Virus bedevils General Conference planning

Custodian James Jimmerson disinfects pews to prevent any possible spread of the coronavirus at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday, May 10, 2020, following online worship, which is recorded in the sanctuary. As churches consider returning to in-person worship, cleaning measures are one of many factors leaders will need to consider. “I believe my job, my part in this, is to make sure people are safe in here,” Jimmerson said. (Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News)

Whether the General Conference can go forward next year as scheduled remains a big question mark.

With the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus surging around the globe, some governments are reinstating lockdowns, and many travel restrictions to the U.S. remain in place. Vaccination efforts also face plenty of obstacles.

However, organizers of The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly continue to move forward with plans.

The General Council on Finance and Administration board heard an update at its Aug. 20 online meeting about the assembly now scheduled about a year from now.

Sara Hotchkiss, General Conference business manager, told the board in a report that staff members continue to plan logistics to hold the event Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.

The business office staff “understands the importance of meeting in 2022 to the denomination,” Hotchkiss said.

After decades of intensifying debate over the status of LGBTQ people in the church, the coming General Conference faces multiple proposals to divide the denomination along theological lines. All were drafted before COVID-19 became a household word.

The most endorsed of these proposals is the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. If adopted, the protocol would allow traditionalist churches and conferences (those that support restrictions on gay marriage and ordination) to leave with church property and $25 million. The proposal also sets aside $2 million for other groups of churches that might leave.

All seemed set for delegates to take up the protocol at the coming General Conference, originally set for May 2020. But then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel and shuttered meeting venues.

Closures at the Minnesota Convention Center initially forced the Commission on the General Conference to postpone the big meeting to late August this year.

In the meantime, the commission named a technology team to investigate virtual meeting options. However, the team’s report identified several challenges to such a conference, including a 16-hour time difference among delegates, unequal internet availability and the difficulty in safeguarding voting.

The continuing COVID-19 menace led the commission to postpone a second time until 2022.

The Council of Bishops initially planned to call a special virtual General Conference on May 8 this year to deal with administrative matters, not the protocol. However, the bishops ended up dealing with many of the same hurdles the commission faced in considering a virtual General Conference, and the bishops ended up canceling.

In the meantime, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (a traditionalist group) is moving forward with plans to form a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church. Congregations on both sides of the theological spectrum also have disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church.

The General Conference commission has not met since February, when it postponed the big meeting a second time. Nevertheless, the work is ongoing.

“We continue to monitor the COVID numbers as well as vaccines in the areas of the world our delegates live,” Hotchkiss told United Methodist News in an email after the meeting.

“We are also monitoring the U.S. embassy availabilities for visa appointments.”

The coming General Conference has 862 voting delegates, including: 55.9% come from the U.S., 32% from Africa, six percent from the Philippines, 4.6% from Europe and the remainder from concordat churches that have close ties to The United Methodist Church.

At present, the U.S. is still suspending most travel from 33 countries including much of Europe, the United Kingdom and South Africa—which all send voting delegates to General Conference.

Per-Endre Bjørnevik, a GCFA board member from Norway, told the board that those current travel restrictions give him pause. He is chair of the board’s Connectional Outreach Committee that works with the General Conference staff.

“I don’t know if it would be possible for Europeans to meet at General Conference face to face,” Bjørnevik told the board. “That remains to be seen.”

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