by Walter Fenton
November 20, 2020
A recent press release issued by The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops on behalf of African episcopal leaders has stirred speculation about the viability of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The Protocol is the widely known plan calling for the amicable separation of The United Methodist Church. It was developed and endorsed by leading bishops and centrist, progressive, and conservative United Methodists. The late Bishop John Yambasu of Sierre Leone was the catalyst behind the team that produced it.
According to the October 30, 2020 press release, African bishops feel “the Protocol needs to be renegotiated.” However, although the release includes several quotes from Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe, the current president of African Bishops, it is not clear what part or parts of the Protocol the bishops want renegotiated. Furthermore, there is no indication they are categorically opposed to it, and in fact, it is not entirely clear that all of them share a united perspective about it. Nor is there any indication that their perspective is shared by African delegates to the General Conference, and of course the General Conference delegates are the ones who will ultimately vote on the Protocol’s implementing legislation.
Nevertheless, the nebulous nature of the release has not kept some commentators from divining exactly what the African bishops think about the Protocol – among other things. According to one writer, the bishops “rejected the choice presented to them by the Protocol,” and “rebuked both American Traditionalists and American Centrists/Progressives.” Actually, there is no place in the press release where the bishops state they reject the Protocol, there is no rebuke of US traditionalists or centrists/progressives, and the African bishops propose no alternative plan of their own for extracting the church from its debilitating dispute.
The release does include one paragraph stating the bishops “voiced concern” about alleged “interference in African conferences by people from the United States who are causing confusion and hatred among Africans in the church.” However, the release neither cites any specific instances of interference nor does it identify any parties as its source.
For our part, we continue to support the Protocol as the best way to move beyond a dispute that is irreconcilable and undermines the mission and ministry of local churches, and the health and vitality of the general church. While other plans have been proposed, none of them has the broad based support of the Protocol. Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, president of the Council of Bishops, and other leading bishops who served among the 16 member team who negotiated it have pledged their support for it. Leaders of advocacy groups from left to right have voiced their support. Africa Initiative, a diverse coalition of General Conference clergy and laity delegates have endorsed it, and just recently, the College of Bishops in the Western Jurisdiction declared their support as well.
In light of all that has transpired this past year, we believe it would be unwise to back-track on the Protocol. Given all the challenges facing local churches around the world it makes no sense to plunge the denomination back into a debate that is tearing it apart. Even before the financial crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic, church officials proposed the general church budget be reduced by an inflation adjusted 25 percent. The General Council on Finance and Administration’s most recent report reveals that giving to the general church has fallen significantly, and its projections for the future are for dramatic declines in funding. Ninety-nine percent of funding for the general church comes from local churches in the U.S., and average worship at these churches has been falling precipitously over the last decade. In light of the deep theological and ethical divisions in the church and demographic reports on US local congregations, church officials do not expect a reversal of these trends in the near future.
At its most recent meeting the Council of Bishops recommended against moving forward with the addition of five new episcopal leaders in Africa. The Episcopal Fund, which pays the salaries of all bishops and is supported by church apportionments, is projected to face diminished funding over the next few years. So while we recognize and even share some of the African bishops’ frustrations with the current state of affairs, we believe the passage of the Protocol will allow two new churches (or three, should some of the African bishops believe they are able to create a new church free of American interference) to see where they stand and so chart their own paths forward according to their discernment.
We are thankful for the good working relationship we have with several of the African bishops, and we will continue our warm and growing partnership with them and the clergy and laity of Africa Initiative. We believe our shared theological convictions and the ethical standards we derive from them will allow us to build a warm-hearted and Christ centered global Methodist church once the Protocol is adopted.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.