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Agree to disagree

Denominations wracked by doctrinal disputes attempt to unify through separation

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Agree to disagree
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INSIDE A GRACEFUL cream-and-yellow stucco building in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 150 people gathered around lace-covered tables. At the front of the room, Lloyd Nyarota pleaded with his fellow United Methodists. He even used his shirt—a bright red-and-blue button-down dotted with tiny UMC logos—to help make his case.

“We were, we are, and we will always be United Methodists,” the Zimbabwean pastor told the group.

For three days at the beginning of January, the members of the United Methodist Africa Forum hammered out resolutions and drafted plans for the upcoming UMC General Conference in Charlotte, N.C. Their mission, as Nyarota saw it: to ensure the future of the United Methodist Church.

To achieve that goal, Nyarota, who is currently based in Canada, urged delegates to support a plan to restructure the denomination along regional lines—giving churches in different parts of the world the ability to set their own doctrinal standards. He believes it’s the only way African churches can stay in the increasingly divided organization.

The push for regionalization is an effort to bind a denomination increasingly fractured by deep theological divisions over issues of gender and sexuality. And the UMC isn’t the only denomination taking such a radical approach. Anglicans maintain a tenuous unity through loose regional associations, and the Catholic Church recently made its own foray into this unity-amid-division approach. But with disagreements so deep they reach to the very foundations of church theology, such unity might be fleeting.

Two different regionalization plans are circulating through the UMC. They feature several key differences, but both would essentially restructure the denomination into seven or eight conferences—the United States, Africa, Central and Southern Europe, Congo, Germany, Northern Europe, Philippines, and West Africa. Each conference would set its own rules for clergy ordination, marriage rites, and church courts. These plans also would allow each region to revise some parts of the UMC’s Book of Discipline—the source of its doctrinal standards.

Simon Mafunda, a UMC lay leader from Zimbabwe, is one of the African delegates who planned to attend this spring’s General Conference. While regionalization might keep the denomination together, he questions what delegates would have to sacrifice in the process.

“If we do regionalization … we are actually regionalizing the Bible,” Mafunda said.

Rev. Lloyd Nyarota (second from right) pauses for a picture with delegates from Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, and Zambia during the UMAF gathering in Dar es Salaam.

Rev. Lloyd Nyarota (second from right) pauses for a picture with delegates from Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, and Zambia during the UMAF gathering in Dar es Salaam. #BeUMC promotion

THE UMC FIRST VOTED on a regionalization proposal at its 2008 General Conference. Delegates soundly rejected it. Similar plans have failed at every subsequent conference. But dynamics within the denomination have shifted so dramatically since the last meeting in 2019 that regionalization is now a strong possibility.

Over the past two years, nearly a quarter of the 30,000 UMC congregations in the United States have fled the denomination, a response to its continued shift away from Biblical orthodoxy. Most exited using an official disaffiliation plan that allowed them to retain their property. But that plan expired at the end of 2023 and applied only to American congregations.

While the UMC is shrinking in the United States, it’s growing globally. Of the 11.5 million United Methodists around the world, about 4.5 million live in the United States, where the majority of the denomination’s organizations are headquartered. But the UMC’s permissive attitude toward homosexuality and other un-Biblical practices has alienated many of its international congregations.

“The United Methodist Church in Africa is thriving because of conservative evangelism, and we will be doing so for a long time to come,” Nyarota said.

The UMC’s Book of Discipline still calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But leaders have debated that position since 1972, and the U.S. branch of the denomination doesn’t enforce it. UMC pastors often deny Scripture and push homosexual and transgender agendas from the pulpit. Two top American bishops are currently involved in openly gay relationships.

Isaac Simmons, associate pastor of Hope UMC in Bloomington, Ill., has been invited to speak at UMC conferences around the country—often as his drag queen persona, “Ms. Penny Cost.” In 2022, Simmons delivered a message titled “The Bible Is Nothing” in which he said, “God is nothing, but if she were, she would be a seamstress, of divine couture, weaving together string theory and self-portraits to form the fiercest gowns of queer existence.”

The number of delegates for this year’s conference was set years ago, before thousands of American ­conservative members disaffiliated. That means this year’s General Conference, beginning April 23, may be the last time the majority of the delegates are American—and the first and last time they hold a narrow liberal-leaning majority. Many UMC delegates plan to use this brief window of control to push for changes to the Book of Discipline that would officially sanction gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.

The United Methodist Church in Africa is thriving because of conservative evangelism, and we will be doing so for a long time to come. — Lloyd Nyarota

Yet homosexuality is illegal across most of the African continent, typically punishable by imprisonment, and considered culturally and morally repugnant. So the UMC’s powerful conservative African contingent is looking for a way forward. That has fueled the renewed push for regionalization.

