquiescence of the Council of Bishops, as a violation of our rights to elect our own bishops when they are duly scheduled to be elected. This is a gross injustice to the growing membership of the three central conferences. The decision is therefore unacceptable. Hence, we call for the election of new bishops in the three central conferences of Africa where elections are due” (emphasis original).
The Role of Judicial Council
This past summer, the Burundi Annual Conference requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on this matter of whether bishops can ignore the mandatory retirement date and continue serving beyond it until 2024. The Judicial Council should issue a decision on this matter sometime this month. It is hoped the Judicial Council will require bishops to retire who have passed the mandatory retirement date, and therefore require election of new bishops.
This whole situation is another example of some leaders in our church ignoring the requirements of the Discipline when they want to. There are very few avenues to force bishops to obey the Discipline. They can ignore even the rulings of the Judicial Council when they choose. Such disobedience in the past would have called into question the legitimacy of a bishop’s authority. However, for some bishops, it has now become all about holding on to power by whatever means works.
It is highly ironic that it is Africa that has been denied equality of bishops through the years by the majority U.S. General Conference. And now, the predominantly U.S. Council of Bishops supports the perpetuation of an unjust situation in Africa. When will our African brothers and sisters be treated as equals?
Enough General Conference delegates in 2019 resisted proposals to hold bishops more strictly accountable that those proposals were buried in committee and not adopted. That alone should be enough to provide a rationale for separation under Par. 2553. The leadership dysfunction and the structural failings of the UM Church, along with its resistance to reform, go a long way toward explaining the need to separate and start a new church that acts with integrity and accountability. The Global Methodist Church offers the possibility of such a church.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and is the vice president of Good News.