Organizers have yet to determine whether the pandemic-postponed General Conference can go forward as planned on Aug. 29-Sept. 7 in Minneapolis.
In the meantime, the Commission on the General Conference has decided not to reopen the usual process for accepting petitions — that is, proposed legislation — to The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body.
That could have implications for the ability of General Conference delegates to have access to some big legislative proposals — including one outlining a potential denominational split — ahead of the assembly.
The Book of Discipline, which contains the laws General Conference approves, says that petitions can be submitted until 230 days before General Conference. That would make Jan. 11 the deadline based on the late summer 2021 dates for the postponed General Conference.
The Discipline also allows annual conferences to submit legislation if they meet between 230 and 45 days before General Conference.
Revisiting the General Conference theme
In 2019, the Commission on the General Conference approved the theme “…and know that I am God” from Psalm 46.
The Council of Bishops executive committee requested that the commission change that theme in light of the protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. The bishops did not offer an alternative theme.
But in making the request, the bishops cited the King James Version of Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
“We believe that to imply that we should gather in Minneapolis to be still would not be in the interest of our church, our people and the delegates who gather,” the bishops’ letter said.
The commission affirmed its Theme and Logo Committee’s decision not to change the theme. In 2019, the commission discussed at length whether to include the “be still” part of the translation.
Ultimately, the group opted not to do so in part because Bibles in various languages translated that part of the verse in dramatically different ways. For example, the German translation is more akin to the English phrase “Make peace.”
The Rev. Joe DiPaolo, a commission member and lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, shared a statement about the greater context of the verse.
“The psalmist looks to God amid national upheavals, the raging of the seas, and even the collapse of mountains,” DiPaolo said. “It rings with hope that, despite all, God is yet with us; the living God is our strength.”
Sara Hotchkiss, General Conference business manager, read the bishops’ letter and DiPaolo’s statement aloud during the opening hour of the commission’s meeting when it was still open to the press.
However, the commission said in a press release that any petitions submitted after the original deadlines for what would have been the 2020 General Conference will be treated as late legislation.
That puts the decision of whether General Conference considers the late-arriving petitions in the hands of the Committee on Reference, a bishop-appointed group of 24 delegates that typically meets the day before General Conference opens. The commission asks that the Committee on Reference instead gather as soon as possible.
“The commission has remained consistent with the understanding of postponement as opposed to cancellation,” commission leaders said in an emailed statement to United Methodist News. “Under postponement, the General Conference petition process is ongoing.”
Bottom line: The commission has no plans to publish another print edition of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, which contains the petitions heading to General Conference.
A year ago, the commission determined that the reference committee also would make final decisions about how to handle petitions submitted by annual conferences in 2020.
However, the Rev. Gary Graves, the General Conference secretary, told UM News that the commission now has decided these conference-submitted petitions will be properly before delegates. The commission is still looking at how to get that legislation to delegates for their review ahead of General Conference.
That legislation includes the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, a mediated agreement that seeks to resolve the longtime United Methodist debate over homosexuality through a denominational split. The process of separation outlined in the protocol needs revision to accommodate the delay in General Conference.
Also affected would be the Christmas Covenant, the first major legislative package submitted by delegates from the central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The legislation, which takes its name from the 1784 Christmas Conference that initially formed what became The United Methodist Church, aims to establish regional equity within the denomination.
The Alaska Conference also submitted legislation that would discontinue its missionary conference status and open the door for it to become a missionary district of the Pacific Northwest Conference.
The printed Advance Daily Christian Advocate contains proposals submitted to General Conference months before the protocol, Christmas Covenant or Alaska petitions were drafted and before COVID-19 forced the postponement of the legislative gathering.
“The commission will be utilizing the online DCA (Daily Christian Advocate) and other available ways of releasing valid petitions,” the leaders told UM News in the emailed statement.
Commission leaders added that they recognize that “there may well be the need for additional petitions to be submitted due to the change of circumstances since the original deadlines passed.” The reference committee is up to the task of processing these additions, the commission said.
The General Conference commission made its decision about legislation and its other plans in a Dec. 11-12 online meeting, most of which was closed to the press.
In Paragraph 722, the Book of Discipline says that “in the spirit of openness and accountability,” almost all church meetings should be open. The Discipline does allow closed sessions for “negotiations, when general knowledge could be harmful to the negotiation process.” The commission cited this negotiation exception when it went into closed session but did not say with whom the commission was negotiating.
The Discipline also says: “A report on the results of a closed session shall be made immediately upon its conclusion or as soon thereafter as is practicable.” The commission reported its decisions in a press release published the afternoon of Dec. 18 — six days after the meeting’s conclusion.
Because of COVID-19, visa restrictions and the slow rollout of vaccines, big questions remain about whether the 10-day General Conference can go forward safely as scheduled. The commission wrestled with most of those issues behind closed doors.
In October, the commission named a technology study team to look at ways to accommodate full participation of nearly 900 voting delegates and other church leaders who come from four continents and multiple time zones. Among the possibilities is seeing if General Conference can do its work, at least in part, online.
The commission decided that the technology study team must submit its report by Jan. 31. The commission plans to discuss the technology team’s report at a Feb. 20 meeting.
Complicating matters are continuing questions — unrelated to COVID-19 restrictions — of whether many delegates can travel to the United States. One big concern is a visa pilot program the Trump administration initiated that requires travelers from two dozen countries, most in Africa, to pay as much as $15,000 in bonds to visit the United States.
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Among the countries affected are Angola, Burundi, Congo and Liberia, which combined plan to send 164 delegates to the coming General Conference. Congo, in particular, is seeing some of the most rapid growth in the denomination.
The visa bond pilot program started Dec. 24 and is scheduled to end June 24, but commission members remain uncertain whether it will be extended.
Commission members also are pondering the availability of COVID-19 vaccines around the globe.
Even while weighing these concerns, the commission press release said the group is looking at maintaining the integrity of the General Conference credentialing. The commission previously determined that at the contentious special 2019 General Conference, four ineligible people cast votes using the credentials of delegates who were not present.
“We realize that time is of the essence. However, the reality is that there are parts of the Book of Discipline that do not speak to the issues raised during a pandemic,” said Kim Simpson, the commission’s chair, in the press release.
“There are still a lot of unknown factors, and we will have to make a best informed decision with what we have and trust God to guide us to do the best we can for The United Methodist Church.”