May 22, 2009

The article in the April 17 United Methodist Reporter “Worldwide Decision: United Methodists Preparing to Vote on Amendments” reported the proposed changes to the global Central Conferences. The amendments under review would rename the Central Conferences as Regional Conferences and create a new structure in America.

The article reports: “The 62 U.S. annual conferences would belong to one or more “regional” conferences, while the country’s five jurisdictions would remain the same.”

The article also stated: Supporters of the amendments say the “central” label holds reminders of a racist, paternalistic past,….Central conferences, Bishop Jones noted, are no longer foreign outposts of a U.S. church, because more than a third of United Methodists now live in Africa, Europe and Asia.

But the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal,” he said, “is still the official hymnal for the Congo. That’s crazy. We ought to allow local church ministry and committee structure to be different in Africa than it is here.” He believes regional sessions could respond more easily to such needs than General Conference.

I do not agree. As a postcolonial Congolese clergywoman and biblical scholar, with pastoral experience in both the Congo and the USA, reading such assertions, I cannot help but to see a “paternalistic past” being replaced with a “paternalistic present” as expressed through these measures. I ask: Isn’t it paternalistic to rename the African continent’s central conferences while not changing the U.S country’s five jurisdictions, which are the equivalent of the African Central Conferences?

The creation of the new structure strikes me—a postcolonial subject—as nothing more than a superficial change. The power base still would remain in the hands of the United States. This new organization fundamentally continues a structure of “othering” the global areas outside of the United States. From a postcolonial perspective, this maintains the “us versus them” mentality and an aura of segregation.

Furthermore, Bishop Jones’ illustration about the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, wherein he states that it is still the official hymnal in the Congo, which is “crazy,” is highly problematic. Let me please clarify: while the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal used in the USA weighs 3 lb., the Nyimbo Za Mungu “Songs of God,” our equivalent, weighs less than a pound.

This is, moreover, not the only official hymnal in the Southern Congo. We have, for instance, Nyimbo Za Uokovu “Songs of Salvation,” Cris de Joie “Shouts of Joy,” and many other hymnals. In addition to these many hymnals, songs written in people’s hearts also exist and are used. Out of their own experience with God, God puts a song in their hearts, which they sing, and it becomes part of worship experience.

We are not, in fact, following blindly Western models. As a result, the church continues to grow by the thousands. The songs demonstrate the point that Edward Said has observed: the postcolonial live in a “contrapunctual juxtaposition.” We have multiple melodies playing simultaneously to create a new sound. The Congolese live in a state of juxtaposition with the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, not in alignment with or opposition to it—and there is nothing crazy about it. We live in juxtaposition with the West, not in alignment with or opposition to it—and there is nothing crazy about that either.

I stand in this intersection [a unique mission field] and submit my humble observation that the creation of the new structure will harm the church. Any reorganization of the church needs to reflect accurately these postcolonial realities and share power equally. Power, as rightly observed, is now consolidated in the West, this, however, is a poor attempt to share power. It is more form than substance. It does not truly allow the postcolonial voice to be heard. It continues a “paternalistic past” into the present in what should be the church of Christ. We postcolonial subjects demand the right to speak ourselves with our “own” accents.

What I say is that we ought to be asking: What is the Holy Spirit saying to the global church? What would God have us do? Only then, should we act.

In Christ’s fellowship,

J.Kabamba Kiboko, Pastor,
Bethlehem United Methodist Church
Hempstead, Texas
Mission Interpreter & Liaison,
Southern Congo Episcopal Area