Council of Bishops Cancels Special General Conference
By Keith Boyette
March 26, 2021
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey presides at the 2019 General Conference. Bishop Harvey is in the Council of Bishops’ president-elect and she is one of the 16 signatories of the protocol agreement. Photo credit Council of Bishops file photo.
Less than four weeks after calling for a special General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops reversed its call, and announced on Monday, March 22, that it was now cancelling the session scheduled for May 8, 2021. The council gave no reason for canceling the special session. It had planned to convene virtually to move the adoption of twelve amendments to the UM Church’s Book of Discipline and authorize voting on those amendments by mail ballot without debate or amendment.
Some General Conference delegates and various groups raised objections to the special session citing the probable disenfranchisement of delegates from Africa and Asia due to technological limitations likely preventing their participation in the virtual session. Additionally, theologically diverse groups were advocating for adding legislative items to the agenda such as action on the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. While the Council of Bishops is empowered to call a special General Conference to deal with a specifically stated matter, the delegates can add items to the agenda if two-thirds of them vote to do so.
In canceling the May 8 special session, the council’s press release stated, “The bishops… will dedicate their regularly scheduled April  meeting to conversation based on results of listening sessions that are occurring and discern the possible need for a new timeline leading up to the General Conference 2020 [now] set for August 29 to September 6, 2022, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation remains legislation that will be acted upon at the postponed 2020 General Conference when it meets in August-September 2022, unless the COB calls a special session to act on the Protocol sooner. The Wesleyan Covenant Association continues to believe the Protocol is the best vehicle for resolving the irreconcilable conflict in the UM Church. It is joined by centrist and progressive advocacy groups like UMC Next and Reconciling Ministries Network that have recently reaffirmed their support for the adoption of the Protocol following the further postponement of the 2020 General Conference.
The WCA urges the Council of Bishops to facilitate action on the Protocol at the earliest possible time. Its adoption would allow for an amicable and orderly separation of the UM Church and bring to an end a decades long dispute that has undermined local church support for the general denomination and its leadership.
With the recent announcement of the Global Methodist Church, theologically conservative Methodists are poised to move beyond the UM Church conflict. The WCA celebrates recent announcements by three leading bishops in Africa who have signaled their intent to align with this new traditional expression of Methodism.
Bishop Samuel Quire, Jr. of Liberia, in an address to his annual conference, stated, “When division happens, the Liberia Annual Conference will look forward to partnering with other United Methodist traditionalists all around the world to create a truly global Methodist church that is rooted in Scripture, and the great teachings of the Christian faith down through the ages. We want to be part of the traditionalist Methodist Church that will make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Bishop Kasap Owan Tshibang of the Democratic Republic of Congo issued a statement declaring, “The South Congo and Zambia Annual Conferences will follow the call and teachings of the gospel as we have since the missionaries brought it. The voice to follow respects the authority of the Bible and the Methodist Book of Discipline. The Global Methodist Church meets with the spiritual and doctrinal aspirations of South Congo and Zambia; this is the way!”
And Bishop John Wesley Yohanna of Nigeria, in an interview with The Guardian, stated “he would not be part of a UMC that changes the language of the [Discipline] to accommodate gay marriage and ordination.” Yohanna said, “Our conservative Christian identity will take precedence above the name UMC.”
The postponements of an in-person General Conference are understandable in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The WCA urges constituencies across the UM Church to deepen and broaden the spirit of grace and cooperation engendered by the Protocol and to move as quickly as possible to enact and implement it.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and chairperson of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church in formation. He is an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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