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Taking the High Road

By Walter B. Fenton

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash.

As it has done so often, Africa Initiative continues to exhibit grace, wisdom, and courage in the face of unsubstantiated accusations.

Founded by United Methodist General Conference delegates representing many different nations and cultures across Africa, but all sharing a strong commitment to the Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith, Africa Initiative has worked for the church’s unity and fidelity to its core theological confessions and ethical teachings. And though often accused of being a pawn of theologically conservative advocacy groups or even worse, voting at General Conferences for financial favors, the organization has been a shining example of facing adversity with grace, wisdom, and courage.

Regrettably, the latest accusations against Africa Initiative members come from some of its own episcopal leaders. In an intemperate statement issued on September 8, 2022, some active and retired African bishops accused Africa Initiative of trying to “destroy our United Methodist Church.” To substantiate their charge, the bishops claim, without evidence, that the organization is “working with and supporting the Global Methodist Church.”

Conspiracy theories like this are what happen when people react without first checking their facts or talking with others. While the Global Methodist Church has the upmost respect for Africa Initiative members, it is not “working with” the organization to “destroy” the UM Church or, for that matter, working with it on any issues. GM Church pastors, laypeople, leaders, and staff members have their hands full standing-up the new church, organizing provisional annual conferences, and providing guidance to local churches and pastors in various stages of the UM Church’s disaffiliation process. Had the good bishops taken the time to contact Africa Initiative or GM Church leaders either body could have dispelled their unfounded fears.

In its gracious, heartfelt, and positive statement, Africa Initiative set a healthy example for faithful people in contentious circumstances.

First, near the very beginning of the statement its members wrote, “[W]e love and respect our episcopal leaders and esteem them as the shepherds of God’s flock.” This was particularly remarkable, given that the bishops failed to find one kind word for Africa Initiative, a movement composed of clergy and laity who routinely pray for, support and defend their bishops.

Second, Africa Initiative leaders gently schooled the bishops on a proper reading the UM Church’s Book of Discipline. In their statement the bishops not only publicly leveled a very serious and unsubstantiated charge against its members, they also imperiously said they would, “not allow any activities of the Africa Initiative in [their] areas.”

Africa Initiative leaders, citing chapter and verse, reminded the bishops that the UM Church’s Book of Discipline instructs its people to resolve disputes according to biblical principles (see Matthew 18.15-17) and to honor due process (i.e., bishops cannot level a charge against a clergy or lay member and then arbitrarily determine she or he is guilty). And again, citing the Book of Discipline, the organization rightly noted bishops cannot keep clergy and lay members in good standing (many of whom are duly elected General Conference delegates) from discussing and working together to address matters before the church.

Finally, the Africa Initiative statement closes as it begins, with prayers for the bishops and blessings for the flocks they are charged with shepherding.

We trust the UM African bishops who signed the unwarranted statement will fully acknowledge the difficult circumstances clergy and laity are presently facing. Less than three years ago the late Bishop John Yambasu, one of their colleagues, led a team of UM leaders to offer an amicable and orderly plan of separation of the UM Church. It was widely endorsed by bishops and other church leaders, and many believed the delegates to the 2020 General Conference would have adopted the plan had the conference not been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, local churches and their faithful people find themselves navigating their way forward in confusing and challenging times.

Still, there is no reason why UM Church leaders and local churches cannot act in the spirit of the separation proposal Bishop Yambasu and others endorsed. Indeed, many bishops, annual conferences, and local churches are doing just that. We hope the African bishops who supported the recent intemperate statement will remember that Africa Initiative is composed of people who are their friends and are also faithful to the teachings of the church.

We encourage readers to see the statement from some of the bishops in Africa, read the response from Africa Initiative, and then judge for themselves who decided to take the high road.

You can learn more about the Global Methodist Church’s rich heritage by exploring its website.

The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.

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