In a relatively closely divided vote last month, a predominantly American faction of the Commission on General Conference chose to block the United Methodist Church’s General Conference meeting before 2024. General Conference’s further delay is now the fifth major change since the event was originally scheduled for May 2020.
To be clear, this was an extraordinarily cynical, credibility-shattering decision, driven by a political pressure campaign from institutionalist bishops, caucus activists, and denominational agency officials.
This dramatically escalates a pattern of certain United Methodist leaders disregarding such values as following proper procedure and treating others as they would like to be treated, in order to dramatically filibuster our denomination’s processes and shut down vital United Methodist business.
The reasons expressed for this delay lose credibility when we review the facts of how the Commission operated.
In a must-read, whistle-blowing exposé, one Commission member resigned in protest over how he had previously trusted that the rest of the commission members as well as General Conference staff “were doing all they could to ensure the postponed General Conference would be held as scheduled this summer,” but now he “no longer believe[s] that to have been true” and has “lost trust in the integrity of the process.” The objective facts make clear that the Commission’s majority faction and its apportionment-salaried staff chose not to do their jobs of working hard to ensure General Conference could happen this year with fairness and integrity, if at all possible.
The official press release announcing General Conference’s further delay, along with propagandists defending this decision, make three basic arguments for why General Conference allegedly cannot be held in any form in 2022, or even 2023. One is professing concern for keeping delegates safe from COVID-19. A second concern is non-U.S. delegates securing travel visas. Third, the press release and others rely entirely on one very incomplete study to suggest that General Conference could not be held in any virtual, distributed, or hybrid format.
On the first, the reality is that COVID-19 will not completely disappear, but the world is moving on with a lessened, managed threat. The World Health Organization has reported that Europe may soon transition into a sort of “ceasefire” with the virus, while even beleaguered Africa is now on track to get COVID-19 under control in the continent this year.
Accordingly, travel and other restrictions are easing. Major denominational assemblies and international conferences are back to meeting in-person this year, including the very liberal United Methodist Women 2022 Assembly. The majority of American United Methodist annual conferences, including the relatively urban Northern Illinois Conference and the would-be host conference of Minnesota, are expected to meet largely in-person this year. Even in a video defending this filibuster, liberal leader Tom Berlin let slip his excitement about how “the pandemic effects are lifting” in his area.
Remember, leaders and delegates from some parts of Africa requested help accessing potentially life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, which would enable them to attend General Conference legally and safely. Amazingly, leaders of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on General Conference (both groups dominated by liberal, institutionalist Americans) refused to help with this African plea for assistance!
If New York Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president-elect of the Council of Bishops and the Council’s representative on the Commission, had supported either group helping, he likely could have made it happen.
We even saw the same leaders and caucus activists not only stridently oppose “any effort” to help African delegates who asked for help, but even denounce anyone else who tried to help them!
This is not the behavior one would expect from anyone sincerely concerned with protecting delegates from COVID-19.
In any case, African leaders had publicly reported to the Commission the results of a detailed, months-long survey, which found that about 90 percent of African delegates had been vaccinated against COVID-19, with the remaining 10 percent “expected to take their vaccine shots before May, 2022.”
Furthermore, Commission insider Joe DiPaolo now reports that at its January meeting, the Commission asked for its own report on how many delegates had received Covid-19 vaccines (required to enter the country). But Gary Graves, the openly biased Secretary of the General Conference, suspiciously chose to wait until less than 48 hours before the Commission’s fateful February 24 meeting to even begin seeking such information. In DiPaolo’s words: “It is hard not to conclude that the staff never took the request seriously and were scrambling at the last minute to cover themselves. Despite the short notice, however, Graves reported that he had received about 500 responses, with more than 90 percent indicating they had received at least one vaccination….”
The surprise rush to make such a drastic, final decision in the Commission’s February 24 meeting, rather than in the Commission’s March meeting as had been widely expected, makes little sense from the outside. Unless, perhaps, those predetermined to delay General Conference feared that if they waited another month, COVID numbers would continue improving, restrictions would ease further, and “COVID safety” would become a less believable pretext.
As for the second reason, securing enough visas to prevent massive disenfranchisement of non-American delegates is a genuine concern.
But it is not a new concern. This is a major challenge, requiring some frantic scrambling and calls, for every General Conference. Thirty-one African delegate seats were lamentably vacant at the last General Conference. While the pandemic brought additional challenges, travel restrictions have been easing, and United Methodists from formerly “difficult” countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received U.S. visas within less than a month.
