By Thomas Lambrecht –
Good News joins the many United Methodists who are deeply disappointed in the Commission on the General Conference’s decision to postpone/cancel the 2020 General Conference and instead hold the General Conference in May 2024. The reason given was “COVID-related and governmental policies/constraints,” relating to “the wait time for visas … in some countries.” That decision was announced in a press release yesterday.
We are grateful a decision has been made in order to end the uncertainty, but we profoundly disagree with that decision.
As reported by the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, in a podcast, “the vote in the COGC was deeply divided and those who identified as theological conservatives and those who live outside the United States overwhelmingly voted in favor of General Conference being held as scheduled in 2022.” If that is the case, it seems that once again, some American members disregarded the input of the very people they claim to be trying to protect – international delegates. If the non-U.S. members of the Commission overwhelmingly believe that General Conference should go forward, and that non-U.S. delegates could safely and effectively participate, why would the institutionalist majority on the Commission block the conference from being held?
It appears as if a majority on the Commission focused more on what the church cannot do than on what the church can do. Good News and our Renewal and Reform partners (Wesleyan Covenant Association, Confessing Movement, and UM Action), working with the Africa Initiative, did everything possible to assure that a safe and fair General Conference could take place. We enabled non-U.S. delegates to receive freely accessible Covid vaccines so they could gain entry into the U.S. for the conference. We were working with contacts in Congress and the State Department to assure that non-U.S. delegates could get interviews to obtain their visas for travel. We were willing to provide Covid testing for non-U.S. delegates, if needed, so those delegates could get on an airplane to come to the U.S.
To concerned observers, it appeared as though the Commission and its staff did very little to ensure that non-U.S. delegates could participate. Boyette reports in the same podcast that cancellation of General Conference in Minneapolis could cost as much as $3 million. Yet the Commission was unwilling to spend money to ensure delegates could obtain vaccines, nor did the Commission appear to be willing to take extraordinary steps to assist delegates to obtain visas. Then, the Commission turned around and used the perceived inability of non-U.S. delegates to participate as the reason for cancelling the conference. (It is interesting to note that only two days before their meeting the Commission emailed all General Conference delegates inquiring about their vaccination status. This after Commission leaders publicly criticized efforts to vaccinate non-U.S. delegates. Such behavior gives the appearance of attempts to cover for their own inaction, rather than legitimately gain information, especially since an email with a 24-hour deadline for response meant that many African and Filipino delegates would not be able to respond to the email survey.)
The health and safety of delegates and their ability to participate is of high importance. However, no activity is completely risk-free. According to the science, vaccination provides substantial protection against severe illness and death. Delegates with underlying health conditions and feeling unsafe to travel could excuse themselves in favor of an alternate. There are delegates at every General Conference who are unable to obtain visas to attend. Alternates can often obtain those visas and participate in their place. In 2019, there were more than 30 empty seats due to visa issues. This is not a new problem, and workarounds have been successful in the past.
The inability of United Methodist leaders to do what it takes to hold a General Conference demonstrates once again the dysfunction and incompetence of the church’s governing structure. This is especially true when tens of thousands of people are gathering across the country for sporting events, concerts, international trade shows, international conventions (including United Methodist Women), and even the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo!
Many observers are left wondering if the motivation for continuing to resist holding General Conference was to defeat the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and make separation more difficult and costly for churches. The information cited above about the Commission’s inaction, as well as our previous experience with duplicitous institutional leaders, gives us reason to believe that elements of this decision were made in bad faith. Those who control the levers of church power do not represent the majority of the church, yet they continue to believe they know best how the church ought to function, and they do not hesitate to impose their plans onto the church.
The United Methodist Church has once again shown itself to be no longer capable of governing itself. For example, bishops and annual conferences are able to disregard the actions of General Conference and the decisions of Judicial Council. Furthermore, bishops are unaccountable to the larger church. Again, we have been repeatedly told that jurisdictional and central conferences could not meet to elect new bishops and advance the work of the church through the general agencies. Now, the one body authorized to speak for the whole church and potentially resolve the crisis of division is not permitted to meet.
Therefore, Good News wholeheartedly supports the launching of the Global Methodist Church, effective May 1, 2022, as announced by the Transitional Leadership Council. We believe now is the time for annual conferences and local churches to move forward into a new reality, free of the burdens of conflict and liberated to focus solely on the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through the Holy Spirit.
With the launch of the GM Church, the way is now open for local churches and annual conferences to align with the GM Church via ¶ 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline, allowing transfer into “another evangelical denomination,” rather than the ¶ 2553 Disaffiliation process. The parameters of such transfer are determined by each annual conference. Bishops and annual conferences can implement the principles of the Protocol on an individual basis. ¶ 2548.2 does not require payment of extra apportionments or the value of church property in order to transfer with buildings and assets. It allows pension liabilities to be transferred to the local church or to the other evangelical denomination. It allows local churches to choose whether their vote to transfer to the new denomination requires a simple majority or two-thirds vote. All that is required is the approval of the bishop, cabinet, district board of building and location, and the annual conference.
We are appealing to bishops and cabinets of good will to work cooperatively with local churches to allow for a peaceful and reasonable transfer to the Global Methodist Church, based on the principles of the Protocol.
Bishops and annual conferences have a choice. They can respond to this difficult time with a heart of peace (which they have repeatedly extolled) and allow for an amicable separation of congregations that desire to transfer by following as much as possible the principles of the Protocol. Or they can take a punitive approach and demand heavy payments from churches seeking to transfer. A vindictive spirit does not serve the church or its witness for Jesus Christ well. We had hoped to demonstrate to the world that it is possible to resolve deeply felt differences in a gracious and amicable way. Though continued delay calls the eventual passage of the Protocol into doubt, we call upon bishops and annual conferences to adopt a gracious attitude that can pave the way for future reconciliation, rather than seeking to extract heavy penalties or coerce churches into remaining United Methodist.
Many churches will move forward immediately to withdraw from the UM Church and align with the Global Methodist Church. Others will explore their options and educate their members before making a decision. Many other churches will feel trapped in a hostile annual conference that refuses gracious departure. Many will find The United Methodist Church no longer deserving of financial support, while others will resort to the necessity of filing lawsuits to challenge the Trust Clause. All of this rancor could have been avoided, had our leaders worked to support an amicable solution that helped the church move forward in a healthy way. Instead, they chose to perpetuate conflict.
We foresee different waves of churches joining the Global Methodist Church, as conditions change and local churches and annual conferences make decisions at different times. Good News will support churches seeking to realign with the GM Church, as well as traditionalist churches that remain in The UM Church. In both denominations, we will continue to advocate for Scriptural Christianity, as we have for 55 years.
While the pathway before us is not the one we would have chosen, it is the pathway we have been given. And we know that the Lord is with us on this journey into a new, more faithful future. With his guidance, and empowered by his Spirit, we will walk this pathway together with you, seeking always to become the church that God intends us to be.
Thomas Lambrect is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: General Conference 2012 by Steve Beard.