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.
We are now just over a year from the dates currently set for the next General Conference: August 29 - September 6, 2022. At this point, it is too early to tell whether such a meeting will actually be possible, given the challenges of organizing a large international event amid an on-going pandemic with unequal global access to vaccines. For the sake of this post, I will assume it will be.
In some ways, the COVID pandemic has felt like a break from denominational politics. There still have been some major developments--consecutive postponements of General Conference, the abortive May 8 Special General Conference, the announcement of the Global Methodist Church, continued promotion of the Christmas Covenant, etc.--and this blog has commented on those as much as anyone.
Still, without many large meetings of United Methodists from around the United States or around the world happening, a lot of the public politicking that characterized the several years before the pandemic has been on hold. Developments have still happened, but they have come more from closed networks not visible to the public. And many pastors and annual conference staff have had their attention consumed by local programmatic and financial concerns associated with the pandemic.
Yet, the ways in which the pandemic has distracted from and diminished denominational politics should not lead one to think that GC2022 will be any less conflict-ridden, if it happens. On the contrary, the coronavirus pandemic will likely increase the amount of conflict at GC2022.
To understand why, think of the current debates over school mask policies in the United States. Conservatives government leaders have forbidden schools in some parts of the country from instituting mask requirements, to the ire of local school leaders and parents concerned for the well-being of their children. Where schools have been able to require masks, there has been significant push back, at times even to the point of violence. COVID precautions have become a culture war issue.
This is apparent in local church ministry and at the annual conference level. Much of what has distracted clergy and annual conference leaders from denominational politics over the past year and a half has been trying to figure out how and when to require and/or provide guidance on COVID precautions. This has not just been a scientific issue of trying to understand medical best practices; it has been a social issue of negotiating vastly divergent views of the pandemic among congregants. Questions about whether churches should meet in person, wear masks, sing, be required to be vaccinated, shake hands, and more have generated heated debate in many congregations.
If such questions have divided congregations with pre-existing relationships, some shared characteristics, and immediate common interests, how much more will similar questions roil preparations for General Conference? How will debates about whether General Conference delegates must be vaccinated go? What will the guidance about masks at General Conference be, and how will participants react when some attendees do not follow, or even flout, that guidance? How will General Conference be set up to promote social distancing? What will worship look like when some will want to sing lustily and with good courage and others will feel threatened by the same?
Some of these questions will have to be settled before General Conference starts. But that is likely to leave people of varying opinions upset, defensive, and therefore aggressive before the meeting ever begins. It will not lead to people, as the bishops urged before GC2019, showing up with "a heart of peace." Moreover, whatever fights over setting COVID precautions happen before the meeting will be immediately compounded by whether or not people follow those precautions.
Beyond COVID, there's the issue of race, which has taken on increased salience within the United States and within the UMC during the pandemic. Both US Progressives and US Traditionalists are likely to try to use this issue against each other, with US Progressives accusing US Traditionalists of disregarding people of color in the United States on domestic racial issues, and US Traditionalists accusing US Progressives of disregarding people of color around the world on the issue of sexuality.
General Conference has long been a forum in which the tensions of US culture wars have exploded in increasingly dramatic ways. Historically, most (but not all) of those tensions have been focused on issues surrounding the status of LGBTQ persons in the denomination. Although delegate elections in 2019 may have shifted the balance of delegates identifying with different sides of the US culture wars, people on both sides will still be present.
The pandemic has also done nothing to reduce the tensions around the status of LGBTQ persons, which both sides have largely accepted as irreconcilable at this point. Instead, what the pandemic has done is provide a series of new cultural flashpoints to fuel conflict at General Conference. The pandemic has made United Methodists wait for the next General Conference. But the conflicts at that meeting will be only more spectacular because of it.