United Methodism would have approved schism in May had its governing General Conference met as scheduled. The ten day convention was postponed to August 29, 2021 due to pandemic. Now the commission overseeing the meeting is studying whether the conference should be virtual.
The answer is YES.
Almost certainly the pandemic still will be a factor next year for the nearly 900 delegates from around the world. General Conference must not be postponed again. A nearly 13 million member global church can’t live another several years in abeyance. All factions rightly want to move forward.
A physical General Conference costs over $10 million. With thousands of congregations financially suffering from the pandemic, many of them not having worshipped corporately since March, this expense seems absurd.
It’s also absurd to convene for ten days to deliberate over hundreds of submitted petitions and other business when half or more of the church will adjourn into a new denomination. There’s one major item before the General Conference: schism. All major factions have already endorsed it. It will pass. The debate and vote will take perhaps a day or two and can occur online. Implementing bodies can be created.
The Protocol for schism was intended to end 50 years of warfare between conservatives and liberals within United Methodism. But a ten day physical General Conference would be another battle royal over a multitude of theological, sexual, political and ecclesial flash points, to no constructive purpose.
Liberals of course are anxious to move forward in overturning the church’s teachings about marriage and sexuality, among other items. But at a full General Conference, even after the vote on schism, conservatives who will create a new denomination will still be in the room, debating and voting. Surely liberals would prefer otherwise.
Over 40% of delegates come from overseas, mostly Africa, whence come one third of delegates. Their travel from obscure locales is often arduous. Why compel them unnecessarily? At the 2019 General Conference, 30 African delegates were denied U.S. visas and were disenfranchised, which happens at every General Conference. A virtual General Conference would ensure full enfranchisement globally.
In a virtual meeting presumably delegates would gather as delegations in their home countries or respective U.S. states. With millions of dollars saved, funds can be devoted to ensure reliable internet connectivity for all. And church officials and observers can be dispatched to all delegation meetings globally to ensure transparency and accountability. Some delegations may not trust their local bishop. They must be assured that the global church stands with them for fair deliberations.
Public health, finances, fairness, practicality and good sense all call for a virtual General Conference focused exclusively on enacting schism with all deliberate speed. There need not be any more contentious debates. Everyone is anxious to organize their respective new denominational structures. It would be wasteful and foolish to devote millions of dollars and much of two weeks, involving nearly 900 delegates plus many more support personnel and observers from around the world, to an unneeded physical gathering.
Organizers of the Protocol to divide United Methodism wonderfully came together across their differences to end the warfare and move forward. That collegial and pragmatic spirit should inspire a shortened virtual General Conference expeditiously to ratify that work.