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.
Today's post is an attempt to address frequently asked questions about General Conference and the effects of the on-going pandemic on it.
I have seen contradictory statements about General Conference 2022. The "A Call to Grace" statement said it was unlikely to happen, but Good News says that's not true. Is General Conference happening next year or not?
In short, that decision has not been made yet.
The Commission on General Conference is the group tasked with preparing for General Conference, and they get the final say on whether General Conference happens or not. The Commission has already decided to postpone the General Conference twice, to its currently scheduled dates of Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022. While the group is making preparations for an in-person conference next year, there is also the possibility that the could decide that conditions related to the pandemic necessitate a further postponement or even cancellation of General Conference. In the latter case, General Conference would likely not meet again until its regularly scheduled 2024 meeting.
The Commission will make a decision sometime in the first several months of 2022.
What about a virtual General Conference? Is that another possibility?
While holding a virtual or distributed General Conference is an idea that has gotten a lot of discussion, including on this blog, the Commission on General Conference seems opposed to the idea. A sub-committee released a report earlier this year that explored a variety of virtual options, but ultimately concluded that such options did not provide for equitable participation across the globe. A proposal by the Council of Bishops for a very limited virtual General Conference earlier this year had to be scrapped because of opposition. While it is possible that the Commission on General Conference could reconsider the idea, that seems unlikely.
What factors will the Commission on General Conference use to make a decision on whether or not to hold General Conference next year?
Based on the decisions made and reports issued by the Commission thus far, its strong preference seems to be for an in-person meeting that a broadly representative swath of delegates are able to attend. The main factors then become whether delegates from around the world are able to travel to Minneapolis, MN to attend. The largest influencing factor there is the policies that the United States government sets for travel to the United States for visitors from other countries.
What are those US government travel policies? I heard that the United States reopened to visitors this week.
The US government did update its travel policies for visitors to the United States as of this Monday, Nov. 8. It loosened requirements to allow all fully vaccinated persons from outside the United States to travel to the United States, provided they had a negative COVID test within three days before travel. While this is good news for delegates from Europe, where there has been extensive access to vaccine, this policy change does not much help delegates from many parts of Africa, where less than 10% of the population in almost all cases and less than 1% of the population in some cases is fully vaccinated.
But isn't there an exception for travelers from countries with low vaccination rates?
There is such an exception, but only for certain types of visas. B1/B2 visas, which are the type of visa that General Conference delegates use, are not covered under this exception.
Can't UMCOR do anything to vaccinate delegates to allow them to attend?
UMCOR is helping sponsor the “Love Beyond Borders: The Interfaith Movement to End the Pandemic” campaign to promote global vaccine distribution. That campaign does not allow UMCOR to direct vaccine doses to particular recipients. The process of distributing vaccines, especially internationally, is a complicated logistical process that requires significant medical, storage, legal, and transportation infrastructure. UMCOR does not possess such infrastructure on its own, which is why it is partnering with other organizations to promote global vaccinations.
But if delegates can get vaccinated, they should be set, right?
Even vaccinated delegates from developing countries could still face obstacles in obtaining visas or may have limited access to COVID tests, which must be taken within three days before travel. Even when such tests are available, they may be expensive or may add to the expenses of in-country travel for delegates, if they must therefore arrive in an airport city an extra day or two in advance of their departure to take a COVID test.
How much world-wide participation will be enough for the Commission on General Conference to decide to proceed?
This is ultimately the big question. No General Conference has the full participation of all its elected delegates, if for no other reason than US visas are a perennial problem for General Conference delegates. The Commission on General Conference cannot guarantee that all delegates will be able to attend a General Conference in 2022, no matter what. But they seem to want to make sure that large groups are not automatically excluded from participation.
The biggest consideration to watch, then, is the Democratic Republic of Congo. With nearly a quarter of the denomination's membership and over a sixth of General Conference delegates, the DRC is the largest group of United Methodists outside of the United States. It also currently has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world (0.04% of its population fully vaccinated). If it looks like most delegates from the DR Congo will be unable to attend General Conference, then the Commission is likely to postpone or cancel General Conference, rather than hold it without representation from such a significant group within the church. There will be and should be "no GC without the DRC."