Separate but Equal in the UMC An African American Perspective of Regionalization!

By Odell Horne, Jr.

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court that equal, but separate railroad cars for black and white citizens were legal within the state. This case was known as Plessy vs. Ferguson, and it added to a growing wave of segregation laws in the U.S. during what is known as the “Jim Crow” era. Blacks and whites were separated in almost all endeavors throughout the entire country, not just in the South, either by de facto or de jure laws. It wasn’t until the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case in 1954, that the U.S. began to strike down segregation laws in most, if not all, areas of society. This culminated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made much of the two-tiered American legal structures that society had erected illegal. Additionally, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, opened the doors for African and Asian immigrants to live in the U.S. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.

On April 23, 2024 the United Methodist Church (UMC) gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina for the 2020 General Conference, which was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a historic event, in which most, if not all of the prohibitions against LGBTQIAP+ Methodists were repealed. This was met with celebrations, and protests

However, one major piece of legislation that was passed at this conference was a Regionalization plan, that will allow Americans, Africans, Asians, and Europeans the opportunity to make adaptations to the Book of Discipline to meet their contextual needs. Regionalization will divide the global denomination into regions, and will allow the national churches (American, Philippines) to become independent within the connection. Additionally, the proposed legislation will leave intact the Jurisdictional system that was established in the United States (U.S.) in 1939, when all of the black Methodist churches across the country were lumped into the Central Jurisdiction. While the Central Jurisdiction was officially abolished in 1968, the Jurisdictional system continues to divide the UMC between North and South primarily, and it is a vestige of a bygone era that needs to die. Unfortunately, the Regionalization plan is now headed to Annual Conferences for ratification.

Connection – “The principle, basic to the United Methodist Church, that all leaders and congregations are connected in a network of loyalties and commitments that support, yet supersede local concerns” – UMC glossary.

Black Methodists have been doing contextual ministry without regionalization since 1787, when Richard Allen and Absalom Jones formed the Free African Society after being kicked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Black Methodists ministered contextually during the Central Jurisdiction (1939-1968) and have been doing so for more than 50 years since the formation of the UMC. At Impact Church (just south of Atlanta, Georgia), we have been doing effective contextual ministry to unchurched black millennials, and now Gen Z, since January 2007 without regionalization. So, forgive me if I do not feel that the urgency to regionalize the UMC is a life-or-death matter.

Additionally, some of the reasons in support of regionalizing the UMC sound eerily similar to the rhetoric of the churches that disaffiliated under paragraph 2553independence. I find this independent spirit to be more about nationalism, in this context, rather than about connectional unity. It sounds contradictory to vote in support of a global Book of Discipline, and then Americans ask for the right to contextualize the same Book of Discipline, at the same General Conference!

There are several reasons why I am opposed to the regionalization proposals. 1) The Book of Discipline was created by Americans, who graciously allowed Central Conferences to adapt the Discipline to their own ministry contexts, to which the Judicial Council has rejected many of the adaptations that Central Conferences have proposed (i.e., Decision 313, 904). The former decision does not authorize a Central Conference or its Annual Conferences to add or subtract from the basic ministerial obligations established by an act of the General Conference, while the latter decision ruled that the actions taken by the Northern Europe Central Conference in eliminating the Norway Annual Conference board of laity were unconstitutional.  Which leads me to the question, how many paragraphs in the Discipline have been successfully adapted by the Central Conferences?

2) Adding another layer of bureaucracy in between the General Conference and the Jurisdictional Conference is not equitable. It would create four layers of governance beyond the local church in America,

  • General Conference
  • Regional Conference
  • Jurisdictional Conference
  • Annual Conference

While there will be three layers beyond the local church in Central Conferences.

  • General Conference
  • Regional Conference (Central Conference)
  • Annual Conference

3) Adding a Regional Conference without eliminating the racist Jurisdictional Conference system first is akin to the Susan B. Anthony/Frederick Douglass debate over which marginalized group should we advocate for voting rights first. I find it to be an inconsistent argument to make that the Jurisdictional Conference system is inherently racist before churches began to disaffiliate from the UMC, but now that most of the evangelicals are gone, we might get rid of the Jurisdictions after regionalizing the church, seems to be the attitude. The key tenet in Critical Race Theory is to remove racist laws from the books, and not just talk about how racist the laws are. The Jurisdictional Conference system must go. However, from what I can tell, the southern evangelicals are not the only ones who have benefitted from this racist system.

I call Regionalization a “Separate but Equal” plan. Regionalization would further segregate the UMC by assuring that American Methodists would never be in a servient position to a unified African Church, who will become to majority within the denomination. Regionalization is about money and power, according to Mainstream UMC.

Black Methodists start with tradition, and rarely do we land on liberalism or progressivism, as these are considered foreign concepts to African Americans taught to them by white people. We relish tradition. Even when black people do embrace liberalism or progressivism to some degree, as is the case of Impact Church, most of us still hold on to tradition. And the tradition that I am holding on to is connectional unity. This is why most Black churches did not disaffiliate. However, if you change the variables, you will get a different outcome.

I’m afraid we are talking past each other.

Odell Horne, Jr. has a master’s degree in African and African American Studies, is a doctoral student in Contextual Theology, and is a Lay Servant at Impact Church.

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