The following guest post was initially written on Facebook and shared below with the author’s permission. As a global church with an upcoming Conference that is dead-set on a division in the United States, it is important to listen to voices from Africa who understand the American missional context. I’m grateful to be in connection with Albert who offers the following essay to us. Thank you.
May they be one as We are one
Albert Otshudi Longe
Over the past four decades, our denomination has been in continuous conversation as to our ministry with our LGBTQ+ siblings. A conversation that leaves many in our denomination hurt and wondering about the truthfulness of our baptismal covenant and teaching that all people are of sacred worth and that God’s grace is available to all.
It has to be noted that General Conference processes aren’t helpful with regards to listening to one another and making some decisions that affect our ministry and witness to the world. As an African, I know the power of consensus and agreement, but as someone who lives in the US and has been in the UMC from birth, I got to learn the Roberts Rules of Order. The process in which we engage in conversation is very political and not healthy at some level. I applaud the Council of Bishops for creating space for authentic conversation meant to help maximize United Methodist presence in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. The vision of the commission also states that this unity will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.
The polarization in the church with regards to our understanding of social concerns, mostly in the US is a direct effect of national politics. The tendency is to find a biblical approach or excuse to justify a particular view, and it is difficult, if not impossible to separate the two. On the other hand, most United Methodists in the US seem to look at central conferences as one group that has uniformity of practices and understanding. The reality is that differences do exist in our local churches and conferences across the connection, even though some communities because of their tradition and experiences have commonalities.
With the report of the commission available, it offers us an opportunity to look into what it says and what God is calling United Methodists to do at this particular time. The Commission has put forward two proposals for consideration at the Special General Conference next year in St Louis, the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. Of the two proposals, the One Church Plan enjoys majority support of the commission members and is also recommended by the Council of Bishops. In the Commission’s report that is available, you will note that there is an appendix in the form of an additional proposal, the Traditionalist Plan which is not the work of the commission but few bishops. It is an appendix, not part of the report.
The conversation on our ministry with our LGBTQ+ has reached the point of threatening the unity of the church, which I believe should never be the case. Our unity is not human-made because of uniformity in our interpretation of scripture, this unity is acquired in our Lord and Savior Jesus. In John 17, Jesus prays for unity as an example of His relationship with God.
When confronted with difficult questions, conflict or differences that we assume to be irreconcilable, the tendency is to closet ourselves in comfort zones where we don’t want to address the underlying challenges. We avoid engaging in conversation, at times out of fear or feeling of superiority to reject others and deny Christ the opportunity to work through us.
This plan brings us backward and not forward, and I am still unsure about the unsaid motivation behind the plan. We do have a history of segregation as the United Methodist Church, in 1939 we created a non-geographical jurisdiction for black people in the US, the central jurisdiction. I believe they were proponents of the proposal that used scripture to justify this, but we all know this move was wrong, sinful and a stain in our history as a church. By seeking to divide the body of Christ because of a present disagreement, we are simply filling ourselves with the misconception and false hope that we have and will always have a uniform interpretation of scripture or view with regards to challenges that arise in our society.
Some would claim that this proposal helps maximize our presence as United Methodists across the world, which I disagree with. As a connectional church, our witness to the world is effective when United than separated. The recent situation in the Philippines where three young missionaries from different countries were arrested for their ministry with indigenous people and the support from the whole denomination was a clear indication that there is more to our unity than the differences we bring to the forefront. One unsaid aspect of this plan is that it rejects the fact that humans can and do change their understanding overtime based on several factors. It creates a breeding space for future conflict where children will be kicked out of the church they have known for their whole life because of ideological differences with their parents.
I wouldn’t say a lot about this plan because it is unhealthy. In my view, fear is the leading motivation behind this plan. The people that have long held power to dictate matters of the church are losing ground and will do anything in their power to ascertain their authority. I don’t need to name it, but we know that with increased representation from Africa (where the church is growing), some people’s sense of power becomes unsettled and the ultimate goal is to push central conferences to Concordat churches, which have limited voice and representation in the life of the church. Some are unhappy about the social justice work of the church because they can’t abuse scripture and the term Christian as they have done so in the past to deny others of their humanity and basics of life. The unsaid thing about this proposal is what the IRD has long been working on, diminish the influence, ministry, and witness of mainline Christian denominations so they can abuse scripture to discriminate and engage in unholy acts.
One Church Plan
We already live with the one church plan, and I believe it is what is expected of us. The one church plan basically puts in writing what we are doing in our local churches, districts, and conferences. Yes, there are parts of it that we don’t agree with, but it offers room for improvement and mutual respect across the denomination.
