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Commentary: Sexuality debate overshadows real issues in Africa

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has named the Commission on a Way Forward, and Africa got a fair share of the 32 seats. Two African bishops will serve and another will act as one of three moderators. There also are lay people and clergy from across Africa on the commission.

Photo of the Rev. Lloyd T. Nyarota by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.

Photo of the Rev. Lloyd T. Nyarota by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service.

This is a good thing. However, the interesting part is that this commission is going to discuss a way forward for The United Methodist Church primarily on the issue of homosexuality and how we can try to keep our connectional unity.

I have attended two General Conferences as a consultant, which means I have spent more of my time in the halls and corridors with lobbyists. Both times, I was roped into being a voice from Africa at the table, so that I can speak on issues affecting the African churches.

I have always felt humbled at being asked to be that voice because I am one of the few United Methodist clergy from Africa who has visited every central conference and almost all of the episcopal areas in Africa. I also have conversed with my friends from across the continent and with delegates to the General Conference.

I have noted something interesting: Both the conservatives and the progressives have realized that African numbers are growing by the day and each group is desperate for this vote in hopes of changing things in whichever direction they want the church to go.

Africa is now the deal breaker at General Conferences.

So far, it is the conservatives who have managed to drag my brothers and sisters by the collar to vote with them. These “partnerships” have been called coalitions. Really? In a coalition, there are equal partners and there is mutual respect and understanding. I don’t see this in the Africa-USA conservatives’ coalition. My observation is that the relationship is like that of a horse and rider, which is more colonial.

The church in Africa is not divided on the sexuality issue. Africans generally agree with current church law that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

But Africans suffer so many other exclusions and divisions in our churches, such as tribalism, regionalism, and polygamy and, at times, nepotism. These are issues in which we really want to see our coalition partners’ support with the same energy and enthusiasm that they want us to show and put forth on the sexuality issue. 

At General Conference 2016, it was the conservatives who wanted to cut money from the World Service Fund, even though that fund is the one that provides the most support for ministries in Africa and Asia. And some of those ministries address poverty, which is one of the biggest issues facing African churches.

Meanwhile, those of us from sub-Saharan Africa have to summon a lot of energy to talk about sex in public. It’s taboo to talk about how people have sex and with whom. But we have been forced to talk about these issues and, worse still, talk about them in the church with our bishops presiding.

We feel that U.S delegates have no respect for our bishops. We were shocked at the General Conference 2016 when someone lashed out at our African bishops without a clue of what our bishops go through to provide leadership on the continent. One of the bishops from Africa was in the hospital because of malaria contracted while he was traveling the jungles to provide leadership to the church.

Africans are raised to respect our elders and leaders and it appears the U.S. culture has lost that.

Our worlds are different and we are likely to have different pressing issues and different sets of values.

Polygamy is one of the big issues facing Africa, and it’s often confusing to pastors in the local churches. Children from polygamous marriages sometimes cannot be baptized. Women from polygamous marriages are sometimes denied acceptance into women’s fellowships (organizations equivalent to United Methodist Women) because of the stigma associated with polygamy within the church.

Polygamy is a long time cultural phenomenon and missionaries created a legacy of stigma around this issue that is difficult for The United Methodist Church in Africa, especially since some African churches promote polygamy. This is an issue that we will be discussing for generations to come.

Divorce is another area where we see differences. We notice that with many of our counterparts from the west, when there is a challenge in their marriages, they simply divorce. In our culture, divorce is not taken lightly.

I remember the first time my name was presented to the official board as a candidate for ministry. I did not pass because I am a child from a broken family. My divorced mother remarried and that left people with reservations about whether I could be a mufundisi (pastor).

It took one courageous woman to challenge the official board on the third seating and reason prevailed. I believe I have served my church with grace and provided leadership across the connection.

How many people in Africa from either divorced families or polygamous families have been excluded from our churches or from leadership in the church?

I can bet that if one visits every United Methodist district in sub-Saharan Africa, you will get as many positions on polygamy as there are districts. There is no consensus.

General Conferences have never attempted to take an inclusive position on this matter. Africa has been made to believe that homosexuality is more important than polygamy issues.

I don’t think there is any conference in Africa that has faced a challenge of an LGBTQ person seeking confirmation or ordination, but we have always dealt with issues of polygamy at all levels of the church.

In Africa, ministers are likely to face charges if they are found smoking or drinking alcohol— at least this is true in my conference. This is not an issue in the United States, where conservatives or progressives might offer you alcohol if you have dinner at their home.

There are other justice issues like rape and the stigma associated with it, human rights abuses and issues like justice, democracy and governance, poverty, child labor and colonialism in Palestine, which all need attention and are more important to Africans.

It’s time our conservative coalition partners paid attention to the real justice issues in Africa.

Nyarota is a United Methodist elder from Zimbabwe who is now serving a two-point United Church of Canada charge in the province of Alberta. He has served as a consultant for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.