A country with a fiercely anti-gay leader has lost a bid to host the General Conference of the United Methodist Church for 2024…what does that mean?
Holy Conferencing…but where?
There was an interesting story coming out of General Conference Commission meetings, held last week in Portland, Oregon. Other than there’s a new process on discussion of human sexuality. Other than all international delegates will get tablets and an app for translations (super helpful!).
Rather, the big news is that General Conference 2024 and 2028 will be held outside of the United States for the first time. That’s really exciting and it will do the church good to affirm that we are a global church, with global concerns lived out in regional ways.
However, left out of the UMCOM report is the discussion of how this decision came to be.
Like the Olympics jockeying to host the Games, Bishops from both countries came to offer their invitation to host the Conference. But the topic that came up in the discussion was probably unexpected. Heather Hahn, a UMNS reporter present during the conversations, reports on why Zimbabwe didn’t get first bill:
Audun Westad of Norway noted that the human-rights watchdog group Amnesty International has listed Zimbabwe among the most dangerous nations for LGBTQ individuals.
“I know you can’t guarantee our safety here in the U.S., but being in the top 10 list of dangerous places is a completely different story,” he said. “I feel we have to have some kind of official statement from the government in Zimbabwe regarding this because it is a huge problem.”
Initially, the commission considered invitations for General Conference to convene first in Zimbabwe in 2024 and then the Philippines in 2028. Ultimately, the commission reversed the years in hopes of an improving situation in the southeastern African nation.
We can call this the “church version” of the resounding outrage by the business community against the USA state of Indiana’s anti-gay laws masquerading as “religious liberty.” After folks began boycotting, pulling out their conferences, and other economic actions, Indiana kinda clarified that law.
For the UMC, by deferring an infusion of millions of dollars of travel, lodging, and tourism dollars from a fiercely anti-gay country, the hope is that more time (President Mugabe is 91) and awareness will make the country more affirming at least to the point where our LGBT delegates won’t be arrested. It’s a very low bar, but the deferral speaks volumes in ecclesial circles. However, we are planning on going to Zimbabwe in 2028. And Zimbabwe is the backup location for 2024 in case Manila, in the Philippines, cannot accommodate the Conference in time.
While the country’s sentiment is surely out of step with the good people called Methodists in Zimbabwe, it’s commendable that the Commission on General Conference was receptive to concerns about the basic safety of their LGBT delegates and the host country’s enforcement of anti-gay policies.
Not That Far Apart…
The reality is that Zimbabwe’s policies are only different from the United Methodist Church in one area:
In Zimbabwe, sexual acts between people of the same sex are criminal offenses. The country’s President Robert Mugabe, who is 91, has used violent rhetoric in speaking out against homosexuality, and the country’s gay population has gone largely underground.
The United Methodist Church teaches that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It bans clergy from performing and churches from hosting ceremonies that celebrate same-gender unions. Still, the denomination also teaches that all people are of sacred worth and urges governments not to discriminate because of sexual orientation.
In the UMC, intimate acts between partners of the same sex–when one is a clergyperson–are ecclesial offenses. Our own delegates to General Conference have used violent rhetoric against LGBT Methodists in bathrooms, and compared them to people committing beastiality or pedophilia on floor speeches. The sentiment against LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church is, at times, indistinguishable from Zimbabwe’s state policies.
While the UMC urges governments not to discriminate, it has no problem setting discriminatory obstacles in front of LGBT persons seeking ordination or marriage that straight people do not have. And some individual churches have no problem with staff running their gay children out of the church, or firing employees for being in a same-gender relationship.
Both Zimbabwe and the United Methodist Church have much to do to provide a truly safe General Conference 2028 for LGBT delegates and observers. It’s on all of us, not just one country, to be a different church in 2028.
Waiting it out…
My hope is that this deferral of Zimbabwe’s hosting of General Conference wakes us up to the fact that the Church is not too far apart from Zimbabwe or many countries (Russia, Uganda, etc) due to its polity inequality towards LGBT persons.
But just as the General Commission on General Conference is hoping time will solve the problem, the UMC knows that time is ticking away to a tipping point and that just “waiting it out” is not an answer for people for whom equality in consideration for ordination and marriage has been long denied.
May we move forward boldly so that our church is a headlight shining on a more just church and society, rather than a tail light on the wrong side of history.