With no end in sight to the deadly pandemic, a number of United Methodist leaders are urging that General Conference be virtual — if it’s to be held at all next year.
Others worry such an option is impractical and possibly unjust for an international meeting that typically lasts 10 days and draws nearly 900 delegates from across four continents and 13 time zones.
The stakes are high. The coming General Conference faces multiple proposals to resolve longtime debate over homosexuality by splitting the denomination along theological lines.
The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly was set for May this year until the spread of COVID-19 caused the meeting’s Minneapolis venue to cancel. Organizers have postponed the meeting to Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021 and kept it in Minneapolis.
Even that delay might not be enough, given the disease’s current menace.
U.S. coronavirus case numbers are climbing across the country, and more than a dozen states have recently set record highs for COVID-19 hospitalizations.
“Many gatherings in the United States, including music festivals and concert series, are being postponed,” said Bishop Ken Carter, who leads the Florida Conference. “We are clearly in a third wave of the pandemic. And timetables for the vaccine and testing are still uncertain.”
Ultimately, the Commission on the General Conference is the body that determines when, where and how the lawmaking assembly takes place. The group’s next meeting is scheduled to be held online in December.
Carter — a former Council of Bishops president — is among multiple leaders encouraging the commission to consider online options.
They include Bishop Bruce Ough, who leads the Minnesota and Dakotas conferences. The conferences have spent years preparing to host the next General Conference. However, with the Minnesota Department of Health limiting gatherings to no more than 250 people, he said, “we have no choice but to be talking about this.”
United Methodist Communications, which has provided technical support for General Conference in the past, has been researching what a virtual event would entail, staff executives said. The agency has not received a request yet for assistance but is ready to be in conversation, they said.
Virtual platforms “are becoming part of our daily bread,” said Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the current Council of Bishops president and leader of the Louisiana Conference.
“With the proper preparation and training, I believe a General Conference could be held virtually,” Harvey said. “There are new technological developments every day that could make traversing the globe, languages and time zones possible.”
Bishops caution that any online meeting would need a compact agenda.
Church law requires General Conference to vote on all properly submitted petitions. Lonnie Brooks, a veteran General Conference delegate and now a reserve from Alaska, said delegates could fulfill that requirement by referring any proposals they do not address to the next legislative gathering.
Brooks also has been pushing the commission to plan for going online and talked about the idea with some fellow delegates.
“There are some folks who have reservations about the technology,” he said. “But most folks who have experience using this, especially at their annual conferences, think it’s going to work.”
Bishops preside at General Conference sessions, and many are now old hands at presiding at online meetings, including their annual conference sessions. The Council of Bishops, which includes more than 100 active and retired bishops from around the globe, also has already held an international, multi-day meeting this spring and has another planned in early November.
The East Ohio Conference’s Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, chair of the bishops’ Virtual Task Force, said an online General Conference might be feasible. However, she warned that the scope and needs of a Council of Bishops meeting pales in comparison with what goes into General Conference.
The 10-day legislative session has more in common with the United Nations General Assembly than a typical church meeting.
Multiple interpreters work with hundreds of delegates throughout the gathering to translate proceedings. During the first week of General Conference, delegates meet simultaneously in different legislative committees — 14 were planned for this gathering. The delegates then come together to vote in plenary during the second week. All votes are by secret ballot, using secure voting devices.
Even when potential church separation is not on the agenda, General Conference — the only body that can speak for the church — must make big decisions. The conference deals with ordination requirements and social teachings. It also elects members of the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, and sets the budget that supports denomination-wide ministries.
With so much at stake, Jessica Vittorio — a delegate from the North Texas Conference — would prefer to see General Conference rescheduled or held off until the next scheduled assembly in 2024.
“I appreciate the potential cost savings a virtual conference could present, and I would be excited to see the church develop means of conferencing that is more financially sustainable,” she said. “However, I have significant concerns regarding representation and accessibility.”
But for many United Methodists, further delay of the General Conference is a non-starter.
Among the separation proposals is the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, a mediated agreement that, if accepted, would allow a new, traditionalist denomination to break away from The United Methodist Church. Amid the postponement, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has continued to work on forming that new denomination.
“The WCA hopes that General Conference 2021 occurs in person in Minneapolis as scheduled,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the group’s president. “However, if an in-person gathering is not possible, the WCA believes that every alternative should be explored to enable the General Conference to conduct its business.”
Nonetheless, like Vittorio, many United Methodist delegates raised concerns that there are many equity and accessibility issues to consider, particularly in Africa, where the United Methodist presence is growing.
“Internet connectivity is an issue for us already and the issues that are discussed at the General Conference are too delicate for a virtual meeting,” said the Rev. Jerry Kulah, the head of the Liberia Conference delegation.
Kulah and other African delegates suggested the commission look at relocating to a venue outside the U.S., the country with the most deaths from the coronavirus. It should be noted that because of COVID-19, multiple countries have banned foreign visitors or require 14-day quarantines for those who do visit.
Simon Mafunda, a veteran delegate from the Zimbabwe East Conference, said connectivity and equipment might be too great a challenge to hold a virtual conference. However, he raised another concern about delegates coming to the U.S.
“I am worried about security issues following a sharp rise in killings related to racism,” he said.
Nevertheless, some African delegates said a virtual meeting might be possible provided each country’s delegates could meet in a single venue with social distancing as well as connectivity, equipment and support.
Justice Molly Hlekani Mwayera, the incoming head of the Zimbabwe East Conference’s delegation, is among those open to the possibility.
“There is need for proper management of virtual meeting numbers and mode of communication for effective and balanced participation,” she said. “There should be set-down parameters of holding the meeting.”
Adalbert Tchomba, a delegate from Kivu Conference in Congo, echoed that sentiment. He said a virtual conference is only possible if delegates have the computer kits, uninterrupted internet connection, interpreters and training to make it work.
The Sierra Leone Conference already is exploring holding its next annual meeting online because its interim Bishop Warner Brown lives in the U.S.
“I think this is about the opportunity for us to catch up with the fourth industrial revolution,” said the Rev. Edwin Momoh, the conference’s secretary.
The Rev. Ande Emmanuel, a delegate from Nigeria, said he and fellow Nigerians pray for the disease to be under control in the U.S. before General Conference.
“But if things continue the way it is with COVID-19 going higher,” he said, “I will love the General Conference to meet online.”