Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Politico recently published a piece entitled “Here’s How the Pandemic Finally Ends.” The piece, which is based on interviews with a large number of epidemiologists, is predominantly focused on the United States, though it includes some thoughts on the rest of the world toward the end.
Two passages are worth lifting up: First, “this is how it could happen in the United States: By November 2021, most Americans have received two doses of a vaccine that, while not gloriously effective, fights the disease in more cases than not. Meanwhile, Americans continue to wear masks and avoid large gatherings.” Second, “[Zeke] Emanuel anticipates countries opening up international travel as they get and deploy vaccines, but that “it’s going to take a couple or three years to really get … a full return to pre-Covid normalcy” in international travel.”
Taken together, these two insights—that large gatherings in the US may not happen until late in 2021 and international travel may be difficult until 2022 or 2023—indicate that there is a real possibility that a 2020 General Conference delayed to late August/early September of 2021 will still not be possible. Such a gathering may need to be delayed longer, and in an extreme case, may not happen until the regularly scheduled General Conference in 2024.
What would this mean for the church if General Conference 2020/2021 does not happen?
The United Methodist Church is in many ways set up to function without regular input from General Conference. After all, even normally, the body only meets once every four years. The denomination could certainly go a bit longer without an updated Book of Resolutions or updated hymnal, and it would be fine. Even some improvements which would be nice to have could wait, and things could run as they have in the meantime.
But General Conference is still necessary to fix immediate problems in the denomination and to keep the machinery of the denomination running. In particular, General Conference 2020/2021 is important to address the issue of denominational division and to provide for the 3 B’s of Methodist bureaucracy: budgets, boards, and bishops.
With a further delayed General Conference, The United Methodist Church will need to figure out other avenues to address these two challenges. This piece will look at the first question—denominational division—and a subsequent piece will look at budgets, boards, and bishops.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has indicated that it is planning to leave The United Methodist Church no matter whether General Conference 2021 happens, and no matter what happens at General Conference 2021 if it does happen. Their intention to form a new denomination has been clearly stated, planning for the new denomination has continued to proceed even amid the pandemic, and the groundwork for the new denomination is now already well laid.
At the beginning of 2020, it looked like the WCA would leave as part of a grand deal struck among US Traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, with leadership from the central conferences. This deal was embodied in the Protocol for Reconciliation through Separation and Grace, a legislative proposal for General Conference 2020. But without a General Conference, there is no Protocol.
The Protocol offers the WCA two things: rhetorical cover for leaving the denomination without seeming like they lost the fight and $25 million. The train of WCA withdrawal may be far enough out of the station that the first consideration is no longer necessary, and given the terrible state of denominational finances, it is likely that the WCA realizes that the $25 million may not actually be available. Thus, they may decide that whatever amount is available is not be worth waiting around for.
If the Protocol does not happen, it raises questions about how the WCA will leave the UMC. There are long-standing provisions for local churches to leave the denomination, and General Conference 2019 created a new provision (Paragraph 2553) for departures, though the status of that paragraph is somewhat in question due to voting irregularities at General Conference 2019. Less clear is the ability of annual conferences, either in the United States or elsewhere around the world, to unilaterally leave the denomination without action of General Conference. Does the WCA leave as a series of local churches, or do some annual conferences decide to unilaterally depart? At stake is a series of potential lawsuits, if those remaining in the UMC decide they are worth bringing.
The WCA has made clear their intent to be a global denomination. What then happens in the Central Conferences? Russia, for instance, would likely want to leave en masse. Again, does this happen unilaterally, or is there an attempt to go through the (much slower) BOD-provided means for a central conference becoming autonomous, which require eventual General Conference action. What happens elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where attitudes on sexuality are conservative, but ties to Western Europe are important? Europeans were likely to resolve these issues themselves, but do they decide not to wait for General Conference to do their own restructuring?
It is possible that entire annual conferences depart in some places in Africa (perhaps Liberia, for instance), but in many other areas (the Congo, for instance), it seems that the bishops are trying to resist efforts to leave the denomination. Divisions are likely, but local divisions in the UMC in various African nations have happened before without most people at General Conference even being aware of them.
Restructuring the Remaining United Methodist Church
If the WCA leaves before a postponed GC, that also means the Protocol becomes unnecessary when General Conference does finally meet. Thus, if denominational division happens before a postponed General Conference can meet, the most important piece of legislation facing such a General Conference would not be the by-then irrelevant Protocol, but the Christmas Covenant, which would remain a vital component for restructuring the remaining UMC on a more equitable basis.
In that regard, it would be interesting to see whether those promoting the Christmas Covenant and the US as a Regional Conference, which are similar but not identical packages of legislation, would continue to work in harmony, as the Connectional Table has thus far implied, or whether these two plans would come to be seen as competing versions of regional restructuring. The Christmas Covenant is likely to have better support outside the US, and thus it is the more likely vision to win out.
Of course, it is difficult to predict what the political forces at work in a post-separation without the Protocol United Methodist Church would look like two or three years from now. Still, the Christmas Covenant should be required reading for those thinking about the future of the denomination. The rest we will have to wait and see.