Jerry P. Kulah, superintendent of the United Methodist Church’s Monrovia District in Liberia, is urging defeat of a series of constitutional amendments aimed at restructuring the denomination. If passed, the amendments likely would result in the structural segregation of United Methodists in Africa, Asia, and Europe from United Methodists in the U.S.
The amendments, proposed by the Task Force on the Global Nature of the Church (Task Force report—PDF), were approved by last year’s General Conference.
To be enacted, an amendment to the UM Constitution must be ratified by two-thirds of the aggregate “voting members” from all the Annual Conferences. Members may debate amendments, but cannot alter them.
In a video posted to YouTube on May 7, Mr. Kulah said the amendments were written without an appropriate level of consultation with African leaders or with “grassroots” Methodists from across the denomination.
“We should have been consulted on this matter,” he said.
Mr. Kulah noted that “most United Methodists in Africa are not [even] aware” of the proposed amendments, much less have an understanding of the changes that could result if the amendments are passed. For that matter, he is “not sure that [most] United Methodists in America are [aware] either.”
All 135 UM Conferences (62 Annual Conferences in the U.S. and 73 Conferences in Africa, Asia, and Europe) have begun voting on 23 amendments relating to the structure of the denomination. Those votes will take place over the next several months (schedule of Annual Conference sessions—PDF).
In the video, the Monrovia District Superintendent said he was open to a well-considered proposal for restructuring the UMC at some time in the future, but noted that “many of us who are leaders of the church in Africa do not favor passing these amendments right now.”
In a December 2008 address to a session of the West Africa Central Conference (meeting in Paynesville, Liberia), Jerry Kulah offered an extended critique of the current restructuring proposal. He expressed concern that it could “create division and segregation within the global community of believers called the United Methodists.”
Excerpts from his address are below.
At the most recent General Conference, some leaders of the United Methodist Church in America proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the UMC for the creation of “Regional Conferences.”… [Related amendments call for renaming the] Central Conferences [as] Regional Conference….
[It is said] that we need to change our name from Central Conference to Regional Conference because this name has had a racial overtone in the U.S.A. It is also alleged to have had a racial overtone outside of the U.S.A., including Africa, since it was the white missionaries who established Central Conferences here, thereby creating a paternalistic relationship between the Church in America and the Church in Africa….
While this argument, on the surface, looks appealing and unifying, there is a serious problem with it.
In the first place, the African Central Conferences are not the ones putting forth this proposal…. The African Church is not complaining for bearing the name “Central Conference.”…
Besides, ever since the Church transitioned from missionary leadership to African leadership several decades ago, the African Central Conferences became African institutions: self-governing, self-sustaining, self-theologizing, and largely self-supporting….
Our Central Conferences, just like any American Jurisdictional Conference, enjoy the same representation commensurate with its membership — have the same authority, same responsibility….
[Some have argued that ultimately there should be a Regional Conference just for America, saying,] “We need to create the possibility of a regional Conference in the U.S.A. to deal with cultural issues and other questions that do not concern the rest of the world.”…
Certainly, this proposal, as it stands, has the propensity to create division and segregation within the global community of believers called the United Methodists….
If this [idea of creating a] Regional Conference [in the U.S.A.]…is pursued and sustained, we are most likely to have a fractured church. In addition, we might not have a common [Book of] Discipline and a unified way of doing the business of the United Methodist Church. Regional Conferences doing their own things could keep going their separate ways until new denominations eventually evolve…. The pursuit of Regional Conferences is not likely to enhance our unity but to divide us….
[Another argument for restructuring the UMC] surrounds the financial sustainability of the boards and agencies of the General Church. As the financial situation currently stands, it is a fact that almost all of the money to run the agencies comes from the United States. Therefore the unpublicized but vehement argument amongst some of the leaders of our American Methodist church is: “Let the people who pay the money make the decisions about church structure.”
Based upon information we often gather from various UMC web sites, African Central Conferences are not alone in their struggle to become financially self-sustaining. The Western Jurisdiction [in the U.S.] is also being subsidized by other jurisdictions, particularly the Southeast[ern] Jurisdiction. When one therefore uses this argument against the African Church, it has the tendency to be prejudicial and racist because the same argument is not being raised [in regard] to the Western Jurisdiction.
Besides, our financial challenges are not due to rapid loss in membership, as [is the case in] the Western Jurisdiction, but [stem from] civil crises, wars, diseases, coupled with institutionalized corruption of some African leaders that affects every institution, including the Church. However, in my opinion, this argument should serve as a wake-up call to all African Central Conferences to face up to the reality of becoming more and more financially sustainable….
Leaders from the American UMC cannot plan for us in isolation and tell us what is best for us. The period of colonization and paternalism is over for the people and Church in Africa. Any decision regarding the future of the Church must involve leaders of the Church in Africa — from its conception stage to the time it becomes a finished product. In this way, such a decision would be understood, owned by the people, and sustained by them….
The…missionaries who came to us in Africa…a hundred years ago brought to us a biblical faith. Our [African] delegates going to General Conference are going there with a biblical perspective.
Because of our biblical perspective and continued growth, the liberals within the Church see their African brothers and sisters as threat to the control of the Church — just as about 140 years ago, whites Methodists in America saw black people as a threat to the control of the Church.
Certainly, this divisive spirit should not be encouraged amongst brothers and sisters who claim allegiance to Jesus Christ….
As I end this presentation, I wish to call to mind a concern raised by John Wesley five years to his demise. He had entertained the fear that, the people called Methodists would “not cease to exist” across the globe but that they would “exist as a mere sect,” having the form of godliness but having no power to live for Christ. And that would certainly be the case unless they held to the “faith, doctrine, and discipline with which they first set out.”
I am afraid that the current trend within global Methodism, wherein some are calling for segregation within the Church in the name of Regional Conferences, might well be confirming Wesley’s fear.
Let us recommit ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to an undivided commitment to the supremacy of the Holy Bible as our final authority for faith and practice. We must ensure that after our labor on earth is done, we shall leave behind positive legacies that future generations would build upon.