Some have wildly tossed out a statistic that supposedly up to 30 percent of delegates from non-U.S. central conferences may not have been able to get U.S. visas to attend General Conference. But where did this number come from? Amazingly, DiPaolo reports that “no supporting analysis or documentation” was presented when this statistic was promoted to the Commission.
In a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, the Commission’s majority faction effectively complained that long wait times in some countries meant that if they were to now issue required invitation letters to non-U.S. delegates, some may not get visas in time. But the Commission and its staff have known since February 2021 the 2022 General Conference dates and location. Yet, DiPaolo reports (basically confirmed by African leaders) that the staff chose to never issue invitation letters to delegates. If they had done their jobs and issued letters months ago for delegates in countries now experiencing long wait times, then this would probably not be the same issue it is now.
Furthermore, DiPaolo reports that the General Conference staff acknowledged that some non-American delegates already have multi-year visas to enter America while others had figured out how to get visas from neighboring countries in which wait times were shorter—but the staff offered the Commission no detailed analysis of how such possibilities might be used to maximize full global participation!
For its part, the leadership of the Africa Initiative, the widest, most representative network of African United Methodist leaders, reported that challenges for Africans securing visas to travel to the United States have now “been significantly resolved.” In its open letter to the Commission, the Africa Initiative urged the long-delayed General Conference to finally be held this year, declaring: “Absolutely no one should use Africa’s perceived challenges as reasons to further postpone 2022 General Conference. We are ready to participate!”
If visa challenges in bringing delegates to America were more than just a convenient pretext, why not hold General Conference in another country with less restrictive border policies? After all, the Africa Initiative letter offered for General Conference to be held in Africa if it became unfeasible to meet in the States, and shared that they had already researched possible venues.
The lengthy announcement of the Commission majority faction’s decision did not even acknowledge this possibility.
So in delaying General Conference, the Commission’s ideologically institutionalist, mainly American, mainly white majority faction chose to disregard genuinely representative voices of African leaders, paternalistically declare what was allegedly best for them, and rely on undocumented propaganda as well as their own chosen failures to do their homework.
The professed concern for full African participation is curious, when some of the very same Commission leaders, General Conference staff, and others responsible for this new General Conference delay having clear track records of disrespecting, marginalizing, and effectively disenfranchising African leaders in denominational decision-making, as an ongoing pattern.
One major secondary effect of this General Conference delay, doubtless appreciated by the majority faction, is that, for at least two more years, this dramatically keeps Africans in their place by preventing denominational leadership positions from being geographically re-allocated to reflect Africans now officially have an outright majority of our global denomination’s membership. Among other things, this filibuster keeps African voting membership on the Commission itself limited to 28 percent, and prevents Africans from even getting the five additional bishops to which they were entitled to receive in 2020 (and even that shift would still keep African representation on the Council of Bishops below 30 percent).
In any case, in 2022, the rest of the world is demonstrating that major international conferences can now be held in safe and inclusive ways.
The 2022 Winter Olympics physically gathered some 2,874 athletes, from a much wider range of countries than General Conference delegates, in addition to staff, coaches, and nearly 100,000 spectators. But the best minds in the UMC bureaucracy could not figure out how to gather 862 delegates and a dramatically smaller number of others?
The Episcopal Church, whose lead liberal United Methodists often seek to follow, is holding its General Convention in-person this year. While a larger portion of Episcopalians are in the United States, that is also an international denomination, with an entire diocese in Taiwan, as well as multiple dioceses and hundreds of congregations in Latin American countries.
Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the very international Seventh Day Adventist Church, are pioneering new ways of holding their equivalents of General Conference in hybrid formats this year.
Could the Commission not have learned from what other large denominations are able to do?
It appears that the Commission’s leaders and staff never seriously bothered to research such possibilities.
Which brings us to the third issue, of how the Commission’s majority faction relied entirely on a single report by a technology study team to rule out the possibility of overcoming travel challenges by holding General Conference in a hybrid, virtual, or distributed format.
But that technology study team report was woefully incomplete. It makes broad, vague, and sometimes debatable assertions with little to no documentation. It even judges one main challenge to be “difficult, but not impossible.” That report is also ridiculously outdated, having been finalized in February 2021 and citing concerns that were explicitly limited to 2021.
It cannot be overstressed how much the world has changed since then. In addition to what is already mentioned, our close sister denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church successfully held a summer 2021 General Conference in a hybrid format, after the naysaying report. The AMEZ also includes a significant African constituency. In Firebrand magazine, Dr. David Watson shares details of how this other large Methodist denomination was able to make a hybrid, international General Conference work, and save money.
