Bishops of the United Methodist Church have released a letter calling for the quadrennial meeting of the denomination’s governing body, General Conference, to be postponed due to the spread of the Coronavirus.
“Newly imposed international travel restrictions to the US are making it more difficult for our Central Conference delegates,” Council of Bishops President Ken Carter of Florida and President-Designate Cynthia Fierro Harvey of Louisiana wrote. “Consideration must also be given to the grave risk resulting from international travel and meeting in a very large gathering with the potential spread of the virus when we are together. We note the possibility that a large group infection may result in a quarantine.”
The call comes amidst a series of closures unfolding in rapid succession, beginning with the shuttering of a Washington, D.C. Episcopal church on Monday where the Rev. Timothy Cole came down with the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia.
The closure of Christ Church Episcopal in Georgetown, where the church organist was also diagnosed with the virus, soon led to cancellation of public worship in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, including the Washington National Cathedral and neighboring Diocese of Virginia. According to NBC News, the church organist played at the chapel of the Virginia Theological Seminary February 26, contributing to further spread of the virus into Alexandria, Virginia.
Elsewhere, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle suspended public celebration of mass and four separate states have announced public school closures to slow the spread of the virus.
Church of the Resurrection, the largest congregation in the United Methodist Church, announced that it is moving to online-only worship in response to the virus. Senior Pastor Adam Hamilton was the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP) that took place February 19-22 in Louisville, Kentucky, where Cole was in attendance.
It is unclear if Cole contracted the virus traveling to, amidst, or traveling from the conference. At least four conference participants now have confirmed cases of the disease.
“Simply being at the conference with someone not showing symptoms is not a risk factor,” wrote CEEP Executive Director Joe Swimmer, who shared a statement from DC Health that Cole was asymptomatic during the event.
Another conference participant, Fr. Robert Pace, returned to his Episcopal congregation and came down with symptoms. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that Pace has the first known case of coronavirus in Tarrant County, Texas.
The CEEP event brings together more than 500 representatives of some of the wealthiest congregations in the Episcopal Church. A list of the organization’s members is a virtual who’s who of influential, connected Episcopalians. The 2020 conference included presentations from officials with the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary and Trinity Wall Street, the wealthiest church congregation in the entire United States.
Update: UMAction Director and elected General Conference Delegate John Lomperis adds: per Paragraph 511.4 of the Discipline, the 25-member Commission on the General Conference has authority to “select the site and set the dates of the General Conference.” It is likely the Commission’s executive committee will affirm the bishops’ decision, and then the whole commission to affirm that. The Executive Committee of the Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday, March 18.