Religion is a powerful catalyst for social change. Its power to unite people around a singular cause and inspire selfless action has led to great change across the world. But religion can also cause significant rigidity in community and prevent people from being open to new ideas or prevent progressive change.
Christianity in Africa has questionable heritage, and many argue it was used as a tool for indoctrination during Europe’s colonial invasion of the continent. But it was also responsible for the spread of education and contemporary healthcare in Africa and Christian organizations continue to perform these roles. But they also have become political tools for the country’s many ethnic groups, and a pressure organization with significant influence over local politics. As such many African christian communities refuse to interrogate the version of Christianity that was sold to them, even when the countries that brought the religion are taking progressive steps to evolve their doctrine and practice to reflect the world in which they live today. We have seen this played out in many scenarios, most recently with the global Anglican church, which ordained its first openly gay bishop in 2016.
It seems this schism has spread to the United Methodist Church, who has over the last 5 years become embroiled in a growing debate about the organization’s stance on LGBTQ inclusion and same-sex marriage. The western caucus of the church after much deliberation has decided to embrace progressive values and publicly accept LGBT persons into its fold, offering them the same privileges as heterosexual couples. However, ‘traditionalist’ Methodists (a term used to describe the church’s congregation in Africa and East Asia) have rejected this new position and continue to oppose LGBT rights within the church.
Undeterred by this setback, the US congregations of the United Methodist church has suggested that its African churches be allowed to separate from the parent church and form an independent denomination, free to decide its own direction and doctrine. While this suggestion will be discussed formally and either ratified or rejected during the church’s annual conference in May, there are already moves underway to create the new denomination (which will comprise of churches in the USA and in Africa) and suggested $39 million dollar payout to ensure that the new denomination is legally removed from the parent church.
What does this mean for LGBT Africans within these Methodist congregations? Perhaps a sort of asylum system that allows them claim refuge with the new progressive parent denomination. Or they will be forced to conform to the new denomination’s strict rules that punish both queer people and members and leaders who support them. Whatever the case, it sends a clear message of where African churches stand on respecting the rights and autonomy of LGBT persons.