United Methodist Church: Why We are Here?

     I am humbled to contribute to the first series of articles on Methodism in the new Theological Voice of Africa (TVA) mouthpiece. For decades, the African Methodist voice either existed in academia or other platforms, too far away to be distinctly heard or read by most Methodists in Africa and the rest of the world. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the TVA has come as God’s answer to the prayerful aspirations of Methodist Christians on the African continent and beyond.

     As the current toxic debate thickens in the United Methodist Church, John Wesley must be turning in his grave, eager to remind us that we should be brave enough to speak the truth to save God’s church in the countries where original Wesleyan Methodism has collapsed or on the verge of extinction. John Wesley prophetically warned us of the current schism in the United Methodist Church today when he said:  

“I am not afraid that people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America (and elsewhere). I am afraid they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. This undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they set out.”

Early divisions in Wesleyanism!

     Indeed, the schism Wesley dreaded for the Methodist movement in the US, Europe, and elsewhere occurred in England itself, just fifty years after his death. The Methodist movement has since experienced numerous divisions. Notably, the factions that sprouted from the first disaffiliation included the Methodist New Connexion, splinter revival groups such as the Primitive Methodism in Staffordshire in 1811, and the Bible Christian Church of southwest England.

The division in the Methodist New Connexion!

     The Wesleyan Methodist Connexion emerged from the schism in the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) over the socioeconomic debate on slavery and church misgovernance. A prominent abolitionist, Orange Scott, left the MEC amid acrimonious debates with episcopal leaders who tried to muzzle concerns about the evils of slavery. Regrettably, 6000 members and 22 clergies left the MEC, labeling its leadership arrogant and abusive. Needless to mention that slavery was more of a political and economic initiative by emperors, missionaries, and suppliers of slaves on the coast of Africa, who saw the slave trade as a lucrative investment. As a result, economic totalitarianism compromised good church governance, to the chagrin of Wesleyan theology of scriptural authority and the doctrine of salvation through grace, faith, and “holiness of the heart and life.”

A divided Primitive Methodist Church community in Staffordshire!

     A splinter group within the MEC faction, the Primitive Methodists in Staffordshire, sprang up to form “camp meetings” in the surroundings of the Potteries of Mow Cop in Staffordshire. The “camp meetings” encouraged spiritual growth through Wesley’s bible-centered outdoor preaching and fellowship between children, students, and community church members. At least the camp revivals, biblical, and doctrinal teachings promoted physical and spiritual health through exercise, better-sleeping patterns, and a supply of vitamin D from the sun. Needless to mention that revival camp meetings subsequently became a significant feature of Methodist evangelism and a healthy advantage for the disaffiliated community. However, the powerful Bishop John Henry Hopkins opposed revival camp meetings as “defective” Methodism for their noisy brand. He preferred the quieter traditional worship from the Book of Common Prayer.

The divisive wrangles in the Bible Christian Church in England!

     There were several sub-factions of the Bible Christian movement due to the socioeconomic conditions in England. Poverty and religious indifference negatively impacted Methodist ministry creating a critical deficit of leadership and followership. Fewer leaders were bold enough to speak truth to power. William Bryant, a Wesleyan Methodist, preached to community farmers at the Bryants farm on the injustices perpetrated within the Methodist community. Consequently, the Bryants donated part of their land to construct a Methodist chapel. Despite the philanthropic gesture, William Bryant lost the leadership of the Bible Christian Church community to John Thorne, a prominent Methodist pastor. The schism within the movement had more to do with leadership wrangles than theological and doctrinal issues. The recurrent divisions within the Methodist movement have adversely impacted Methodism to this day. However, disaffiliations were not caused by a single factor. There were theological, political, economic, cultural, and social causes that split the church, as alluded to elsewhere in this contribution.

Why is the United Methodist splitting?

     The current debate has misrepresented the LGBTQ as the sole issue in the Church’s split and concomitantly, the theological arguments for and against accepting gay marriages, ordinations, and appointments in the ministry. Most churches in Africa claim they can penetrate the smokescreen and see several reasons the United Methodist Church is disintegrating. The United Methodist is the most recent of several Protestant denominations to encounter a split of this magnitude in the US after the Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians lost substantial membership in several churches over the same theological positions on the sexuality debate.

