By David F. Watson March 8, 2022
The United Methodist General Conference has been postponed until 2024.
For a brief, gleaming moment it looked as if we might be able to resolve our differences in the UMC without further hostility. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation provided a way beyond our ecclesiastical death embrace. Traditionalists, progressives, and centrists came to the table. They worked with a highly-respected, experienced professional mediator. No group came away with everything it wanted, but everyone could agree to terms that were at least acceptable. That is the nature of compromise.
The postponement of the General Conference has dealt a serious blow to the Protocol. Let us not be naive about the dynamics behind this decision. Under the terms of the Protocol, traditionalist congregations would have been allowed to leave with minimal financial penalty, and the Global Methodist Church would receive $25 million to fund its launch. Without the Protocol, the GMC gets nothing, churches will have to buy their way out of the denomination, and depending upon the disposition of one’s bishop and conference trustees, it may be very difficult and expensive to leave.
Vaccines and Visas
A letter from 170 delegates urged the postponement of the General Conference based upon concerns related to vaccines and visas and a distrust of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s efforts to make sure all delegates had access to vaccines. The letter met with success. According to a press release from the Commission on General Conference, the decision to postpone was based on “COVID-related and governmental policies/constraints.” A statement issued by the UMC Africa Initiative, however, raises serious questions about this rationale:
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 members of the about two hundred and eighty-six (286) delegates expected from the three Central Conferences of Africa to attend the 2022 General Conference. The purpose of the survey was to determine their readiness to participate in the scheduled 2022 General Conference.
The survey was centered around two major issues: the accessibility of COVID vaccines in their areas, and the possibility of applying for a US Visa. Of the thirteen episcopal areas within our three central conferences, about ninety percent of delegates have taken their COVID vaccines, and the remaining ten percent (10%) comprising of few delegates in Burundi, parts of the D. R. Congo, and Nigeria are expected to take their vaccine shots before May, 2022. We therefore want to make it unequivocally clear that majority delegates from Africa are ready to participate in the events of 2022 General Conference, and the remaining delegates should be ready shortly.
We will be greatly disappointed, and many within our UMC 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!
The statement also requests that “the Secretary of the General Conference … make invitation letters available to all delegates.” Would it not have made sense to issue such invitations well in advance in case the way opened for delegates to travel to the U.S.? Pending receipt of invitation letters, the statement is clear: “We should all be able to secure our visas far in advance of the scheduled 2022 General Conference.” The work that the WCA has done in securing visas for its May 2022 legislative assembly suggests that visas present no insurmountable obstacle.
As for the WCA’s efforts to assure that delegates had access to vaccines, the implicit accusation is that the WCA was buying votes. This accusation would be more credible had representatives of the WCA not reached out to UMC officials and progressive/centrist advocacy groups to partner with them in this effort. In fact, the WCA did reach out in this way, without success. In the absence of willing partners, the WCA did what the denomination should have. As the Commission’s own press release points out, “The Book of Discipline 2016 requires the Commission to take necessary measures to assure full participation of all General Conference delegates.” The lack of decisive action to secure vaccine access on the part of any UMC commission, board, or agency is thus all the more problematic. Charges of “colonialism” toward the WCA ring hollow in the light of such negligence.
A Virtual Conference?
Even if visas or vaccines did prohibit an in-person gathering, many have asked about a virtual or hybrid conference. According to the press release from the Commission on General Conference,
A technology study team appointed by the Commission reported in February 2021 that it wasn’t feasible to create a virtual alternative of the 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 by ¶507.11 including but not limited to interpretation in multiple languages, and meaningful participation across multiple time zones. While many churches and organizations have adapted technology for events that are based heavily on presenter/observer situations, that is not the type of gathering that embodies a General Conference. Full participation of delegates in Christian conferencing as a means of grace was not seen as possible under these circumstances.
In short, a general conference in which at least some delegates attended virtually was simply impossible. How remarkable, then, that the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was able to hold its 2021 General Conference in a hybrid format. Like the UMC, the AME Zion is a global body. There were 504 onsite delegates, 197 members and observers online, and 174 virtual delegates. The international delegates gathered in major hotels with reliable internet. Each had an IT team that coordinated with a U.S. IT team. There were hubs in Liberia, Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, and India. They used Hopin virtual platform for the business sessions, which cost around $18,000. Every delegate had an individual certificate that allowed him or her to log in securely. For voting, they used ElectionBuddy, which cost around $5,000. Again, each person had an individual certificate for secure voting. Over the course of the conference the AME Zion church saved an estimated $300,000 on hotel rooms and airline tickets.
