While the commission did not disclose internal discussions, the group did face requests before its meeting, especially from traditionalists, that whatever shortened agenda it chose include the protocol for separation.
After decades of debate over LGBTQ inclusion, the protocol opens the door for new denominations to break away with property and church funds. A traditionalist coalition and a liberationist group already have plans to depart. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a traditionalist group, has a global gathering scheduled for May 1 to discuss its plans for its future denomination.
However, the process outlined in the protocol hinges on General Conference approval. For now, the Judicial Council — the denomination’s top court — has the bishops’ request to review the protocol’s constitutionality on its current docket.
The agenda for the coming May 8 special General Conference includes legislation to:
• Bring the Discipline in line with a recent Judicial Council decision.
• Maintain the current denomination’s budget until the full global lawmaking assembly can meet.
• Give the General Conference commission and other bodies more flexibility in dealing with delays caused by war, political upheaval, natural disaster, disease outbreak, travel restrictions or other developments.
Crucially, the new legislation would allow bishops planning to retire to do so this year — potentially relieving some strain on the denomination’s finances.
Originally, after the delay in General Conference, the Council of Bishops announced that jurisdictional conferences would meet in November, and central conferences began scheduling their meetings. The five jurisdictional conferences elect bishops who serve in the U.S., and seven central conferences elect the bishops who serve in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
But the trouble was, the Discipline sets the retirement date for U.S. bishops on Aug. 31 following a regular session of the jurisdictional conference — meaning any U.S. bishop planning to retire before the coming jurisdictional conference would have to wait until August 2022 to step down.
Now, the Council of Bishops is offering legislation to eliminate the Aug. 31 mandate and instead replace it with 60 days after jurisdictional conferences adjourn.
The bishops also have set a new timeline that includes special sessions of the jurisdictional conferences to be held virtually in July 2021.
The Episcopal Fund that supports bishops’ work is already financially strapped. The Council of Bishops has recommended delegates not elect any new U.S. bishops until 2024, although some delegates are discussing at least electing some successors for retiring bishops.
The denomination has 24 bishops who plan to step down as soon as possible, including 16 in the U.S.
Ultimately, the number of bishops is in the hands of delegates.