Nyarota says regionalization would give each area of the UMC the legislative power it needs to adapt to its particular cultural context, without waiting years to vote on changes at the next General Conference. He believes the rest of the UMC can use that legislative power to skirt the disagreements currently tearing apart its American branch.

Other significant denominations have maintained unity through a looser version of regionalization. Anglicans, Lutherans, and Baptists, among others, all maintain “communions” composed of various regional denominations which may have ­differing customs and doctrinal standards. The Anglican Communion, for example, is a coalition that includes the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the Church of Ireland, among other regional groups.

In 2016, the communion narrowly averted a split when the Episcopal Church accepted same-sex marriages. Other Anglican denominations, led by the churches of Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, passed sanctions against the Episcopal Church, barring it from voting on issues of doctrine for three years—but allowing it to remain in the communion.

Another shock wave came after the Church of England began blessing same-sex unions in February 2023. Two months later, leaders from a variety of denominations representing 85 percent of active Anglicans released a statement known as the Kigali Commitment. It rejected the leadership of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and accused the Anglican Communion’s governance of undermining the Bible. Many of them also said they could no longer be in fellowship with the Church of England. But because no individual denomination in the Anglican Communion has the authority to remove another, the Anglicans maintain a fragile global unity.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu celebrates Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu celebrates Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Catholic Press/Alamy

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH—long known for lock-step unity imposed by the Vatican—is also taking an increasingly regional approach to doctrinal disputes. When the pope’s doctrinal office released guidelines for nonliturgical, same-sex blessings in December 2023, a coalition of African bishops quickly rejected them. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar and a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals, flew to Rome to present the group’s concerns.

Besungu collaborated with Pope Francis and the Vatican’s doctrinal office on a compromise. In a statement released Jan. 11, the pope reaffirmed unity with the African bishops—and gave his seal of approval to their flat denial of the same-sex blessings.

The statement called homosexuality an “abomination” but said the African bishops chose to reject the blessings primarily because they could cause confusion and contradicted the African cultural ethos.

Francis also cited culture for his willingness to compromise: “His Holiness Pope Francis, fiercely opposed to any form of cultural colonization in Africa, blesses the African people with all his heart and encourages them to remain faithful, as always, to the defense of Christian values.”

In an unusual move, the Vatican’s doctrinal office also issued a clarification acknowledging the blessings would be “imprudent” in countries that criminalize homosexuality and said church leaders could make adjustments based on local cultural context.

But the Vatican appears unconcerned with “cultural colonization” when dealing with American prelates. Last November, he fired Joseph Strickland, the bishop of Tyler, Texas, and revoked the salary and Vatican-subsidized apartment of 75-year-old American Cardinal Raymond Burke. Though the Vatican did not give public reasons for these decisions, both men had openly criticized Francis’ lack of clarity on issues of homosexuality.

Jerry Kulah

Jerry Kulah Handout

JERRY KULAH PASTORS a Liberian UMC church and leads the Africa Initiative advocacy group. He believes the majority of African UMC members oppose regionalization. He also raised concerns that American UMC members, who contribute 99 percent of the denomination’s ministry budget, might stop sending money to regions that maintain Biblically orthodox policies.

“They will determine where [the money] goes and where it does not go, depending upon who agrees with their philosophy and their practices,” Kulah said.

According to Tom Lambrecht, vice president of the conservative UMC group Good News, about half of UMC members in the Philippines and Europe oppose regionalization as well.

They will determine where [the money] goes and where it does not go, depending upon who agrees with their philosophy and their practices.— Jerry Kulah

Nyarota acknowledged regionalization remains controversial and noted that several people he knows have even been jailed on charges of promoting homosexuality because of their support for regionalization. But he believes that the older of the two regionalization plans, the Christmas Covenant, has garnered enough grassroots support to pass if brought up at the General Conference.

Even if it does, Lambrecht believes more disaffiliation is on the horizon. “Being part of a denomination that affirms homosexuality would be a very bad thing for the United Methodist Church in Africa,” he said. “But they can’t prevent the U.S. from doing that under regionalization.”

Nyarota thinks African Methodists are still committed to the denomination, come what may. But he forecasts tense negotiations at the upcoming General Conference that could end in a stalemate: “We will always be at the table and say let’s talk. But if they take the attitude of saying, ‘My way or the highway,’ they are jeopardizing a lot of things … and then we would collide.”

Elizabeth Russell

Elizabeth is a reporter and editorial assistant at WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College.


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