The General Conference Commission chair recently outlined the issues facing organizers of the United Methodist Church’s 2021 legislative assembly.
Vaccines may not be enough to save an in-person General Conference this year — but virtual technology may not suffice either.
General Conference organizers have made no final decisions about whether The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly can go forward as planned on Aug. 29-Sept. 7 in Minneapolis.
However, the Commission on the General Conference chair recently outlined the challenges facing the group as it weighs options for the international gathering already postponed from 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kim Simpson, the chair, spoke during the Feb. 4 online meeting of the Connectional Table, a church leadership body that coordinates ministry and resources for denomination-wide ministries.
“As you know, the commission is trying the best it can to make sure we can make best-informed decisions for all delegates and have equal opportunity for adequate information,” Simpson said.
The coming General Conference could be pivotal. Delegates face multiple proposals to resolve United Methodists’ intensifying debate over homosexuality by splitting the denomination along theological lines.
The commission plans to meet online Feb. 20 to review a report from its technology study team, appointed last fall to look at virtual options for the coming gathering.
The coming General Conference has 862 voting delegates — 55.9% come from the U.S., 32% from Africa, 6% from the Philippines, 4.6% from Europe, and the remainder from concordat churches that have close ties to The United Methodist Church. Also, the global gathering typically requires bishops and hundreds of staff and volunteers — including marshals, pages, interpreters, and translators — to function.
Meeting in person may be out of the question. COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out slowly worldwide, more contagious virus variants are emerging, and travel restrictions continue worldwide. At present, the state of Minnesota is limiting indoor gatherings to no more than 150 people.
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Yet, in this time of Facebook Live worship and daily Zoom hangouts, taking the denomination’s biggest church meeting online is no simple task.
Simpson listed eight issues the commission must consider for General Conference to meet electronically:
Connectivity: “Internet and even electricity are not readily available to everyone equitably in areas where The United Methodist Church is located,” Simpson said.
Time zones: There is a 16-hour difference between the West Coast in the United States and the Philippines.
Interpretation: Nine languages are spoken at General Conference. Church law also requires that proposals and the proceedings be translated into four languages: English, French, Portuguese, and Kiswahili.
Legislative committees: Legislative committees are the first stop for most petitions submitted to General Conference, with only committee-approved legislation heading to the plenary for a vote by all delegates. The coming General Conference has 14 legislative committees, and each includes delegates from around the globe who speak multiple languages.
Presiding officers: Presiding officers elected by delegates lead individual legislative committees, and bishops preside in plenary sessions. “How will presiding officers be accommodated, and where will they be located?” Simpson asked.
Safety and integrity of the voting process: The commission was already looking to enhance identification requirements after finding that at the contentious special 2019 General Conference, four ineligible people cast votes using the credentials of delegates who were not present.
Book of Discipline and General Conference rules: General Conference must meet requirements laid out in the Discipline, the denomination’s law book, and its own rules approved by delegates. Simpson noted the commission would need to make sure that the ways delegates meet together and vote satisfy those requirements.
Christian conferencing: Simpson wondered how church leaders could have meaningful discussions in virtual settings.
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