Christmas is a time for people to get together, and a group of church leaders is using this festive time to propose a way for the church to stay together.
General Conference delegates and other United Methodists from the central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — released Dec. 19 what they are calling “A Christmas Covenant: Our Gift of Hope.”
The covenant deplores “calls to dissolve or dismember The United Methodist Church, to liquidate its assets and distribute them to the highest bidder.”
“Such plans are harmful to the Body of Christ through whom people of faith seek to connect and live in gracious relationships,” the covenant continues.
Instead, the covenant proposes the following actions:
• Suspension of all actions furthering any dissolution or separation plans and liquidation and distribution of the assets of The United Methodist Church.
• Formation of a U.S. regional conference.
• Establishment of legislative equality for central conferences and U.S. jurisdictions.
The Rev. Jonathan Ulanday, one of the covenant signers, noted that in addition to celebrating Christ’s nativity, Christmas is an auspicious time for the people called Methodist.
“The Christmas Conference of 1784 gave birth to the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States,” Ulanday, a General Conference delegate and pastor in the Philippines, said in a press release.
“Our prayer is that this Christmas Covenant could be a rallying point for a renewed and revived United Methodist Church around the world.”
So far, he and 15 other United Methodist leaders have signed the covenant, and they hope more will join.
In addition to Ulanday, signers include two other 2020 General Conference delegates from Congo and Liberia as well as four reserve delegates, who hail from Norway, the Philippines and South Congo. The signers also include district superintendents, seminary faculty, conference staff and deaconesses.
The covenant comes as various proposals to separate or dissolve the multinational denomination head to General Conference, amid ongoing disputes about the status of LGBTQ people. The church’s top lawmaking body will next meet May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis.
The most prominent plans calling for a church split all originated in the United States.
The Connectional Table, an international leadership body that acts as a sort of church council for the denomination, developed the legislation for a U.S. Regional Conference. The Connectional Table’s goal is not to address the homosexuality debate, but to have a body to take up matters that solely affect the U.S. church and reduce the burden on General Conference.
The proposal already has received backing from central conference bishops, but bishops do not have a vote at General Conference.
Ulanday, on behalf of a Filipino United Methodist group, has submitted legislation calling for unity and supporting the regional conference idea.
Bishop Rodolfo "Rudy" Juan, who leads the Davao Area in the Philippines and champions the regional conference idea, said the Christmas Covenant "embodies our deepest desire as Filipinos that our beloved UMC will continue on as a global denomination!"
He pointed out that United Methodists from the Philippines are planting churches around the globe. With the global connection, Juan said, "we can continue to be engaged in wider mission as Filipinos including our kindred in diaspora. United we stand; divided we can do less."
The Christmas Covenant makes no mention of the denominational debate over homosexuality, and the signers have a variety of perspectives. However, the covenant affirms the denomination’s common ground in mission.
“The Christmas covenant gives value to each and every one as a child of God,” the Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau told UM News. She is a General Conference delegate from the North Katanga Conference in Congo.
“It shares love to everybody,” she said. “It is love that creates room for everyone to feel welcomed in the community. It helps everyone to be at peace as a child of God in the community of believers.”
The Rev. Kennedy Mwita, a pastor in Kenya and a former district superintendent in the Kenya-Ethiopia Conference, said he supports restructuring that strengthens unity in mission and recognizes the contextual differences of ministry around the globe.
“I love the great heritage of our church, and I don’t support any plan that advocates for the dissolution of the church,” he said.
The Rev. Hilde Marie Movafagh, a reserve General Conference delegate and seminary professor from Norway, said the denomination’s global connection is important — especially in contexts where United Methodists are very much the minority.
“Breaking that connection is unhealthy both for Americans and people from the central conferences,” she said. “We need each other because we bring different perspectives to the table. We do ministry together (like Norway does with many African annual conferences), and we interpret what our Methodist heritage is in our different contexts, and therefore we form a Methodist identity together for our time.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.