Prior to the decision to postpone the UMC’s 2022 General Conference, Dr. Elvin Sadler, General Secretary of the AME Zion, had signaled his availability to discuss the process for holding a hybrid conference, but no representative of the Commission ever contacted him. What would be lost by at least consulting with the architect of a successful global, legislative ecclesiastical gathering, and one of similar size to the UMC’s general conference? As a friend of mine recently quipped on Twitter, we can do almost anything in the church online these days–including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper–but we can’t hold a General Conference. Let the reader understand.
The Politics of Postponement
The decision to postpone rather than cancel the General Conference may be of some significance. Postponement may mean that the delegations elected in 2019 will meet in 2024. Cancellation would mean the election of new delegations in a church in which the African representation continues to grow and U.S. representation continues to decline. It seems likely that the UMC’s Judicial Council will have to rule on this matter.
One of the key agenda items for the post-separation UMC will be the establishment of a U.S. central (or “regional”) conference, which will in many ways allow the church in the U.S. to be self-governing. If it is correct that the current delegations will remain in place for 2024, it will mean two things. First, the percentage of Africans will not grow. Second, the proportion of U.S. traditionalists will likely shrink. The departure of many U.S. traditionalists for the Global Methodist Church will require their replacement by alternates, at least some of whom will be friendlier to the cause of regional autonomy. Put simply, for those committed to establishing regional autonomy, the election of new delegates presents a strategic disadvantage.
The main problem in the UMC has never been that we disagree. The UMC was built to hold disagreement. At our foundation we established certain processes by which we could resolve disagreements and move forward with the business of the church. The problem with the UMC, and the reason separation has become inevitable, is that many of our leaders have rejected our processes of resolving disagreements. They have rejected our instruments of unity. Now once again, by again postponing the 2020 General Conference, key leaders of our church have rejected the processes by which we make crucial decisions. The governance of the UMC has failed, and the decision once again to postpone a general conference is the perfect representation of that failure.
In the days ahead, many will have to search their hearts and make difficult decisions. I understand that there are churches, laity, and clergy who for reasons of theology, conviction, and conscience will remain in the UMC. I respect this decision, though I will not do so. Were I going to stay in the UMC, however, I would be deeply concerned over the erosion of proper denominational governance. If a small group of people can subvert the work of our highest decision-making body, if bishops can violate church law with impunity, if the UMC can go eight full years without a regular general conference, if we can with a straight face argue that jurisdictional conferences should meet in the absence of a general conference, it is clear that the system of governance established in various iterations of the Discipline since 1968 is no longer functional. A system so easily and blatantly subverted cannot be trusted.
The idea that we might bless one another and part ways amicably was a lofty hope, but anyone who attended the special 2019 General Conference in St. Louis would be rightly skeptical that such a plan of cooperation and peace might prevail. We could have had peace. It was there for the taking. Instead, by postponing the General Conference and opposing the Protocol, we have chosen another path. We have chosen costly and public battles over property. We have chosen to besmirch the already tarnished image of the church. We have manifestly failed to learn from the battles of those who have gone before us in similar divisions.
So be it.
The way ahead will require resolve, wisdom, faith, and prayer. Traditionalists should hold no illusions that the necessary separation and the formation of a new denomination will be easy. We must seek the mind of Christ and to move forward in keeping with his will. Regardless of how we may feel about the postponement of the General Conference, our obligations as Christians do not change. How we behave in the months ahead will reflect upon the integrity of our collective witness. We will face temptations–to return evil for evil, to let frustration and anger rule our thoughts, to choose pride over humility and wrath over grace. In Genesis 4:7, God warns Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain did not do so. By the sanctifying grace of God, perhaps we may.
David F. Watson is Lead Editor of Firebrand. He serves as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
East Ohio WCA is not affiliated with the East Ohio UNITED METHODIST CHURCH.
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