Monday, November 9, 2015

The African Bishops and Human Sexuality: Strange Allies and a Simple Solution

African Bishops confer at General Conference in 2012
"I ask not only on behalf of these [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
John 17:20-23

The African Bishops of the United Methodist Church recently released a unanimous statement on Global Terrorism and Human Sexuality.

In some ways, the statement reflects the unique geopolitical and cultural context of the African bishops, but in other ways, the statement embodies a perspective common to many Christians in North America.

The odd juxtaposition of global terrorism and human sexuality is not so odd after you think about it. By sexuality they mean homosexuality. And many Christians seem to believe that those are, in fact, the two greatest threats to Christianity and Western Civilization and world peace. The crude subtext among many Christians in the United States is that the Muslims and the Gays are out to get us.

Speaking out of their own context, the Bishops call us to a global perspective and remind us that terrorism is not confined to the Middle East or to the ways in which the western world feels threatened. They point specifically to the great suffering in Africa, which is most heavily borne by poor women and children. And they conclude by drawing attention to the systemic nature of the problem, calling attention to “the stark realities of needless suffering and pain in our world as a result of current Global terrorism, unjust political systems and the manipulation of weaker nations by world powers; and to work together as a church to usher in God’s reign of peace, justice and freedom to all.”

Those who have followed this issue will not be surprised by their statement on human sexuality. They denounce what they see as “a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of such practices is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).”

They go on to say that they “are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct.”

The traditionalists within the UMC saw this as real leadership and called on the rest of the church to get in line behind the African Bishops and reaffirm our commitment to the Bible and the Book of Discipline. In his blog, Hacking Christianity, United Methodist pastor Jeremy Smith provided an excellent analysis of this call for “real leadership,” as well as some thoughts on the strength of our diversity.

In fact, almost everyone involved in this argument is committed to the Bible. We just interpret it differently. Our perspectives on the Discipline, although very different, are rooted in a common commitment to Wesleyan values and historically Methodist ideals.

But there is deep irony in the alliance that holds the traditionalist perspective in place. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows and in this case, church politics makes even stranger bedfellows. The judgmental language against LGBTQ persons in the Discipline survives because Southern traditionalists and Africans have formed an (unholy, I think) alliance.

And there is still more irony. Beyond the unseemly spectacle of the descendants of slave owners uniting with the ancestral home of those slaves to maintain the oppression of another group, there is the discomfort this places on those on the other side of the issue.   Those who favor inclusion have no problem arguing with southern traditionalist, but we are very uncomfortable disagreeing with a group that we know has itself been marginalized and oppressed.

It is not easy to be sensitive to the cultural context while still affirming universal human rights. But it is also important to remember that although the United Methodist Bishops in Africa are unanimous, they do not speak for all African Christians. Bishop Desmond Tutu, an Anglican, is just one example of an African Christian leader who has spoken out in favor of the equal treatment of LGBTQ persons in the church and in society.

Leaders in the Northeast Jurisdiction of the UMC have proposed a way out of our cultural and theological impasse that has not received as much attention as it deserves. Basically, they recommend that, like the Lutherans and the Anglicans, we allow for global differences in cultural contexts.

In summary, this proposal recommends that:

  • The General Conference be renamed The Global Connectional Conference, which will be similar to General Conference, except that it will ONLY deal with global issues and will be responsible for a Global Book of Discipline. 
  • The UMC will be organized into four continent-wide “connections”:  Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. 
  • Each of the four connections will have the option of organizing into regions. Each connection will be responsible for its own, connection-wide book of discipline, relevant to matters that are not global.
  • Annual Conferences will remain the same.  

In many ways we are already a regional church. Our differences appear most obviously in rules governing clergy compensation and salaries, which are very different in the United States than in Africa. The Northeast Jurisdiction plan would allow us to work out our differences on the issue of LGBTQ persons within our own cultural context. The practical result would be that United Methodists in the United States would vote for full inclusion and, at least in our context, the problem would be resolved.


  1. I would support the global connectional conference instead of general conference. But I will leave and I'm sure that there are other members who will leave if LGBT folk are not fully included in the UMC. I'm sure the bigots in the Southern Traditionalist would be so glad for me to leave.

  2. I find it interesting how one group bases their stance on upholding the Holy Scriptures and not falling into cultural norms.

    The other group disagrees with the Holy Scriptures, the Book of Discipline, and bases their stance on what culture thinks.

    Not meaning to be snarky, just actually curious.

    1. Thank you for your comment. And snarky is okay.

      One group relies on a narrow interpretation of a few passages in the Bible. The other group relies on a broad understanding of the arc of the biblical witness and a firm reliance on the heart of the Gospel.

      Those of us in favor of inclusion also rely on the Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience. It is the coherence of those four points of analysis that leads us to a conclusion.