In recent months, the talk of the town hasn’t been the upcoming 2024 General Conference, but a Conference coming just two years after it. Why was a 2026 conference called for, canceled, and now back on again?
Here’s the timeline (UMNS has a good summary here) of where the 2026 conference came from and how it became on-and-off-and-on-again:
- Back in March 2023, the Judicial Council (the Supreme Court of The UMC) in JC1472 said that the UMC must have one regular session of the General Conference every 4 years, and the pandemic put us behind by one. So they required a new regular session be held between 2024 and 2028.
- In response, the Council of Bishops called for a five-day regular session in 2026 to satisfy the requirements.
- The General Commission on Finance and Administration requested a reconsideration out of financial concerns of holding three full general conferences from 2024-2028.
- In October 2023, the Judicial Council in JC1485 reversed their previous decision and rescinded the requirement for a regular 2026 General Conference. (So it’s off now, right?)
- In November 2023, the Council of Bishops issued a call for a Special Session of the General Conference in 2026. (Wait. It’s back on?)
What on earth? Why is it on-again, off-again? And why do the particulars matter?
What is the Special Session for?
While the bishops aren’t talking much beyond a press release, one bishop gave a bit more clarity.
From the press release:
“A special session of General Conference in 2026 would allow the church to see our work as having two important next steps, the first being the regular session of the General Conference in 2024, and the second to make continued progress in 2026,” the bishops agreed. “Affirming the call for a special session in 2026 for missional purposes would give the whole church a clearer sense of our path going forward.”
Bishop Ruben Saenz in Texas wrote online:
The Council of Bishops’ proposed agenda to convene a Special Session of the General Conference in 2026 brings me great joy and enthusiasm. This gathering will serve as a platform for strategizing the future mission of The United Methodist Church as we follow Jesus and seek the loving, just, and free world God imagines for all people. This General Conference’s primary focus will be to propel our United Methodist Connection forward. We aim to expand and extend our presence as a grace-filled and loving witness of the love of Christ within our local communities and on a global scale. Additionally, we will seek to lay down solid foundations that will carry the church’s legacy well into the year 2050 and beyond.
Yeah, so a lot of generalities. I guess we’ll know more about the content later.
But for now, the details matter and the specifics need to be clarified, so we should look at those right now.
Special Session v. Regular Session? Details matter!
You’ll note the 2026 conference has changed from a regular session to a special session. A special session has differences in agenda and delegations that matter a lot.
- At a Regular Session, the entire Book of Discipline is on the agenda so everything is up for changes. Thousands of petitions are dealt with. Much of the church could change (except for the restrictive sections). Delegates are elected once and, as we saw with the delayed 2020 GC, they cannot be unseated once elected.
- At a Special Session, only parts of the Book of Discipline, or only certain proposals, are on the agenda. Recall the 2019 General Conference where only the report from the Commission on A Way Forward was considered. As well, conferences can elect new delegates for a special session so long as they have already served at a regular session.
Why do these matter? The bishops have a lot more control over the agenda of a special session, and the delegates to the special session are the 2024 delegates, not the upcoming 2028 delegates. Conferences can elect new delegations to a special session if they wish, but the likelihood is low because they would elect new delegations to 2028 later in 2026 no matter what.
Important Representation Clarification
One more note is the number of delegates doesn’t change between 2024 and 2026. The allocation of delegations to 2026 will be based on the delegate allocation of the then-2020 General Conference, which was calculated before the exodus of ~20% of the churches in the USA to more anti-gay frontiers.
While that will somewhat artificially inflate the representation of USA churches at these global gatherings, the UMC has never been strictly proportional, and having experienced delegates (by that point, as a reserve delegate, I will have attended two JCs and one GC from a single election seven years earlier) will make the special session smoother.
The reality is it is just what the Discipline says, and to be fair, the bishops originally did call for a regular session with a reallocation of representation. The numbers will balance out again in 2028.
What does this mean for big items at GC2024?
Chatter online seems to revolve around “What does this mean for regionalization?” and “What does this mean for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons?” Let’s look at these questions.
- Worldwide Regionalization has been called for by Central Conference voices since the Connectional Table and Christmas Covenant in 2019, and was submitted to GC2020 by the Cavite annual conference in the Philippines. Recent work has been submitted to the 2024 General Conference that reconciles various group proposals (all of these bodies have majority or significant Central Conference voices) and the final proposal will come from the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. While one would think that would lead to high expectations of it passing in 2024, the disaffiliated former UMs have come out guns blazing against it because they know worldwide regionalization will lead to a more equitable UMC and show that one “global” nascent denomination is just a marketing language nothingburger. A 2026 special session allows for new possibilities quicker after the constitutional amendments have passed, which is good for everyone, but only if it passes 2024 first.
- LGBTQ+ inclusion is a different story. Because the bishops can exhibit extraordinary control over the agenda of a special session, their Call letter (to go out closer to the 2026 conference) defines what subjects they will accept legislation on. The likelihood of a worldwide body of institutionally-minded bishops including LGBTQ+ inclusion on their docket is NOT high. Even if so, it could be limited to certain paragraphs without being the holistic work that LGBTQ+ inclusion needs.
All in all, progressives and centrists shouldn’t kick the can to 2026 for LGBTQ+ inclusion, nor withhold support of Central Conference advocacy for regionalization in 2024. Keep on the pressure to advocate for full inclusion in 2024 and continue to shape the United Methodist Church into a more just church.
We’ll have to see what 2026 looks like, but it shouldn’t change voting for our values in 2024. I encourage focusing on seeking a more just and inclusive church in 2024, and we’ll deal with 2026 later.
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