Concerns centered on coronavirus containment are disrupting major gatherings for several church denominations.
Both the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the two largest Protestant denominations in the country, have altered plans for major conferences.
The UMC’s quadrennial General Conference, the global legislative gathering of delegates from around the world, is being postponed, with a future date yet to be announced. The conference’s venue, the Minnesota Convention Center, canceled all events through May 10, following guidelines issued by the Minnesota Department of Health. That prompted the Commission on the General Conference to postpone the event, which was scheduled to occur May 5-15.
In a statement released March 18 by the commission, Executive Committee Chair Kim Simpson said “This news is not unexpected based on the current guidance from health officials and we expect to move forward with new plans as quickly as possible.”
With COVID-19 disrupting General Conference plans, proposals to split the denomination are on hold, which may not be entirely bad news. Given travel restrictions in place around the globe, a delay provides better opportunity for delegates from outside the U.S. to participate in church decision-making.
The General Conference delay also gives both leaders in the UMC more time to iron out details of the church split, and the traditional camp more time to prepare the new Wesleyan expression they will form.
In response to the pandemic, the SBC canceled its Annual Meeting for the first time in 75 years, when the meeting was called off in 1945 during World War II. A unanimous vote on March 24 made by a body of SBC officers, the SBC Executive Committee, and leaders of the SBC’s boards and institutions drew from a provision in the SBC Constitution “in the case of grave emergency.”
SBC President J.D. Greear said, “We are a people committed to keeping the Gospel above all, and our sole purpose in coming together is to support one another in that mission, catalyzing our collective mission efforts. This year, our unusual circumstances mean we can best meet that goal by not meeting together.”
Organizers for this year’s Annual Meeting, scheduled June 9-10 in Orlando, thought that it might draw the largest number of messengers (the SBC equivalent of delegates) since 12,000 came for the 2010 Annual Meeting, also held in Orlando.
“We are extremely disappointed in having to make this decision, but God will see us through and give us a way until we are able to meet in person together again… We know our churches need to focus on ministering to their communities and to those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” stated Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee.
The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has not announced a cancellation or postponement of General Assembly, set for June 16-19, but is actively monitoring the public health situation and guidelines set by authorities. The church will reevaluate when its Administrative Committee meets virtually on April 23.
The Foursquare Church has decided to cancel the Foursquare Connection 2020, which was to be held in December. The Pentecostal denomination was founded in 1923 by evangelist and faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, and has over “8.8 million members in over 90,000 churches across 46 nations.” The Connection is an annual global meeting of its pastors.
The conservative Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), has postponed a bishops’ conference that was set to take place in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The GAFCON Primates’ Council has yet to set a new date.
Similarly, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has postponed the Lambeth Conference, a decennial gathering of bishops invited from every officially recognized province in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Conference will instead take place in the summer of 2021.