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.
When the organizers of General Conference postponed that event from May 2020 to August-September 2021 because of the onslaught of the coronavirus, a 15 month delay surely seemed like enough time to bring the pandemic under control. Even last fall, as some (including this blog) began to raise questions about whether an in-person General Conference 2021 would be feasible, hope remained that a soon-to-come vaccination campaign would still allow United Methodists to meet face-to-face in Minneapolis.
Now, a month or so after the first vaccines were approved in the United States, we as a denomination need to be honest: Vaccines won't save an in-person General Conference 2021.
To see why, I'll look at where things stand in Africa and the United States and the impact of new variants of the virus before asking: What then?
The first and largest hurdle to holding an in-person General Conference is the availability of vaccines for African delegates. As United Methodist Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and others have noted, vaccines will likely not be available in Africa until 2022 or even later. Simply put, rich countries have bought up the supply of vaccine projected to be available in the next year, leaving none for developing nations.
Without vaccinations, it may not even be legal for African delegates to travel to the United States for General Conference in 2021, depending on what restrictions are then in place. It is certainly not safe or ethical. The danger is less that unvaccinated delegates would bring COVID to General Conference (COVID rates in almost all countries in Africa being much lower than in the United States) and more than unvaccinated delegates would pick up COVID at General Conference and then bring it back home with them, setting off spikes of the pandemic and leading to deaths in United Methodist communities throughout the continent.
Yet, to hold a General Conference without participation by African delegates, who make up approximately 40% of the total, would be a travesty of democracy and a betrayal of denominational polity. In is simply unacceptable to disenfranchise that much of the church. The lack of vaccinations in Africa alone is likely to make an in-person General Conference impossible.
The United States
Even for delegates from the United States, though, there are still open questions about whether an indoor gathering of 1,000 people at the end of summer would be a good idea or not. Vaccines have already started going out, and new president Joe Biden has promised 100 million doses in the next 100 days. Early roll-out has been plagued by logistical challenges, however, which are likely to continue, and vaccine production is currently behind schedule.
Even if the United States hits its 100 million goal by the end of April, that is still less than a third of the total population. It will take longer to vaccinate the rest. A record number of young delegates were elected for the next General Conference, and young people are likely to be among the last groups to receive vaccinations. There is a realistic chance that not all delegates from the United States will be vaccinated by the end of August, let alone delegates from other countries.
The new variants
The other factor that will likely prolong the global impact of the pandemic is the rise of new variants of the coronavirus. New, more quickly-spreading strains of the disease have been identified in Britain, South Africa, and Brazil. These new variants may make reinfection more likely. While vaccines still appear effective against the new variants, their effectiveness may be somewhat reduced. And there is no reason to think that the three new variants identified so far will be the last to appear. The Atlantic has said that the United States is in a race between the vaccine and the variants. The rise of new variants of the virus is likely to prolong the pandemic, in the United States and around the world.
If it is indeed infeasible to have an in-person General Conference meeting at the end of summer 2021, what are the alternatives?
One option is to have a virtual or distributed General Conference in which technology allows participants in different locations to participate in some form of General Conference. A technology study team appointed by the Commission on General Conference will submit its report on this possibility this weekend for the Commission to consider at their next meeting on Feb. 20.
The other option is to further delay General Conference, either to 2022 or later, depending on when it seems realistic to expect that delegates from around the world could gather. Of course, as with this current postponement, a further delay may not still be enough to bring the pandemic under control.
Neither of these options are great choices. I am not advocating for either based on their own merits. But I do think it behooves us as a denomination to be honest and clear-sighted about where the pandemic is likely to be at come the end of summer and to plan accordingly.