     It is estimated that the US Protestant churches lose membership at 25% annually while Africa’s church membership is increasing at almost 20% per annum. These statistics paint a gloomy picture of the US and European donor churches assisting semi-autonomous and poor church communities in Africa financially. The economic reality is that sustainable assistance for Africa is dwindling due to decreasing church membership in the donor communities in the US and Europe. Some African church leaders are aware of this inevitability; hence they are reluctant to facilitate free debate on disaffiliation,

     The gay issue is not of consequence in Africa. That is not to say that gay communities do not exist in Africa. Culturally, anyone caught in the practice is ex-communicated from the community by moonlight and forced to flee to another part of the country, even to another country where they change their identity to avoid detection and punishment. In most African countries, gays operate clandestinely for fear of social reprisals and imprisonment. In the United States, Europe, and some parts of Africa, gay communities politically have the same rights as other citizens. The few African countries that have accepted homosexuality have done so under quid pro quo conditions for financial aid from donor agencies representing those countries.

     In the US and Europe, it is estimated that 40% of the United Methodist churches will ultimately opt for disaffiliation to join the new Global Methodist Church or form their congregations as separation continues, staunching church growth and development in the most affected jurisdictions of the United Methodist Church. The final legal vote for disaffiliation is due at the proposed 2024 General Conference, which has been postponed several times due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

     Further, on the political front, there have been calls between factions in the debate, those disaffiliating to join the Global Methodists and those hoping to remain in the United Methodist Church. Some observers have indicated that the warring parties should not use incendiary language which exacerbates an existing catastrophe. There is a deeper perspective than sheer semantics. Why should church officials on both sides of the argument use words such as “liberals and conservatives, progressives” to refer to members of God’s church whom they are entrusted to lead?  Why should shepherds and servants in God’s ministry be that privileged to label members of God’s church “liberals, conservatives, traditionalists, progressives” simply because they disagree or agree with positions in the debate?  The irony is that these inflammatory references are more separatist when employed by the church officials who are supposed to be spiritual servants of unity.

Toward Core Values and Beliefs of Christian Living!

     When Methodism was captured in the hearts and minds of the followers of Wesley’s movement, he stipulated the spiritual guidelines by which Christians were to live, given the social and economic upheavals of his time, at family, community, and national levels. He urged Methodists to believe in a triune God, the father, the son, the holy spirit, and nothing lesser. Christians were to steadfastly subscribe to the holiness of character, conduct, and competency in daily living and the execution of ecclesiastical and social duties. Wesley defined the purpose of the church essentially as worshipping God and running God’s mandate in Spirit and Truth. He defined the “soul of the church” as allegiance to biblical authority and servant leadership. The major Wesleyan maxim on the actualization of faith in everyday living was the observance of three simple principles that Christians and Christian leaders should “do no harm, do good. Stay in love with God” and others. This simply meant that as leaders and followers of Jesus Christ and members of God’s church called Methodists, we should refrain from causing deliberate and unintentional harm to leaders and followers with whom we share the sacred fellowship of faith in holiness.  End!

Author’s profile

Rev. Professor Webster Fundisayi Mutamba was called into ministry from the hotbed suburb of Highfields, Harare, Zimbabwe in the late 1960s. After ordination, Mutamba worked with three Zimbabwean and two American interim bishops in various appointments as Lead and Associate Pastor for rural and urban congregations. Other appointments included directorships of Youth, Christian Education, Communications, a Christian Center for the education of hordes of unemployed black youths, and preschool for children of working mothers. The last two institutions brought him into a collision course with the policy of deprivation of black advancement and incarceration by the colonial Smith regime. Mutamba was News Editor for several publications and News Anchor at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. He was also a lecturer and founding director of information and Communication Skills lecturer at Africa University, MBA lecturer, Thesis Examiner, and Information & Public Relations director at the University of Zimbabwe as well as local colleges and institutes in Zimbabwe. As a Research Consultant, Mutamba produced the Advocacy Paper on Reproductive Health and Human Crisis in Southern Africa for UNFPA Zimbabwe Chapter and Save the Children UK, respectively. Mutamba is also an ardent commercial farmer and former freedom fighter. Mutamba holds bachelor’s degrees in Theology, English, and Journalism, a master’s in communication, and a doctorate in Health Economics, from Zimbabwe and the US.

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