By Thomas Lambrecht
In a letter sent this week to members of the Commission on the General Conference, the leaders of the Africa Initiative (AI) call on the Commission to hold an in-person General Conference as scheduled in August-September 2022. The conference was postponed from May 2020 until August 2021, and then again to this coming August. The General Conference meeting is essential for many critical functions of the global denomination, particularly a decision to adopt a plan of amicable separation to resolve decades of theological conflict.
Amid the uncertainty of the Covid pandemic, the possibility exists that the Commission could decide once again to postpone General Conference at its meeting this week or in March. A critical factor in that decision will be the ability of delegates from outside the U.S., and particularly from Africa, to attend and participate in the conference.
For more than a decade, the Africa Initiative has served as an “association of African leaders, both clergy and laity who are committed to fostering partnership, network and fellowship.” It meets a felt “need for a forum that would help build the capacity of African leaders toward a more functional role in global United Methodism.” Many AI leaders currently serve as delegates to General Conference.
In his letter to the Commission on behalf of AI, General Coordinator the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah reported “that the three Central Conferences of Africa are ready to participate in the 2022 General Conference through its elected delegates to this global gathering.”
Kulah noted that, “Over the past six months, leaders of the Africa Initiative within the three Central Conferences of Africa have worked assiduously to carry out research surveys among” African General Conference delegates. The survey found that “about ninety percent of delegates have taken their COVID vaccines, and the remaining ten percent … are expected to take their vaccine shots before May, 2022.”
The U.S. government has imposed a vaccination requirement for travelers from outside the country to visit the U.S. Most delegates who desired to be vaccinated in Africa have access to vaccines and have taken advantage of that access in order to be able to travel to the U.S. for General Conference. Some delegates, particularly in the Congo Central Conference, have access challenges that are being addressed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition partners (Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, the Confessing Movement, and UM Action). This effort was undertaken at the request of a Congolese bishop and other African leaders. Despite reported opposition by at least one other Congolese bishop to his delegates receiving the vaccine, all delegates who desire access to a vaccine will have that opportunity.
Kulah acknowledges that, during the height of the pandemic, “booking appointments for visa interviews at most U.S. consular sections was a huge challenge, and travel into the U.S. was highly restricted. But of recent,” Kulah continues, “that challenge has been significantly resolved. Coordinators of Africa Initiative within annual and provisional annual conferences have confirmed that visa application links are now opened at most American embassies across Africa. In fact, some delegates have begun booking their appointments for interviews. Given that we have a little more than five months to the holding of the 2022 General Conference, … we should all be able to secure our visas far in advance of the scheduled 2022 General Conference.”
For Kulah and the Africa Initiative leaders, the bottom line is this: “We will be greatly disappointed, and many within our global connection will be equally disappointed, if the Commission on General Conference or any group uses vaccine or visa challenges to African delegates as reasons to further postpone 2022 General Conference. Absolutely no one should use Africa’s perceived challenges as reasons to further delay the holding of this much anticipated 2022 General Conference. We are ready to participate!”
Kulah advances the intriguing proposal that, “If conditions in the United States render it difficult or impossible for the hosting of the General Conference, Africa will be more than happy to play host to the 2022 General Conference.” He suggests that facilities exist that could host General Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe; Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire; Nairobi, Kenya; or Johannesburg, South Africa.
As someone who has travelled to Nairobi in September 2021, I can vouch for the fact that travel to Africa is possible and relatively easy for people from the U.S. and Europe. I am sure that Africa would be delighted to provide a venue to host General Conference. The short lead-time would make such an option very difficult for the General Conference staff to pursue, but it shows the enthusiasm with which African leaders desire to contribute as equals to our global church.
Kulah’s letter concludes, “We urge the Commission on General Conference to do all within its power to facilitate the hosting of 2022 General Conference. Further delay of this global gathering would do much harm to progressives and conservatives alike, who are deeply convinced about moving forward to do ministry as they know and understand it, based on their convictions. By hosting the 2022 General Conference, we will abort further decline of the church’s membership, the pain and anguish many currently bear as a result of the two postponements we have already suffered. Furthermore, various wings of the church will be at peace with each other and will endeavor to do ministry together in ways that will be mutually benefitting, following the much-anticipated gracious separation.”
Some leaders – primarily within the U.S. church – have been reluctant about holding General Conference this year, due to the challenges for non-U.S. delegates to obtain the needed vaccination and visas. In fact, one group of General Conference delegates has proposed to the Commission that General Conference not be held until the normal scheduled dates in 2024! However, Kulah’s good news about the situation in Africa for their delegates makes such a postponement unnecessary. The vast majority of non-U.S. delegates are able and eager to participate in a 2022 General Conference. We join them in their fervent request.
The Commission on General Conference is scheduled to meet tomorrow, February 24. At that meeting, it may decide whether to hold the 2022 General Conference as scheduled. UM News Service and Good News will update you on any decision that comes out of that meeting.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo:
Photo: The Rev. Jerry Kulah, general coordinator of the Africa Initiative, speaking at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.