Reportedly, Kim Simpson, the Commission’s very partisan chair, was given contact information for a key AMEZ leader, in order to learn from their experience. But neither Simpson nor any other representative of the Commission ever contacted him.
Furthermore, I am reliably told that Bishop Thomas Bickerton was sent, and acknowledged receipt of, information on how the AMEZ denomination was able to successfully hold an international, hybrid General Conference in 2021.
DiPaolo reports that neither Simpson nor Bickerton shared with the full Commission even the fact that they had been given such information.
Simpson refused to answer questions for this article. Bickerton did not immediately respond to my request for comment.
So one significant factor in the newly imposed General Conference delay was the fact that key leaders of the Commission had information on how a sister denomination had been able to hold a successful international, hybrid-format General Conference, but they chose to not fully investigate this, but instead chose to withhold this information from other commission members! Let that sink in.
If this further delay was not a cynical, politically driven filibuster, and the Commission leadership and staff were truly committed to doing their jobs by letting General Conference happen this year if possible, one would expect them to act very differently.
So if the publicly claimed reasons for this further General Conference delay do not add up, then what might be the real reasons?
There appear to be two main driving forces. These are also the most logical explanations for how the same people who pushed to filibuster General Conference so stridently opposed helping African delegates who sought help accessing Covid-19 vaccines (an effort which, among other things, removed one major pretext for delaying General Conference again).
First, the 2022 General Conference was likely to pass the carefully negotiated “Protocol” separation treaty, and a sub-faction of the most strident caucus activists, bishops and other institutionalists were increasingly panicking. The Protocol would force major, painful, one-sided concessions exclusively on United Methodists who support our denomination’s official doctrinal and moral standards. But for some liberal United Methodists, it appears that no amount of sacrifices (financial or otherwise) they impose on others are ever finally enough. A prominent coalition of liberal caucuses even criticized evangelical leaders wanting General Conference “take place without further delay” and oddly connected this to protesting the Protocol’s financial settlement. But the reality of the Protocol’s financial settlement is that it would split the inheritance from our currently shared denomination so that liberals would permanently take over some 85 percent of our denomination-wide unrestricted net assets, then this changed to 88 percent, and then to 92 percent. Yet institutionalist liberals pushing for this anti-Protocol filibuster effectively screamed that they are the ones being asked to give up too much.
So in a word, greed.
Second, we cannot ignore the wider context of liberal anger, vengeance-seeking, and even hatred against theologically traditionalist General Conference delegates (especially from Africa) and caucuses since the 2019 General Conference’s adoption of the Traditional Plan. This has included wealthier, predominantly white American liberals imposing blunt “collective punishments” against African United Methodists. Liberal leaders demonstrated a special level of contempt for African General Conference delegates when they effectively declared that they would rather help anyone else on Earth access potentially life-saving vaccines than those people.
The mere fact that traditionalist leaders and caucuses were publicly eager to hold General Conference this year seemed to be enough to turn many liberals against the idea.
The negative impacts are far from one-sided. Some liberals will now leave the UMC in exasperation.
For the sake of orthodox believers who decide to separate this year, I support the Global Methodist Church launching this May and am happy to work with the GMC.
But a great many more will stay or even feel trapped, and the Commission’s decision will provoke much greater conflict.
Any liberals reading this should abandon any delusions of being rid of traditionalists like me after May 1.
As long as a significant traditionalist constituency remains and official United Methodist doctrinal and moral standards remain traditionalist, we at IRD/UMAction are committed to staying and continuing to advocate for these values within the United Methodist Church, and for accountability for clergy and other church leaders who betray the church.
We can build on the work we have done with others to pass the Traditional Plan in 2019, when so many thought that that was impossible.
We ultimately need a more comprehensive solution than the Discipline’s inadequate current processes.
If any good-faith partners for peace remain, we at IRD/UMAction are still willing to work to adopt the Protocol as soon as possible. But once again, if there turn out to be no remaining liberal leaders willing to compromise for the sake of mutually laying down our swords, then we traditionalists may have little choice but to once again push through our own solutions, without the glaring injustices of the Protocol.
3/17/2021 UPDATE: An earlier posting of this article had reported that after African leaders requested help for their delegates being able to access COVID-19 vaccines, “the Council of Bishops … refused to help with this African plea for assistance.” But it is not clear if every individual member Council of Bishops as a whole was made aware of this specific request. The facts remain, however, that top leaders of the Council of Bishops were made aware of this plea and chose not to help, and that the Council of Bishops as a whole never helped directly address the obvious need of COVID-19 vaccine access for General delegates from vaccine-poor countries. The wording of this article has been tweaked to better reflect these nuances.