Many central conference delegates attending the Africa Initiative’s pre-conference gathering this week near St. Louis expressed support for the Modified Traditional Plan at The United Methodist Church’s special called session of General Conference, which begins Feb. 23.
The delegates gathered for the training workshop before the denomination’s top legislative assembly did not take a vote on the plans. But many of the about 200 delegates, reserves and observers at the two-day gathering said they planned to support it.
The Africa Initiative is an unofficial advocacy group in Africa. The group has not directly endorsed a specific plan, but originally declared support for the Traditional Plan during its annual gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, in August. The Modified Traditional Plan adds to the Traditional Plan a committee with authority to hold bishops accountable to the sexuality standards in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is The United Methodist Church’s book of polity.
Participants came from all three African central conferences, with delegates from Eurasia and the Philippines also attending.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of the unofficial advocacy group Good News and a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, estimates that 80 percent of the conferences in Africa attended the gathering. He said the Africa Initiative organized the program, set the agenda and provided the bulk of leadership, but the event was funded by people in the United States.
“The event was paid for by persons in the U.S. who made donations to ensure that the African delegates (and from other central conferences) had a chance to meet together, consider the proposals for General Conference, understand the process of this special General Conference, ask questions and understand the implications of different plans,” he said.
Lambrecht helped craft the legislation that became the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan, which affirm the current language about homosexuality in the Book of Discipline and seek to strengthen enforcement for violations. While affirming all people as persons of sacred worth, the book states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and it forbids the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and the performance of same-gender unions in church sanctuaries.
“This opportunity allows central conference delegates to be empowered to express their convictions and to participate on a more equal footing with American delegates, who have many more advantages in training and communicating among themselves than do central conference delegates,” Lambrecht said.
Leading devotion on Feb. 21 at Lake Williamson Conference and Retreat Center, the Rev. Daiman Mainsa, a delegate from Zambia, called on the attending delegates not to allow themselves to be distracted from their original plan of supporting the Traditional Plan, and now the Modified Traditional Plan.
“Do not pay attention to those who want to scare you by saying the church will be divided if the delegates attending the General Conference vote for the Modified Traditional Plan,” he urged.
He pointed out that The United Methodist Church belongs to God.
“Only God can decide which direction this church will be going after the decision of the special General Conference,” he said.
Mainsa noted that this General Conference should serve as a place where the longstanding discussion on human sexuality will end. Comparing the human sexuality discussion to the walls of Jericho, he said the walls of human sexuality must come down at the special session.
“We are here to end this discussion once and for all,” he said.
Other United Methodists at the Africa Initiative gathering, speaking to United Methodist News Service, said the Modified Traditional Plan will receive the full support from most of the delegates coming from Africa.
One was the lay leader of the Liberia Conference, Tolbert Nyenswah. He said the Liberian delegation resolved at their 186th annual session that the Modified Traditional Plan was going to be supported by all members of the Liberian delegation.
“We don't want the church to be divided, so even if we vote for the Modified Traditional Plan, I will urge our brothers and sisters advocating for the other plans not to leave the church,” he said.
Nyenswah is not a delegate, but attended the Africa Initiative pre-conference gathering alongside the Liberian delegation as an observer.
The Rev. Andrei Kim, a delegate from the Eastern Russia and Central Asia Provisional Conference, said the gathering was rewarding.
“It provided us with sufficient information that will help us participate in the General Conference with much understanding.”
Kim said the Russia United Methodist Church is supporting the Modified Traditional Plan at home, and as a delegate, he will be doing the same at General Conference.
He said the teaching by the Africa Initiative was educational, and he has prepared his delegation for the coming days.
The Rev. George D. Wilson Jr., connectional ministries director of the Liberia Conference and a General Conference delegate, said the training on the General Conference legislative voting process was timely for most of the African delegates. He added that voting at General Conference has been "one of the difficult and confusing things for first-time attendees from Africa.”
He said General Conference delegates should be trained before the legislative assembly to avoid misunderstanding of issues among delegates. “Delegates should not be taught the legislative voting processes only in time of critical discussions and decision making,” Wilson said.
Swen is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service in Liberia.
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