As expected, the General Commission on General Conference deliberated for months upon months, but in the end, COVID-19 vaccine availability, unattainable visas, and the lack of infrastructure for virtual or distributed conferences have postponed the global gathering of United Methodists until sometime in 2024. This means the denomination will be unable to gather and take up any division or LGBTQ+ equality legislation for another two years.
Let’s see what the particulars mean.
So, what actually happened?
As the pandemic continues and the wait time for visas stretches to over two years in some countries, the Commission on the General Conference announced today that the 2020 General Conference cannot be held in 2022 due to COVID-related and governmental policies/constraints.General Commission on the General Conference, March 3rd 2022
What happened is that the 2020 General Conference has been postponed to 2024. This is significant language in that the General Commission on General Conference did not cancel the conference, they postponed it. That means that everyone who was elected in 2020 is on the delegation for 2024. The bishops have previously committed to no new elections, though there are provisions to replace delegates if the reserve delegates have been exhausted through life’s transitions.
Because 2024 will be the postponed 2020 General Conference, then the legislation that was before the 2020 General Conference, and the legislation that came after (such as the Christmas Covenant, the Protocol, and a few others) will be up for consideration, and any new legislation can be submitted too, for a while. As well, important new legislation like the replacement of the Cross and Flame logo will be considered, which is great as it indicates we are moving into a more inclusive future by listening to underrepresented voices.
This postponement has special meaning for conservatives, progressives, and for the episcopacy.
First, a new calculus for Conservatives to leave
Since 2019, churches have been allowed to leave The UMC by paying two years of apportionments and their proportional pension liability (this was passed with traditionalist support in 2019). But for years, the Wesleyan Covenant Association has called on traditionalist churches to stay in the UMC so they can bargain for better leaving conditions. The Protocol was the result of those years of bargaining and threats: it would not only let churches leave scot-free, but the WCA would get $25 million to continue their ecclesial malpractice in a new denomination of the Global Methodist Church.
The postponement of a resolution for two more years (on top of two previous years—remember this division was supposed to be voted on in May 2020!) means two more years of ineffective complaining (unless that is their thing…).
Furthermore, if a church wants to leave the denomination, they have to (typically) pay 2 years of apportionments + pension liability. But with General Conference now over two years away, that’s…two more years of apportionments to pay, and a higher pension liability by that point! So that financial barrier for churches is lowered significantly if they want to leave the denomination because they will be out that same amount of money in the next two years.
However, time is short. Annual Conferences were just approved by the Judicial Council that they can “add onto” the Discipline whatever they want to these disaffiliating payouts, so if an annual conference hasn’t done that, expect new “favorable to the conference” provisions to pass at this year’s Annual Conferences. Many conservative churches that want the lowest possible payout may find it most cost-effective to leave now. With the GMC on record to launch in the May 2022, there’s a new container coming for them soon, too.
Second, nothing new for Progressives
Progressives will continue to be a minority in United Methodism, and conservatives will continue to be the majority perspective, as they have since at least the 1980s. So nothing new here—and it’s important to name that the Protocol also would not have changed that vote spread. My progressive perspective will continue to call the majority to accountability with the Gospel call for inclusion.
What is important to watch in 2024 is whether the depopulation of the United Methodists in the United States and the rising numbers of global United Methodists push anti-gay votes into the 66% percentile, because then votes that could threaten the safe havens and carved out progressive regions could potentially happen, which would spark the exodus of the American regions from The United Methodist Church rather than lose our hard-won progress. That’s not expected to take place for some time, however, and passing regionalization in 2024 would be the best effort by the global UMC to keep us together.
As melancholic and frustrating as it is, progressives continue to wait for change at the global level, even as we continue to practice hard-won full inclusion at the local and regional level.
Third, new elections coming to get the Episcopacy back on track
With this announcement of the postponement of the General Conference, bishops are expected to call for jurisdictional elections in the summer or fall 2022 to replace the numerous bishops that have retired or reached retirement age six years after our last conferences. Bishops have been delaying these elections in attempts to lower the number of bishops that serve in The UMC, but they are now out of time. Since these are smaller regional events, vaccines and visas are not barriers to safe gatherings.
As a progressive, this is truly exciting—and not only because some of the most virulently anti-inclusion bishops are finally retiring. The progressive and centrist wave of delegates gained majority vote in all five jurisdictions, which means our new slate of bishops—if we organize without hubris—will be fully inclusive. For the first time, bishops willing to create a moratorium on LGBTQ exclusion from their offices on down is possible both in heart and in actual numbers. Imagine 2 years of full inclusion before we hit the 2024 Conference…wow.
But that also means that any hope of progress will be challenged. Already a leaked press release from the Good News movement has said they will fight this postponement as illegal in order to deny the duly elected delegates a vote, and conservative conferences may try to unseat these delegates. We know that the blowback will be fierce as those opposed to the inclusion of minorities in any denominational system will be out in force.
Having a stronger bloc of inclusive bishops is exactly what Traditionalists fear. For decades, traditionalists tried to rule the moderate Council of Bishops by fear. Soon, that fear of their bullying is gone. The WCA failed, just like Good News, IRD, and others before them. And bold bishops like Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson (North Georgia) are exemplars of even Moderates who aren’t going to take bad behavior anymore, even by megachurch bullies.
But all is not well in the henhouse of the episcopacy. The past few years of refusing to call meetings and trying to reduce the number of bishops by fiat have indicated there’s something terribly wrong with the autocracy of the episcopacy. The nullification of our jurisdictional processes is really disturbing.
So the people elected to the episcopacy in 2022 will need to be those who (1) will commit to a moratorium and hold in abeyance any anti-gay prosecutions, and (2) have a healthy, documented history of the responsible use of power. It will be up to jurisdictional delegates (like me) to make good decisions for the sake of the whole church.
Look, I’m as frustrated as you are at this postponement—and that our society and ecclesiology that has been turned upside down in this pandemic. I want us to move forward as a denomination after two years stuck in neutral (and 30 years stuck in the 1950s). You can read Reconciling Ministries and ResistHarm’s statements for their perspectives on the postponement.
But at least now we know, and we will see some movement amongst the different parties. My hope will continue to be that a fully inclusive, global church is attainable and that by working for it, it can become real earlier than any of us expect.
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