One of the many repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic—which has now killed more than 100,000 Americans—is that the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination is stuck in limbo. This month, the United Methodist Church (UMC) was scheduled to hold its quadrennial General Conference in Minneapolis, with a debate about homosexuality causing a potential schism. But the 10-day meeting and the much-anticipated vote have been bumped to August 29, 2021, still in Minneapolis.
The postponement was announced in March, when safety concerns forced the Minneapolis Convention Center to restrict events. Organizers say securing a new date was complicated by the meeting’s length and size, with attendees coming from across the globe. Planning for the 2020 conference began back in 2013.
Young Delegates Aren’t Happy With the New Date
The new date, at the beginning of the academic year, isn’t ideal, say younger delegates. Several expressed concern and petitioned for a change, but conference organizers say that would mean pushing the meeting into 2022 and losing substantial amounts of money.
The UMC’s Council of Bishops urged the Commission on the General Conference to consider the petition, but the Commission said accommodating the request wasn’t possible. Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission, says, “Including young adults in the General Conference is always an important consideration. We affirm that their voices need to be heard. Unfortunately, this request did not come to the Commission until late in the process.”
Young-adult delegate Jessica Vittorio says her group immediately expressed concern, which “really relates to an injustice.” She and her peers encountered roadblocks such as secrecy while trying to find a solution, Vittorio adds.
Now the Commission is considering tech-related options such as virtual voting to ensure that young people’s voices will be heard next fall. After the recent death of a black man at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, organizers also could face fallout for meeting in that city.
Pandemic Takes Precedence
At what’s expected to be a historic meeting, UMC delegates will vote on a variety of proposals for the denomination’s future. Currently, because the UMC considers “the practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching,” it prohibits same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay clergy. The so-called Traditional Plan passed at a Special Session of the General Conference in February 2019, sparking an outcry that made an eventual schism seem inevitable.
LGBTQ supporters say the pandemic has become another barrier to inclusion. Jan Lawrence of the Reconciling Ministries Network says that while the delay is understandable, “the harm is immense.” The Rev. Henry Gibson, a pansexual youth minister, says delaying one crisis because of another doesn’t make the original problem—a lack of inclusion—irrelevant. “That other crisis doesn’t just go away.”
Others say the 16-month delay is a blessing, giving Methodists more time to think and adapt. Plus, they note, pandemic response has become the priority. “The people who are really in trauma right now cannot pay the price of our differences,” says Council of Bishops President Kenneth Carter. “What is in our minds and hearts is responding to death, illness, grief, loss of work.”
Interestingly, the UMC’s General Conference was upended by disease 220 years ago. In 1800, the meeting was moved from October to May because of yellow fever, and the May date had stuck since then.