Speaking at the Africa Extended Cabinet meeting, Bishop John K. Yambasu of the Sierra Leone Conference encouraged his African brothers and sisters to “hold firmly to the truth of the Gospel.”
Yambasu, the president of the Africa College of Bishops, devoted part of his keynote address to the debate over how the church ministers with LGBTQ people.
He expressed hope “for a revived and transformed United Methodist Church … built on the strong foundations of biblical authenticity.”
The 170 attendees at the Feb. 14-17 conference in Accra, Ghana, included African bishops, district superintendents, conference treasurers and other members of the extended cabinets of each bishop.
Reminding the church leaders that they belong to a global United Methodist family called to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Yambasu recalled early Methodists whom John Wesley sent to America to birth the church.
“The United Methodist Church in Africa exists today,” the bishop said in his address, “because these men and their successors … sacrificed their comforts and lives in order that we might hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
“Over the centuries, and guided by the Holy Spirit, the African people have tenaciously held on to and practiced the great values of the biblical faithfulness that of the membership of 12.5 million United Methodists across the globe, Africa accounts for 40 percent of that growth.”
That means, Yambasu said, that of the 862 expected to attend the 2020 General Conference, 278 of the delegates are expected to come from Africa.
“Africa is on its way to providing the needed leadership for the denomination,” Yambasu declared.
However, throughout history, he said, Africans have continued to be “defrauded of the right of self-determination,” politically, economically and ecclesiastically. He said that can be seen in colonization, transportation of 12 million to 15 million Africans into slavery and the “emergence of the missionary movement when our cultures and traditions and way of worship were referred to as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘primitive.’
“All of these changes were forced through the throats of Africans.”
While there are widely divergent views today in the denomination on the topic of human sexuality, Yambasu said the Africa central conferences steadfastly maintain a conservative stance.
Calling homosexuality “the greatest threat to the unity of our church,” Yambasu said the issue “has created deep cracks that will have far-reaching consequences not only on the church in North America, but even more so on the church in Africa.”
While voicing respect for “the many social, cultural and religious views, opinions and interpretations on human sexuality across the denomination,” Yambasu held firmly to what he described as biblical teachings on ordination, marriage and other matters.
“As Africans, we have minds of our own,” he said. “We have our own cultures and traditions, all of which are critical in helping us determine a suitable pathway in the light of this huge challenge that faces our denomination. We are not going to merely follow movements and structures that have already started emerging.”
The bishop acknowledged that any decision would have important consequences for the global denomination.
“In Africa,” he said, “where the majority of conferences depend heavily on global funds to support its exploding membership growth and ministries, a possible split of the denomination will undoubtedly plunge the church into a number of challenges” related to episcopal support, mission endeavors, higher education, leadership development and more.
He expressed concern that if a schism occurs, “most of our pastors and laypersons in whom the church has invested so much in scholarships will leave the church and seek greener pastures elsewhere because the church will not be able to sustain them.”
Yambasu reminded his colleagues that the Commission on a Way Forward is striving to avoid division. “As United Methodists,” he said, “we are a people of hope. And we continue to pray that God himself will lead us through this wilderness into a brighter future.”
Expressing gratitude for the financial assistance that African United Methodists have received over the years, he urged greater self-reliance.
Ultimately, he said, the decision of General Conference, “must enable us to focus on the continent as a whole rather than focusing on our individual sectoral, tribal or regional entities.”
Any plan adopted “must be able to take the Africa central conferences from our present state of near dysfunctionality to the place where we can be more functionally effective in terms of organization, intentional leadership development, new church growth, new missional engagement, and economic viability and sustainability. Anything less is unacceptable,” he said.
Other African bishops praised Yambasu’s address.
“He was appealing to all the bishops to really work with their delegations (to General Conference) so they are aware of all the stakes and all of the issues that will be discussed for the upcoming special session,” said Bishop Gabriel Unda, who leads the East Congo Episcopal Area.
East Africa Area Bishop Daniel Wandabula praised Yambasu for offering the history of Methodist mission work in Africa, as well as addressing where the church is today — especially what might happen after the special called General Conference in 2019.
“If it (The United Methodist Church) does not remain together and breaks, then the church in Africa should be ready to see how they can carry the Gospel, most especially when it comes to funding,” Wandabula said.
He said Yambasu made a good case that the African church should prepare for whatever might happen, unity or a split, and that one way to do that is to become more self-reliant fiscally.
Yambasu said in an e-mail after the address that there were three major conversations at the meeting.
The first conversation centered on supporting and praying for the work of the Way Forward Commission, which is trying to find a solution to the impasse in the church on homosexuality. The bishop said that includes refraining from supporting any emerging groups within the church until the commission has completed its work and the special 2019 General Conference has considered that work.
There was also discussion about transforming the Africa Initiative, an organization that brought together African delegates for a retreat before General Conference 2016, in ways that make it adequately and contextually respond to the needs and issues in Africa.
The group also discussed the need for training opportunities and for the church’s general agencies to equip the Africa leadership in the areas of communication, higher education, publishing and agricultural development.
Retired from United Methodist Communications, Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor living in Carbondale, Ill. UMNS staffers Vicki Brown and Sam Hodges contributed to this story.