Despite reservations, leaders of the Africa Initiative — a United Methodist advocacy group — have endorsed a proposed separation of the denomination.
The endorsement potentially clears a hurdle to the legislation’s passage when General Conference, the denomination’s international lawmaking body, meets May 5-15 in Minneapolis.
“After vigorous discussion and critique, the leaders of the UMC Africa Initiative have decided to support the passage of the implementing legislation of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” the group’s leaders said in a Feb. 27 statement.
The group’s leadership is urging amendments to the protocol proposal. However, the changes the group seeks are more modest than those sought in a resolution the denomination’s Liberia Conference approved earlier this month.
The Rev. Jerry Kulah, the Africa Initiative’s general coordinator, introduced the Liberian resolution and was also the first signatory of the initiative’s statement.
He and 15 other Africa Initiative leaders signed the statement, released after they met Feb. 24-27 in Johannesburg. Kulah, a veteran General Conference delegate, told UM News he believes the statement represents a broad view from Africa.
“Apart from key leaders that were present at the consultative meeting, we received the opinions of thousands of leaders and ordinary members in the pews of the churches in Africa that the delegates represent,” Kulah said. “This statement is owned by almost all of us.”
The Africa Initiative now joins seven U.S.-based advocacy groups whose governing boards have endorsed the plan.
“I am grateful for the endorsement of the protocol and acknowledge the concerns they have shared,” said the Rev. Junius Dotson, one of the protocol’s negotiators and the top executive of the denomination’s Discipleship Ministries.
“I believe the endorsement greatly increases the chances of the protocol passing. It sends a clear signal that the protocol continues to enjoy broad support from persons across the global theological spectrum.”
Randall Miller, another protocol negotiator, echoed Dotson’s gratitude.
“Their courageous action means that the church moves closer to overcoming the deep divides that have polarized us for so long,” Miller said. “Hopefully, support will continue to build among individuals and churches in Africa.”
The protocol was developed after Sierra Leone’s Bishop John Yambasu brought together United Methodist bishops and advocacy group leaders with divergent perspectives on homosexuality.
The team agreed that longstanding divisions over same-sex weddings and LGBTQ ordination were tearing apart The United Methodist Church, requiring a parting of ways. Working with renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg, 16 leaders developed a compromise they hope will avoid lawsuits.
The proposal allows traditionalist congregations and conferences — who oppose on biblical grounds same-sex unions and ordination of “practicing” gay clergy — to form a new denomination, while keeping their properties and receiving $25 million in United Methodist funds. Another $2 million would be available to other groups of churches that might leave.
The United Methodists who negotiated the compromise are part of groups that frequently take opposing sides at General Conference, most recently backing rival plans at the 2019 special called session of General Conference.
However, Yambasu was the only African on the negotiating team, and Africa is a growing part of the denomination’s membership. Of the 2020 General Conference’s 862 elected delegates, about 32% will come from the African continent.
In their statement, the Africa Initiative leaders said, “we felt deeply disappointed that Africa was not adequately represented at the negotiating table to present the concerns of the African church.”
They also said the protocol is unfair because Africans default to being part of the post-separation United Methodist church and it deprives those who leave from using the United Methodist name and the cross and flame logo. They also disagree with the protocol’s distribution of resources.
“Despite these concerns, in the common interest of the global church and the church’s need for an amicable separation, we decided to support the passage of the implementing legislation,” the leaders said.
The group added that it urges amendments that would:
• Allow traditionalist Africans to use the name United Methodist and keep the cross and flame, with modifications.
• Reduce the vote threshold from two-thirds to 57% for central conferences — church regions in Africa, the Philippines and Europe — to join the new traditionalist Methodist church. A 57% vote is what the protocol legislation requires for annual conferences — sub-regions in central conferences and U.S. jurisdictions — to decide their denominational affiliation.
• Offer assurances that every central conference, annual conference and local church be permitted to vote without any form of suppression or coercion by anyone.
The Africa Initiative differs from the Liberia resolution, which says only a simple majority should be the margin by which conferences or churches decide their denominational affiliation. Instead of a departing traditionalist group getting $25 million, the Liberia resolution also calls for $120 million in United Methodist assets to be divided equally among the five U.S. jurisdictions and seven central conferences.
The Africa Initiative statement does not specify any reallocation of assets. According to a report from the denomination’s finance agency, United Methodist general funds were projected to have $108.9 million in unrestricted net assets at the end of 2019. That would be all of the liquid reserves of the general church.
“The Liberia Annual Conference spoke, and now, the UMC Africa Initiative that represents the voices of the three central conferences of Africa has spoken,” Kulah told UM News.
“Africa Initiative’s message is clear. If anyone thinks we can be taken for a ransom because of our perceived financial challenges, that is a sad mistake. Our message is simple, ‘You may have the whole world, but give us Jesus!’”
Delegates have the right to make amendments to any legislation before General Conference. However, Dotson said there is risk in altering this mediated proposal.
“I would remind us that the protocol represents delicate compromises that we have been previously unable to achieve in a full legislative assembly,” he said. “I believe all members of the mediation team would urge the passage of the implementing legislation for the protocol without amendment.”
For his part, Yambasu is preparing for the Sierra Leone Conference, which is scheduled to vote on submitting the protocol to General Conference during its March 4-8 meeting.
The protocol was developed after the official deadline for General Conference petitions. However, a little-used part of the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — lets annual conferences submit legislation later if they meet between 230 and 45 days before General Conference.
Yambasu told UM News he expects all in the Sierra Leone Conference to support the protocol legislation.
He added that the Africa Initiative is only one advocacy group in the church.
“The Africa Initiative does not speak for Africa,” he told UM News. “They have no authority to speak on behalf of Africa.”
However, the initiative — which receives financial support from the Good News and other traditionalist advocacy groups — does have influence. The initiative typically organizes a meeting before each General Conference to talk legislative strategy with African delegates and plans to do so again this spring.
Kulah said he believes Africans are committed to being a part of a global traditionalist Methodist church.
“The three central conferences of Africa are uncompromising regarding their commitment to sustain biblical Christianity in Africa,” he said.
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.