The United Methodist Church today grew by about 1 million members.
Delegates to the 2004 General Conference unexpectedly received a West African “mission” into full membership of the United Methodist Church. The new members formerly constituted the autonomous Protestant Methodist Church of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast).
“This is the most significant thing that’s happened here in Pittsburgh,” said the Rev. R. Randy Day, head of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, at a press conference following the delegates’ action.
“For us it is a moment of great joy,” said the Rev. Benjamin Boni, leader of the Cote d’Ivoire, who expressed his gratitude to God, the United Methodist bishops and General Conference.
“We want to be part of the mission of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world,” Boni told the delegates. “May the Lord help us to be bearers of light to the whole world.”
Upon a motion by delegate Ron Bretsch of North Central New York, the General Conference accelerated for Cote d’Ivoire the process of electing its own episcopal leadership and planning for its future.
Both the representatives from Cote d’Ivoire and United Methodist officials had expected the process to take four more years. However, the delegates voiced their intention to embrace the French-speaking Methodists in Cote d’Ivoire now.
The church in Cote d’Ivoire has been in existence since 1924, Boni explained. In 1985, it left the British Methodist Church to become autonomous.
“We wanted to be part of a more global environment, which is the United Methodist Church,” Boni said through a French translator.
Church leaders approached the Board of Global Ministries several years ago, requesting mission status in order to become part of a worldwide church rather than a national body.
“In a step-by-step fashion, we got here today,” Boni said.
Day expressed delight at the General Conference action. “We know our brothers and sisters from Cote d’Ivoire well. They are vital, self-supporting Christians with highly developed ministries of evangelism, social outreach, programs with women and young people, and French-speaking seminary training.”
The Cote d’Ivoire members voted unanimously to join the United Methodist Church. Before the addition of the Cote d’Ivoire, the United Methodist Church’s worldwide membership was about 10 million, including about 1.4 million in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The new conference in Cote d’Ivoire has five districts, two of which are missionary districts. Women and children make up a majority of its membership, said Boni, who explained that rumors about civil unrest in his nation should not be attributed to religious differences.
In Cote d’Ivoire, he explained, one-third of the population is Muslim, one-third is Christian and one-third is known as animist, a combination of several religions. “There is no religious problem,” Boni said. “We collaborate freely.”
Being integrated into the United Methodist Church has many implications, including the support of a bishop and the costs of taking part in denominationwide activities.
The General Conference resolution included the provision that the Cote d’Ivoire church will be responsible for funding its own bishop for the next four years. At the 2008 General Conference, it will have two delegates, one lay and one clergy.
Bishops in the United Methodist Church are supported by a central fund. Legislation is expected to be brought in 2008 to incorporate what will be called the Cote d’Ivoire Episcopal Area into that fund.
*Wright and Yocum are staff members of the Board of Global Ministries. Melissa Lauber, with the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference staff, contributed to this article.
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