African bishops: Support Way Forward work

Baltimore-Washington Area Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, at left, prays with Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa during worship at the Council of Bishops meeting.  African bishops, including Nhiwatiwa, have issued a pastoral letter. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.
Baltimore-Washington Area Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, at left, prays with Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa during worship at the Council of Bishops meeting. African bishops, including Nhiwatiwa, have issued a pastoral letter. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS.

In a pastoral letter, African bishops call on United Methodists in their areas to support the ongoing work of the Commission on a Way Forward with prayer and fasting.

The bishop-appointed group — whose 32 members include seven Africans — has the task of trying to find a way for the denomination to stay united despite deep divisions around how the church should minister with LGBTQ individuals. The commission serves in an advisory capacity to the Council of Bishops.

“We believe that nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26),” the African bishops’ letter said, “and that no matter how fierce the storm may rage, God has the power to breathe his peace upon our stormy waters and usher calmness.”

The African bishops issued their letter Nov. 8, during the Council of Bishops meeting at which episcopal leaders are reviewing the commission’s work so far. Those discussions are behind closed doors, with the bishops expecting to offer a public statement later.

The commission will continue meeting until next spring, and the bishops plan to make their final recommendations at their May 2018 meeting.

The bishops have called a special General Conference on Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri, to vote on those recommendations. General Conference is the denomination’s top lawmaking body. Half the delegates are clergy and half are lay.

New Council of Bishops officers

By acclimation, the bishops on Nov. 8 elected officers who will preside over their work in the next few years.

Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter will be the Council of Bishop’s president starting next May. Carter is one of three bishop moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward.

Louisiana Area Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who is currently the council’s secretary, will succeed Carter as president starting in May 2020.

North Katanga-Tanzania Bishop Mande Muyombo will be the bishops’ secretary, starting next May as Harvey prepares for her new role. 

In the meantime, the African bishops’ letter notes, this is a difficult time for many in the church.

“We are overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge the issue of human sexuality has posed for the whole denomination,” the letter said. “We realize and are saddened that our denomination is broken and in need of healing and wholeness.”

This is not the first time the African bishops have published a letter during a Council of Bishops meeting. In November 2015, the bishops issued a letter urging the denomination to hold the line on church teachings regarding human sexuality.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, since 1972 has proclaimed all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Since then, General Conference has made officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member chargeable offenses under church law.

Debate over these rules has intensified in recent years. The new letter from the Africans bishops strikes a conciliatory tone.

“We realize that the task of remaining a ‘united’ church is certainly a daunting one,” the bishops said. “But challenging as these may seem, we draw on the rich experiences of our history, where from time to time, God, in his divine grace has led us from one daunting challenge to another.”

The letter goes on to encourage African church members “to keep the faith and to be still” while the commission does its work.

Throughout worship at this week’s Council of Bishops meeting, newly elected bishops from both Africa and the United States preached on John 15, where Jesus commands his disciples to abide in him and to love each other.

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North Katanga-Tanzania Bishop Mande Muyombo urged his colleagues to “abide with each other.”

“Council of Bishops, our mutual abiding is needed to bring about God’s grace and love to various communities around the world,” preached Mande, who is also a commission member. “Our mutual abiding should lead us into God’s mission regardless of the tensions and differences on the issue of human sexuality.”

Bishop Karen Oliveto, who leads the Mountain Sky Area in the western U.S., offered a similar message. She is the denomination’s first openly gay bishop and is married to a deaconess.

“What radical reformation would we experience in The United Methodist Church if you and I as bishops of the church dared to befriend each other?” she asked. She urged her episcopal colleagues to model relationships that are “grounded in the way of Jesus.”

Bishops applauded both Mande’s and Oliveto’s sermons with equal fervor.

At the full council’s final worship service Nov. 8, bishops prayed with colleagues from different regions and with whom they do not necessarily see eye to eye. The service was part of the bishops’ “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative.

Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa prayed with Baltimore-Washington Area Bishop LaTrelle Easterling. They lead conferences that have typically advocated opposing views of homosexuality.

Nhiwatiwa, who is also a commission member, told United Methodist News Service that he and the other bishops pray the church will stay united.

“We as African leaders are calling on our people to give space to what the church is doing,” he said.

“Together, we’ll see where God is leading us.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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