Tags: Methodists LGBTQ samesex marriage conservatives Africa

As a Landmark United Methodist Gathering Approaches, African Churches Weigh Their Future.

As a Landmark United Methodist Gathering Approaches, African Churches Weigh Their Future.

Saturday, 13 April 2024 09:01 AM EDT

The United Methodist Church lost one-fourth of its U.S. churches in a recent schism, with conservatives departing over disputes on sexuality and theology.

Now, with the approach of its first major legislative gathering in several years, the question is whether the church can avert a similar outcome elsewhere in the world, where about half its members live.

The question is particularly acute in Africa, home to the vast majority of United Methodists outside the U.S. Most of its bishops favor staying, but other voices are calling for regional conferences to disaffiliate.

At the upcoming General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, delegates will tackle a wide range of proposals – from repealing the church’s ban on same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ people, to creating more autonomy for regional conferences to set such rules, to making it easier for international churches to leave the denomination.

Delegate Jerry Kulah of Liberia said he believes it’s time for African churches to leave.

He said that when he first attended a General Conference in 2008, he was shocked by proposals to liberalize church rules. Since then, he helped mobilize African delegates to vote with American conservatives to create ever-stricter denominational rules against same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ people.

But progressive American churches have increasingly been defying such rules and now appear to have the votes to overturn them.

“We know that we are not going to the General Conference to necessarily win votes,” said Kulah, general coordinator of the advocacy group UMC Africa Initiative. “So our goal is to go and articulate our position and let the world know why it has become very necessary to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, because we cannot afford to preach different gospels.”

But Jefferson Knight, also a delegate from Liberia, opposes disaffiliation. He said a schism would amount to forsaking the rich spiritual legacy of the UMC in Africa and would severe its valuable international bonds.

“Liberia was the birthplace of the United Methodist Church on the continent of Africa in the 1800s,” said Knight, of the advocacy group United Methodist Africa Forum. The church has developed leaders in education, health care and evangelism across the continent, said Knight, who also works as a human rights monitor for the church.

Knight said schism isn’t necessary.

He shares the widespread opposition in Africa to liberalizing policies on marriage or ordination, but he favors a proposal that would allow each region of the church – from America to Africa to Europe to the Philippines – to fit rules to its local context.

“The best way out is to regionalize and see how we can do ministry peacefully and do ministry within our context, our culture,” Knight said.

The United Methodist Church traces its roots to 18th century revivalist John Wesley and has long emphasized Christian piety, evangelism and social service. It has historically been present in almost every U.S. county.

But it’s also the most international of the major U.S. Protestant denominations.

Generations of missionary efforts brought Methodism across the world. Local churches took root and grew dramatically, particularly in Africa.

Today, members from four continents vote at legislative gatherings, serve on boards together, go on mission trips to each others’ countries and are largely governed by the same rules. U.S. churches help fund international ministries, such as Africa University in Zimbabwe.

More than 7,600 U.S. congregations departed during a temporary window between 2019 and 2023 that enabled congregations to keep their properties – held in trust for the denomination – under relatively favorable legal terms, according to a UM News count.

That provision applied only to American churches. Some say the General Conference – running April 23 through May 3 – should approve one for other countries.

“Our main goal is to ensure that African and other United Methodist outside the U.S. have the same opportunity that United Methodists in the U.S. have had,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative advocacy group Good News.

Opponents say overseas churches already can disaffiliate under church rules – and some conferences in Eastern Europe have taken such steps. But proponents say the process is too cumbersome.

Further complicating the matter is that churches operate in a range of legal settings. Some African countries criminalize same-sex activity, while in the U.S., same-sex marriage is legal.

Most departing American congregations were conservative churches upset with the denomination’s failure to enforce its bans on same-sex unions and the ordination of LGBTQ people. Some joined denominations such as the new Global Methodist Church, while others went independent.

The departures accelerated membership losses in what until recently had been the third-largest American denomination. The United Methodist Church recorded 5.4 million U.S. members in 2022, a figure sure to plummet once disaffiliations from 2023 are factored in.

A detailed study by the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration indicated there are 4.6 million members in other countries – fewer than earlier estimates, but still approaching U.S. numbers.

The United Methodist Church has been debating homosexuality since the early 1970s, steadily tightening its LGBTQ bans through its last legislative gathering in 2019.

That year, “the traditionalists won the vote but they lost the church” said the Rev. Mark Holland, executive director of Mainstream UMC, which advocates for lifting the church-wide bans and for a “regionalization” proposal allowing each region to decide on such rules.

He noted that numerous regional church conferences in the United States reacted to the 2019 vote by electing more progressive delegates to the upcoming General Conference.

Progressives believe they have adequate votes to repeal language in the governing Book of Discipline barring ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and penalizing pastors who perform same-sex marriages.

Less certain is the fate of regionalization, which would increase regional autonomy. Regionalization involves constitutional amendments requiring a two-thirds General Conference majority and approval by two-thirds of local conferences worldwide.

Proponents say regionalization would also bring parity to different regions, saying the current system is a U.S.-centric relic of an earlier missionary era. The regionalization scenario could also allow churches in some regions to maintain LGBTQ bans while others remove them.

Church regions outside the United States already have some leeway in adapting rules to their settings, but regionalization would define that flexibility more precisely and extend it to U.S. churches.

The UMC-affiliated church in the Philippines – the only one in Asia, with about 280,000 members – would maintain its opposition to same-sex marriage, which is not legally recognized there, a church official said. It will also not allow openly LGBTQ people to be ordained.

Most African bishops oppose disaffiliation, even as they oppose LGBTQ ordination and marriage.

“Notwithstanding the differences in our UMC regarding the issue of human sexuality especially with our stance of traditional and biblical view of marriage, we categorically state that we do not plan to leave The United Methodist Church and will continue to be shepherds of God’s flock in this worldwide denomination,” said a statement signed by 11 African bishops at a meeting in September.

Among those withholding signatures was Nigeria Area Bishop John Wesley Yohanna.

Nigerian Methodists in December celebrated 100 years of the denomination in their country, but its future remains uncertain. Deeply conservative views on sexuality are widespread in Nigeria. A spokesman said the bishop’s position on disaffiliation would be determined by what happens at the General Conference.

Same-sex marriage “is unbiblical and also is incompatible with Christian teaching according to our Book of Discipline,” Yohanna said at a January news conference, in which he also said “no to regionalization.“


AP reporters Chinedu Asadu in Lagos, Nigeria, and Jim Gomez in Manila contributed.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

The United Methodist Church lost one-fourth of its U.S. churches in a recent schism, with conservatives departing over disputes on sexuality and theology. Now, with the approach of its first major legislative gathering in several years, the question is whether the church...
Methodists LGBTQ samesex marriage conservatives Africa
Saturday, 13 April 2024 09:01 AM
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