By Thomas Lambrecht –
On February 25, the Commission on the General Conference announced that the 2020 General Conference – postponed once until August 29, 2021 – has now been postponed again until August 29, 2022. On the same day, the Council of Bishops announced it is calling a special session of the General Conference to meet virtually on May 8, 2021, to address technical issues that would allow the church to continue operating until the full General Conference can meet.
Notably, the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is not currently on the agenda for the special virtual General Conference.
No Regular General Conference. The Commission made the expected decision that an in-person General Conference could not take place in 2021, due to the travel restrictions in place now and expected to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Travel by delegates from outside the U.S. – fully 40 percent – to attend General Conference will likely still be impossible throughout 2021.
A Technology Study Team met during January to consider the possibility of a virtual General Conference. After extensive research and conversations with representatives of the church outside the U.S., the team concluded that a virtual General Conference, even with a limited agenda, would not be possible because of issues related to time zones, reliable electricity and Internet service, travel restrictions, and the integrity of the voting process.
As one who promoted the viability of a virtual General Conference, reading the report of the Technology Study Team convinced me that it is not feasible with current technology during a pandemic. This decision is disappointing, and the situation is frustrating, but it was the right call.
The Special Session. The Council of Bishops proposes that the special session gather on May 8 for an extremely limited agenda. The first task would be to secure a quorum, in order for the special session to take action. In light of the above considerations, it is unlikely that more than a scattered few delegates from Africa or the Philippines could attend. It must be acknowledged that, despite the high value on universal participation by all delegates, this special session will mainly include U.S. and European delegates who have access to Internet technology. But this situation is unavoidable in trying to get some of the church’s administrative processes unstuck.
With the knowledge that many delegates could not participate in a deliberative General Conference, the Council of Bishops has limited the proposed agenda to twelve administrative items that it considers non-controversial. The virtual General Conference will also act to allow the voting to be done by paper ballots that would be compiled by mail and the results announced on July 13, 2021. The paper ballots would not allow any amendments to the above legislation. Delegates would simply vote yes or no. Although not all delegates could participate in the virtual General Conference, all 862 delegates could cast paper ballots on the proposed legislation.
What about the Protocol? Although the proposed agenda for the virtual special session of General Conference does not include the Protocol, the decision about separation requires urgent resolution. Many of the other decisions, such as the budget and the number of bishops to elect, depend upon how many churches and annual conferences will remain in the UM Church after separation. It would be better to make the decision regarding separation before needing to make all these other decisions. It is in no one’s best interest to prolong this decision. Deciding now would enable the UM Church and the new traditionalist denomination to begin moving ahead in ministry as we come out of the pandemic. Many are ready to act, and deciding now would open the door for churches that are ready to go in a new direction.
It is in the best interest of centrists and progressives that General Conference make a decision now regarding the Protocol. Once traditionalists start moving to a new denomination, it would allow centrists and progressives free rein to change the church’s position on marriage, sexual ethics, and other isssues at the 2022 General Conference.
The need to offer amendments to the Protocol is not essential. The mediation team negotiated the major terms of the Protocol based on compromise and give-and-take. Changing any of those major terms could jeopardize the carefully balanced agreement and throw the adoption of the Protocol into question. It would be better to adopt the Protocol as negotiated, with the implementation dates extended by one year, which would be possible under the plan of the special virtual session. The Council of Bishops could amend the call for the special session to include the Protocol. If not, the delegates – with a two-thirds vote – could add the Protocol to the agenda of items to be dealt with by the special session.
Hope for the Future. Meanwhile, the Protocol mediation team needs to provide leadership in continuing its support and promotion of the Protocol. The Reconciling Ministries Network and the Western Jurisdiction and its progressive bishops have recently reiterated their support for the Protocol, as has a broad group of traditionalists. With support across the spectrum, including from bishops, the Protocol can move forward as a positive way to amicably resolve the decades-long conflict in the UM Church. Freed from conflict, both groups could wholeheartedly pursue ministry according to their mission and convictions.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.