Dispute over LGBTQ issues splits church into two factions

Saturday, July 06, 2024 - Differences over LGBTQ issues have caused a significant split within the Shona United Methodist Church (UMC) in South Africa, resulting in two distinct factions.

The Johannesburg Shona UMC was founded around 2008 by Zimbabwean professionals who moved to South Africa for work. Over the years, it has grown to over 1,000 members in Gauteng province alone, with additional congregations in Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, and Limpopo. The Shona assembly has also acquired properties valued at over R10 million. However, the recent split raises questions about the future of these assets, as many congregants have departed.

The division has led to the creation of two groups: the long-established Johannesburg United Methodist Church (JNUMC) and the newly-formed Johannesburg North Methodist Church (JNMC). This schism mirrors similar issues within the UMC in Zimbabwe.

Historically, the UMC has opposed the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy for over a century. This stance shifted at the church’s General Conference (GC) in Charlotte, North Carolina, in May this year, where it was decided that gay and lesbian individuals could be ordained as bishops or pastors, and same-sex marriages could be solemnized within the UMC in the United States. This decision prompted a mass exodus of conservatives globally who view this as unacceptable.

At the GC, conservative African delegates strongly resisted the changes, leading to a proposal for “regionalization,” allowing each continent to set its own worship rules to suit cultural contexts. This proposal has been met with resistance from factions that argue the UMC is a "connectional church" and remains interconnected globally, despite regional differences.

Following the GC resolution, a meeting was held at the main church in Randburg, where the majority voted to sever ties with the main UMC. The meeting was contentious, leading to a subsequent session with the Bishop of the SA Episcopal Area, Joaquina Filipe Nanhala. During this meeting, members of the breakaway faction accused church leaders of misleading congregants to protect their own interests, such as salaries and perks.

“There has been deceit, as some pastors and bishops prioritize their interests over spiritual principles,” said a member of the breakaway faction. “We cannot remain in a church that endorses actions contrary to the Bible. This is reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction.”

However, others believe the response has been overly emotional and hasty. “People haven’t taken the time to understand the new order. God remains constant regardless of American decisions. We will maintain our African way of worship and won’t compromise on our stance against gay bishops and pastors,” said a JNUMC member. “Politics has influenced some members to exploit this issue for personal agendas.”

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