Engaging an African Bishop

Wesley United Methodist Church in Pujehan, southern Sierra Leone, was officially unveiled on December 11, 2017. The church is the first United Methodist building to be constructed in the Pujehun District. Photo by Phileas Jusu. UMNS

By Thomas Lambrecht

A recent commentary by Bishop Mande Muyombo (North Katanga Area in the Congo Central Conference) sets forth his understanding of where things are and where things are headed for The United Methodist Church in Africa. Given Muyombo’s position of power within the church’s hierarchy, it is appropriate to engage with the vision he puts forward.

Muyombo begins by quoting a 2019 statement by the African college of bishops. “We cannot allow a split in the church to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. We have been second class for too long. We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”

It is an oft-repeated myth that United Methodists, particularly traditionalist UM’s, only care about Africa when their votes are needed at General Conference. Certainly, the church as a whole has been involved in missions in Africa for generations. Many of the missionaries who evangelized Africa and helped build the church there belonged to the traditional wing of Methodism. Even in the last decade, many traditionalist U.S. congregations have supported mission projects in Africa, built dozens of church buildings, sent volunteer teams, provided educational scholarships, and invested in evangelism and health projects.

Filling in the Gaps

What has been missing from the general church was a way to equip and empower African leaders to participate on an equal basis in the governing process of the denomination through its committees, board, agencies, and General Conference. Africans have been persistently underrepresented in the governance structure of the UM Church. Through the efforts of African delegates supported by traditionalists, some of that underrepresentation has been addressed, but not all. In the 2024 General Conference, African delegates will make up around 35 percent of the delegates, while African church members make up over half the denomination’s membership – even before disaffiliations started in the U.S.

Just having Africans at the table is not enough to enable them to participate as an equal voice. African delegates are often left out of the loop when it comes to sharing information. African delegates are often the last to receive the advance edition of the legislation submitted to General Conference, with some delegates only receiving it upon their arrival a few days before the beginning of General Conference. Because many delegates do not have access to the Internet, especially in their native language, they cannot follow the development of ideas and proposals over time.

The traditionalist Renewal and Reform Coalition has been instrumental in providing information to African delegates about developments in the church, as well as specific proposals coming to General Conference. The Coalition has offered training to African delegates about how to maneuver through parliamentary procedure and accomplish their legislative goals. We have offered assistance in writing and submitting legislation, as well as mobilizing support for African initiatives, such as the addition of five new bishops in Africa. Where the general church has left a gap in fully including African delegates in the governing process of the church, the Coalition has stepped in to fill those gaps.

Cynical Manipulation?

Some have viewed the Coalition’s participation as a cynical attempt to manipulate African delegates to support traditionalist legislation. On the contrary, the Coalition’s work has enabled Africans to voice their own concerns and perspective more fully. With support of other delegates, Africans were elected as officers of legislative committees to a greater extent than ever before. With the support of the Coalition, the Judicial Council has a majority of its elected members from outside the U.S.

No one has to convince or manipulate the African delegates to vote for traditionalist positions on issues of concern. Africans in general believe and maintain traditionalist views. Rather, the Coalition’s work has been to help delegates understand the details and implications of legislative proposals, so that they can vote according to their own consciences and perspective.

“Using” African United Methodists?

Muyombo charges that “The leadership of the Wesleyan Covenant Association/Good News and the Global Methodist Church have been attempting to divide our church in Africa. African United Methodists must resist being used as proxies of the Global Methodist Church and other U.S. breakaway groups.”

The division in Africa is real. It is surprising that Muyombo is unaware of the grassroots sentiments.

We categorically reject the accusation that we are somehow “using” African United Methodists or that they are “proxies” to fight our battles for us. American traditionalists have been fighting to uphold United Methodist doctrine and discipline for decades before the African church grew to the place of influence it now holds.

We are simply making available to African United Methodists information that is being intentionally withheld from them by their bishops and other leaders. Many of them know very little about the separation happening in the U.S. church and have no knowledge about any options for disaffiliation that may be available to them.

The Need for Self-Determination

It is interesting that Muyombo addresses African United Methodists with the call, “I invite you to exercise self-determination and speak for yourselves based on your own experience and that of your church community.” He says, “We believe that as Africans, we have the right of self-determination, and … the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be.”

This is from the same bishop who suspends and even evicts from the church any African leader who tries to share information about what is happening so that Africans can indeed speak for themselves and exercise their self-determination. Muyombo and some other African bishops have forbidden African leaders from equipping their members to make the very decisions that Muyombo says he believes they ought to make.

African delegates to General Conference should be able to hear point-counterpoint presentations about the issues before The United Methodist Church. Bishop Muyombo and his colleagues should empower and freely release the delegates to make up their own minds.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes Africans can and should decide for themselves what future they want to be part of. If African United Methodists want to be part of a church that affirms LGBT practices and changes the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, that is their decision, and we support their right to make it. At the same time, we believe African United Methodists should have the ability to decide not to be part of such a church – a right they are currently being denied.

How can Muyombo speak of “self-determination” when he denies that right to his own people? He quotes with approval the statement by the African college of bishops that, “Even if The United Methodist Church splits, Africa will continue to be a United Methodist Church.” Should that not be a decision for African United Methodists as a whole? This sounds less like “self-determination” and more like “bishop determination.” It makes a mockery of Africans’ ability to “determine who we want to be,” substituting instead “determining who our bishop wants us to be.”

Teaching Founded on Culture and Context?

In connection with the presenting issue of sexuality and marriage, Muyombo quotes the African college of bishops’ statement as saying, “As an African United Methodist Church, we do not support the practice of homosexuality because it is incompatible with most African cultural values and contextual realities.” Not because it is incompatible with the Bible or with 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Rather, it doesn’t fit African culture and context.

Of course, culture and context can change. Does Muyombo envision a time down the road when African culture will change to accept the practice of homosexuality? What about other areas where African culture and context opposes biblical teaching? Should the church side with culture over the Bible?

When one builds the church’s teachings on the shifting sands of culture and context, there is no telling where that will lead. It will certainly not result in a church that consistently maintains faithfulness to historic Christian faith and practice. (Of course, we face this same problem in the U.S., where we have allowed some cultural ways to warp the church’s teaching and practices.)

Neither Good News nor the Renewal and Reform Coalition has sought to “divide” the church or seek its “dissolution” as Muyombo charges. Instead, we have fought for 50 years to uphold traditional Methodist doctrine and teaching, seeking to reform the denomination to preserve accountability to our stated doctrines. Only when it became apparent that widespread rejection of some traditional doctrines and practices would go unchecked did we state the reality that we could no longer live together in one church.

At that point, it seemed most prudent to foster a separation that would allow traditionalist Methodists to maintain historic doctrine and practice, while allowing more progressive Methodists to pursue the revisionist path they had embarked upon. We hoped such separation would happen amicably with mutual respect and grace. Instead, institutional United Methodism in many cases has fought tooth and nail to prevent gracious self-determination by congregations and clergy seeking an expression of Methodism more faithful to their beliefs. Muyombo and some other African bishops are part of that institutional resistance that seeks to preserve personal status and power at the expense of grass roots self-determination.

We call upon all bishops and institutional leaders to allow gracious self-determination by their members, whether in the U.S. or Africa or other parts of the world. Only free and informed decision-making by members will result in a church that is unified in a mission and vision for the future.

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