By Jessica Brodie
Issues from the pandemic have forced another postponement of General Conference, this time to 2024 (exact dates and location still unknown).
On March 3, the United Methodist Commission on the General Conference announced that because of COVID-related and governmental policies and constraints, the quadrennial event cannot be held in 2022 as they had hoped. Of particular concern is a massive backlog of visa applications that could prevent many delegates outside the United States from participating.
Many who had been hoping the event would be held to settle debate over same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy—and even how to leave the denomination if they so desire—are disappointed. One group has decided to launch a new denomination May 1 rather than wait until the 2024 event (see more, below).
General Conference is the highest legislative body in The United Methodist Church. It usually meets once every four years to revise church law, adopt resolutions and pass plans and budgets. Lay and clergy delegates from every conference in the UMC—including eight South Carolina laity and eight clergy—attend and vote on the matters.
Originally, General Conference 2020 was slated for May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but the pandemic prompted organizers to shift it first to 2021 and then to 2022 and now 2024.
“The visa issue is a reality that is simply outside our control as we seek to achieve a reasonable threshold of delegate presence and participation,” commission chairperson Kim Simpson said. “Ultimately our decision reflects the hope that 2024 will afford greater opportunity for global travel and a higher degree of protection for the health and safety of delegates and attendees.”
The commission said the physical attendance of as many delegates as possible at the General Conference is critically necessary. A commission-appointed technology study team reported in February 2021 that it wasn’t feasible to create a virtual alternative of General Conference that would safeguard the integrity of the voting and credentialing process, meet legal requirements and support the complexity of the legislative committees required.
The commission said postponing the 2020 General Conference to 2024 means a venue is not an issue, as they have already secured for what would have been the regularly scheduled quadrennial event. An announcement about that location will come soon.
South Carolina’s Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston emphasized that the event had been postponed, not cancelled, and encouraged South Carolina United Methodists to remain patient and continue firm engagement in mission and ministry.
“We also should remember that we are a global church, spanning four continents and scores of nations, each with its own societal and technological challenges,” Holston said. “As part of a worldwide denomination, we must see the work that we do not only from our own perspective, but also through the eyes of others. While we in the United States are fortunate for the progress that has been made in re-engaging in person after more than a year of isolation, we must acknowledge the difficult path that remains ahead in this struggle for many of our fellow United Methodists abroad.”
Secretary of the General Conference, Gary Graves, said the further postponement raises a number of questions not addressed in the Book of Discipline.
“As the postponed 2020 General Conference now enters the typical cycle of preparation for a General Conference that would have been held in 2024, we will need to look to the Judicial Council for clarity regarding which preparations and processes are based on the postponed 2020 General Conference and which would need to be enacted should this be seen as a new 2024 General Conference,” Graves said.
The postponement brings a number of questions.
Some theological conservatives have decided they are no longer waiting for the UMC’s General Conference. Instead, they plan to launch a new denomination, the Global Methodist Church, on May 1.
That new denomination, shepherded by a caucus called the Wesleyan Covenant Association, has been in planning stages for some time but was waiting until General Conference. That is when proposals for denominational separation will be considered and perhaps adopted, such as the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, which would allow congregations to leave the UMC with church property and funding.
But with that and other potential separation protocols postponed until 2024, the question becomes what UMC law allows now.
The UMC Council of Bishops is bringing questions related to such a possibility to the Judicial Council.
Judicial Council ruling requested
The UMC Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church is requesting a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, on whether an annual conference can separate from the denomination under the provision of the Book of Discipline.
The bishops are asking for an expedited ruling so that there is consistency among the annual conferences and to avoid action by individual annual conferences that may violate the Discipline.
That request has been added to the Judicial Council’s docket. The questions are as follows:
6. Must any separation of an annual conference from the UMC provide dissenting members, local churches, districts, clergy and affiliated entities such as camps, Wesley Foundations and health facilities an option to remain a part of the UMC and join another annual conference?
Pension questions also
The postponement of General Conference also has implications for Wespath, the United Methodist pension agency.
Wespath created a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions about church and conference disaffiliations, including those surrounding pension withdrawal liability payments, the Clergy Retirement Security Program and more. For example, as of press time, Wespath notes the pension withdrawal liability requirement in the Discipline applies regardless of the separation path taken by the departing church. Wespath also notes that under current plan terms, a local church that separates from the UMC may not be a plan sponsor of the Clergy Retirement Security Program and, therefore, cannot take pension responsibilities with it when separating from the UMC.
These FAQs, which are routinely updated, can be accessed at https://tinyurl.com/wespathfaq
Bishops discern ways for churches choosing to separate, seek guidance on Jurisdictional Conferences
WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Bishops of The United Methodist Church in their March 15 called meeting discerned pathways for churches choosing disaffiliation and separation.
The bishops have met two consecutive weeks to discern pathways forward in these changing times.
The bishops affirmed by an overwhelming majority that Para. 2553 in the Book of Discipline would be the primary paragraph used for disaffiliation and separation. It is understood that different contexts may require utilization of additional paragraphs in the current Discipline namely Paras. 2548.2 and 2549: and that they would employ the values and principles as outlined in Para. 2553.
It is also understood that Para. 2553 is not operative in the Central Conferences, but in matters related to disaffiliation and separation, the values and principles of 2553 would be used. Para. 2553 was added to the Discipline at the 2019 GC Special Session.
In addition, the Council of Bishops affirmed by a strong majority that they would hold to a set of values and principles in all matters of disaffiliation and separation, including mutual recognition of Christ in the other, caring for pension liability and the voting threshold, where the decision to disaffiliate from the UMC must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.
The Council of Bishops has also asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding Jurisdictional Conferences to be held to elect and assign bishops. They have tentatively set Nov. 2-5, 2022, for Jurisdictional Conferences should the Judicial Council rule in favor of holding the regional meeting. This date was previously scheduled for Jurisdictional Conferences following the General Conference.