by Chris Ritter

The more time passes, the more far-fetched it seems that the United Methodist Church will be able to bring hundreds of delegates together from all over the world to a 2021 global meeting in Minneapolis.  General Conference is quite a feat to pull off even under the best of circumstances.  The public health concerns created by COVID, the uncertain timeframe for the roll-out of a vaccine, and current restrictions on international travel make hopes for a planned August General Conference dubious at best.

When and how to hold General Conference is in the hands of the Commission on General Conference which is scheduled to hold its next major meeting in December.  We are already in violation of our constitution which mandates a General Conference every four years. But the original date in May 2020 was clearly not possible. Bishops scheduled for retirement have been held in place and our General Council on Finance and Administration is operating the denomination on the old budget (which is considerably higher than the one previously proposed for 2021-2024.)

In the meantime, alternative ideas are bubbling up in the delegations. Among those ideas is a limited agenda General Conference held online, or from various regional gatherings coming together through technology. Presumably, the entire body would be treated as a single legislative committee (like in 2019). The Separation Protocol would be addressed, a budget approved, and Judicial Council members elected. This special meeting would provide just enough to keep things moving forward.

Another idea is a single-issue, virtual General Conference to handle the Separation Protocol alone. A meeting of this type could only be called by the Council of Bishops. If the Protocol is approved, annual conferences and local churches could begin making their choices whether to opt into the new global Methodist Church. That church needs several months of voting before it will be ready to hold a convening conference (hopefully, as early as fall 2022). The post-separation United Methodist Church would be better positioned to hold a meaningful General Conference once it knows the future landscape of the church. Otherwise, they are setting a budget and structure for a church of uncertain shape and size.

I like the idea of minimalist conferencing until the Separation Protocol shakes out. The argument for a special session would go something like this:  The constitutionally-mandated quadrennial General Conference did not happen due to the international pandemic.  If it was even possible to hold it in 2021 (which it likely isn’t) that conference would be planning to divide and unable to do the hard work that either side needs to do.  Would it not be wiser to delay another year so that two new General Conferences can organize to do their best work following the enactment of the Protocol?  A virtual General Conference comprised of regional groups is doable given the current technology… other denominations having worked with similar formats.  Let’s vote on the Protocol in 2021 and hold separate, newly constituted general conferences in 2022.

Protocol Cold Feet?

There are whispers afoot of softening of support for the Protocol among UMC institutionalists… or perhaps a desire among them to slow-play its enactment. I am told fans of the Protocol left a bit discouraged from a recent meeting of UMC seminary presidents with certain U.S. bishops. There may also be a subtext of “Do we really need the Protocol?” in David Scott’s recent piece on the possible delay of General Conference.

The Protocol was acceptable to the Establishment because the Traditionalists agree to leave.  This gave Centrists & Progressives the general agencies, the denominational name, the logo, and the default option for those who would be voting (a 57% threshold needed for a U.S. annual conference to leave).  Since the negotiation of the Feinberg Protocol, the financial impact of COVID made the current structures of the church even more overtly unsustainable.  A movement is afoot to retire the Cross and Flame Insignia because of unfortunate associations with KKK cross-burnings.  It is clearer now in some places that the loss of traditionalists will mean the financial and demographic collapse of some existing annual conferences. 

Centrists have heard that WCA plans to start a new denomination in September 2021 “no matter what.”  If WCA is willing to leave without the Protocol being passed… why pass it? This represents, I believe, a profound misunderstanding of realities on the ground. Among their wider constituency, WCA represents a number of churches who have left, are in the process of leaving, or want to leave… yesterday. These churches have run out of patience for the passing of the UMC separation kidney stone. A connectional structure for these congregations is the “no matter what” for WCA. But this group represents only part of WCA and a fraction UMC traditionalists generally.

The vast majority of traditionalists are effectively stuck until The Protocol is enacted. The limited disaffiliation measures passed last year are financially and otherwise unworkable for most. Minus the Protocol, there will certainly be enough traditionalists in the UMC to befuddle the regionalization of the UMC that U.S. Centrists/Progressives need to get the growing African delegations out of what they see as U.S.-only matters of marriage and ordination standards. Without the Protocol, the stuck-ness and dysfunction continue.

Since oxygen cannot be released in the church until the Protocol is considered and enacted, should this not become our collective priority? The best hope I see is some sort of virtual, limited-agenda General Conference in 2021 followed by meaningful, in-person, freshly constituted General Conferences in 2022.