Rhodesian Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa has asked for a sabbatical leave from his post as bishop of the Methodist Church in that country and has proposed that the White American bishop whom he succeeded 11 years ago as leader of the church return to take his place.
Since the Rhodesian church is still a part of the United Methodist Church in this country, Muzorewa's request was considered by the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, meeting in Indianapolis earlier this week. Action on the unusual request could not be completed because it had not yet been cleared with the unit of the United Methodist Church in Africa, as required by the church's constitution, a spokesman said.
Bishop Ralph Alton of Indianapolis said after the council adjourned that efforts are being made to contact officials of the African unit by telephone to secure the proper clearances. When that is completed, he said officers of the Council of Bishops here will confer on the request.
"I think they will grant it [the request for a leave]," Alton said. He based his prediction on the tone of the discussion earlier this week, he said.
Some church leaders here have grown increasingly nervous about Muzorewa's twin roles as both bishop and political head of the country. Since his deep involvement nearly eight years ago as head of the African National Council, the bishop's time and energies have been increasingly absorbed with political affairs, leaving little time for church matters.
Church visitors to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia report that the church has suffered severely during the years in which black Africans have tried to wrest control of their country from the white dominated regime.
Even greater concern has been expressed by church leaders over the possible threat to the freedom of the pulpit in the country. They point out that ministers might well feel reluctant to criticize policies and actions of the government which is headed by the same man who has the ultimate authority over their church careers. In southern Africa generally, churches have been active in African freedom struggles.
In an address to Missouri Area United Methodist pastors last week, Bishop Ralph Dodge said that in his opinion, Muzorewa "might have gone down [in history] as a greater person if he had stepped down as a political figure after he had achieved certain goals."
Dodge, who was expelled from Rhodesia in 1964 for his ardent championing of the rights of black Africans, added that while Muzorewa has done a good job, "presently, his position as prime minister makes it difficult for the church there."
Muzorewa's proposal that the white American bishop, Dodge, take his place in the Rhodesian church has surprised church leaders here. For more than a quarter of a century, it has been all but an article of faith in third world countries that white Western leadership in missionary-founded churches be replaced with indigenous church leaders.
Dodge, who was highly regarded by the Rhodesian church for his opposition to racist practices, was expelled in 1964. Muzorewa, who was educated in this country, was elected to succeed him four years later.
Bishop Alton said the Council of Bishops did not consider the Muzorewa proposal that Dodge take his place, because that request "would have to come in consultation with the central conference involved" - in this case, the other African bishops. CAPTION: Picture, The Jesus Christ Express Crusade holds evening revival services on a vacant lot at 14th and T streets NW. In the pulpit is the Rev. Lee Calhoun. By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post