I wouldn’t explain the details, but it sustains the unity of the church and recognizes the contexts in which ministry happens, offering flexible for the church to be present and effectively minister. The church has always been about context, and preachers know it well because your sermon is only helpful when it speaks to the context of the community. My experience of the church in Congo is different from the one in DC, Urban Missouri or rural Nebraska. Not recognizing contextual realities and wanting to impose a particular line of thought is colonial/imperial.
The One Church Plan helps us live out the Wesleyan quadrilateral, recognizing Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. It wouldn’t be a liberating or social justice gospel if it doesn’t speak to individual experiences and allow thoughts to be put into it.
The words unity and context translate differently in different places, some consider it as positive while others view it negatively. Regardless of how you consider it, I know that the gospel is more powerfully proclaimed and lived if it speaks to the unity of all people, not just Methodists or Christians, but all and responds to our varied contexts. Our realities aren’t the same and allowing space for us to continue our ministries as a denomination is critical. This year at the Great Plains Annual Conference Ordination service, Bishop Cynthia Harvey said something critical, the only thing sacred is the mission. I believe the One Church Plan helps us maintain the sacred nature of the mission and be effective at it. There is a lot of work to be done, people hungry for the liberating gospel of Christ and being effective at reaching people in our mission field is the best gift that can happen to the church right now.
As I said early, there are parts of it that still need improvement, but that doesn’t deny the fact that it is a step in the right direction. Justice efforts are gradual, not events, and this plan opens the opportunity for us to continue our witness to the world more effectively.
I don’t know whether this is a plan or the tradition behind it, one thing I know is that this plan doesn’t speak to my faith. This proposal developed by a few bishops seeks to make United Methodists pharisees and is based on the wrong perception that we are saved by the strict observance of rules, some irrelevant to our contexts, while we all know it that it is the grace of God and nothing else that saves. To deny God’s grace to humankind is to deny the existence of Christ, without Christ Christianity ceases to exist.
The plan is developed from the understanding that rejection of our LGBTQI siblings is the only requirement for holiness and salvation and that the United Methodist Church is a club of holy individuals divinely sanctioned by God to purify creation, the creation that God himself is the author of, in its beautiful diversity. This plan basically tells you, either you’re holy because you reject the humanity of others or you are not worthy at all stepping into our sanctuary or have your name in our membership roll. It’s a bad plan, and I wonder how advocates of the proposal sleep at night.
The sad thing is that some colonialist in the denomination assume they have the responsibility to determine what is good for some and continue to abuse perceptions and their dubious practices to say this is a good plan for Africa and it responds to the mission contexts in the continent. As an African, I find this very insulting.
A few days ago the Africa Initiative (not really African, but an extension of conservative caucuses from the US) brought together people from the continent and many others from the US in what they called a prayer session to indoctrinate some delegates and leaders from across conferences on their legislative proposals to GC. This is a game that has been happening for several years; there have been instances of corruption, dictating people how to vote. The most insulting experience was coming across a paper provided to African delegates by a well identified conservative group, listing all legislation and how to vote on it, shockingly on legislation regarding the church in Africa, there was no guide on how to vote, it simply said Think. The World Service Fund that supports mission across the connection has always been a target of these groups; it’s a reflection of their views and beliefs.
A Way Forward for all of us
It’s time we get rid of all types of discrimination, we have discriminated more than our fair share under the sun, who is our next target? Non-English speaking people, differently-abled people, single parents?
In their pastoral letter to the church in Africa in November 2017, The Africa College of Bishops invited United Methodists to pray and support the work of the commission and leadership of the Council of Bishops. I would invite my African friends to trust the wisdom and leadership of our bishops, Commission on the Way Forward and Council of Bishops. At this hour, it is critical that we are careful as to who we listen to, not all that glitters is gold.
The whole denomination seems to be in a stand-still, no one seems to have a clue of what will happen and pastors are challenged in their leadership as they struggle to find the right message to speak to their members. One thing is certain; we are called to be people united in our faith for the transformation of the world. Transforming the world through our witness with the marginalized. A lot can be said about these plans, but my invitation to the church in Africa is to be vigilant, not to allow others to use your voting power to discriminate against others. They come smiling, saying they sympathize and recognize our challenges and they are there to walk with us, colonial powers did the same. We are called to be one, One in Christ and effectively minister in our contexts. Let us not feel pressured to act a certain way because of fear of the unknown, but respond to God’s call to justice and unity, in our diversity.
Albert is a layperson from the West Congo Annual Conference, currently living in the US. A graduate of Africa University with a keen interest in Social Justice.
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