United Methodist politics erupted in a public confrontation this week as three international bishops and a dozen other church leaders denounced a traditionalist group’s offer to provide coronavirus vaccinations to General Conference delegates from countries with limited access to vaccines.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an ad hoc organization of traditionalist United Methodists seeking to create a new denomination, announced Jan. 7 that it had raised $135,000 to provide coronavirus vaccines to delegates in countries where access to vaccines is limited. Their effort is primarily aimed at African countries where the WCA enjoys strong support from the United Methodist Church for its proposal to create a new conservative denomination which it calls the World Methodist Church.

In response, a group of church leaders from outside the United States, primarily from Africa and the Philippines, issued a rebuttal on January 14 in an exclusive article for United Methodist Overview, an independent online newspaper. Less than a week later, three bishops representing the Africa, Europe and Philippines regions of the UMC issued a rare public denunciation of the AOC plan. The bishops were soon joined by a chorus of other UMC leaders, according to a report by UM News’ Heather Hahn.

Four objections

Albert Otshudi Longé

The main authors of Overview article—Albert Otshudi Longe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lloyd T. Nyarota of Zimbabwe, and Kennedy Mwita of Kenya—explained why they believe the WCA offer would actually harm the delegates and countries in question.

First, they wrote, “Is WCA support for vaccination intended to protect delegates or to meet visa requirements for travel to the United States? If it is to protect the delegates, what about a possible contamination of the family and the neighbors? As delegates have to travel to vaccination sites, some will have to take flights and spend almost a month in hotels to get the two doses. So there is increased exposure, and in countries where access to quality health care is limited, it is a significant risk to take.

Lloyd Nyarota

Second, the authors said, misinformation casts a cloud over the proposal. “Given the widespread myths around COVID-19 and vaccines that have led to vaccine resistance, funding to vaccinate certain groups of people will be subject to misinterpretations as to the purpose of vaccines. People are forced to question the motivation to fund a vaccination campaign for certain people and the responsibilities that come with it. … There is already speculation as to whether the real focus of the WCA initiative is public health or church politics.

Third, the authors questioned the ethics of only vaccinating General Conference delegates when there is a serious need to address the inequity in access to health care around the world, particularly with regard to relates to coronavirus vaccinations. According to the World Health Organization, only around 9% of Africans had been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of December 31, 2021. storage issues all played a role,” the BBC reported.

Kennedy Mwita

Finally, the authors called the WCA’s strategy racist and neocolonial: “A large majority of our central conference delegates are people of color from countries that continue to experience the evils of colonialism,” the authors said. “Subjecting them to the risks listed above sends the message that their lives are being sacrificed in order to satisfy the desire of some to convene the General Conference despite obvious public health risks.”

Racism and colonialism?

Echoing allegations of racism and colonialism in a later statement, United Methodist Bishops Harald Rückert of Germany, Eben Nhiwatiwa of Zimbabwe, and Rodolfo (Rudy) Juan of the Philippines chastised the WCA for proposing selective vaccination in opposition to the UMC’s campaign on increasing access to vaccines and medical care called ‘Love Beyond Borders’. So far, United Methodists have donated $240,000 to the fund, which supports UNICEF in the collection and distribution of coronavirus vaccines in low-income countries.

“Providing vaccines to General Conference delegates or covering travel expenses for delegates to places where they can be vaccinated is not an expression of vaccine equity,” the bishops wrote. “On the contrary, it appears as an attempt to benefit those who have been given a particular responsibility and whom the giver wishes to fulfill a certain purpose.”

“It comes across as an attempt to benefit those who have been given a particular responsibility and whom the giver wishes to fulfill a certain purpose.”

Juan told UM News that Filipino United Methodists “received the statement from the bishops with joy. They are grateful to the leadership of the central conference for courageously taking a collective stand against the “colonial” intervention of the WCA. Some African delegates told UM News their real need was not for vaccines but for coronavirus test kits to meet travel and visa requirements to enter the United States.

A defense of good intentions

Wesleyan Covenant Association President Keith Boyette told UM News that his group’s intention is to ensure that General Conference can take place this year after being postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic. . The General Conference is scheduled for Aug. 29-Sept. 6 in Minneapolis, which means international delegates must meet U.S. entry requirements for coronavirus vaccinations and negative COVID-19 tests. General Conference organizers told UM News they have considered making vaccinations easier for all delegates, but so far have found “logistical, ethical, legal, medical and financial complexities that seem insurmountable.” .

Keith Boyette

One of the items on the agenda for the next General Conference is a plan to split the UMC called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation”, negotiated independently by various groups, including the WCA in 2019. If passed, the protocol as it is known would provide $25 million in start-up funds over four years to a “traditionalist” denomination and an additional $2 million for other “expressions” of Methodism. The WCA considers itself the recipient of the designated portion for a traditionalist church, although the Protocol does not specify the WCA as the recipient and the details of such separation would have to be worked out by General Conference delegates.

Not a new conflict

This is not the first time that traditionalist United Methodist tactics have been all the rage. Some of the strong reaction to the vaccine offer can be traced to past experiences with the WCA and other conservative caucuses.

For example, on December 28, 2021, Hacking Christianity blogger Jeremy Smith reported a discrepancy between a recent comment by Thomas Lambrecht, vice-chairman of the conservative Good News caucus, and Lambrecht’s 2004 strategy for the organization.

Jeremy Smith

Smith posted a screenshot of a November 3, 2021 tweet by Good News Magazine of a quote from Lambrecht’s column: Emerge under Protocol, as well as the post-separation United Methodist Church, to be as strong and dynamic as possible, set up to succeed, rather than fail.

Calling Lambrecht’s quote “the biggest lie the WCA has ever told”, Smith wrote: “The above quote from the Reverend Thomas Lambrecht of the Good News movement – that traditionalists want the UMC to be ‘put in place to succeed, rather than fail” – stands in stark contrast to the 2004 strategy document that Reverend Lambrecht himself authored and which details why traditionalists should not leave behind a “strong” UMC. also provided the basis for their successful strategy in the 2019 General Conference, which backfired dramatically and would have run out of options for them had the coronavirus not occurred.

In addition, over the past two decades, conservative caucuses have held “orientation sessions” for international delegates in private locations before General Conference. Participants in one such session held before the 2019 Special General Conference, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals at home, said they received instructions not only on the use of electronic voting devices , but also specifically on how to vote on legislation.

At the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, a coalition including conservative caucuses Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy purchased cellphones for international delegates. The coalition claimed the phones were for international delegates to “call home,” but furious US and European delegates claimed the phones were meant to communicate instructions on how to vote on legislation. In response, delegates at the Fort Worth conclave approved a ban on the use of “electronic devices” inside the conference voting bar.

General Conference organizers must decide by mid-March whether to go ahead with this year’s legislature, based on the criteria it adopted last fall. Thanks to this latest episode, no one can guess what will happen until then.

Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered The United Methodist Church worldwide at all levels for more than 30 years. She is editor-in-chief of United Methodist Overviewan online journal she founded in 2011.

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