With the coronavirus pandemic threatening lives around the globe, bishops are asking for a postponement of General Conference — The United Methodist Church’s biggest global meeting.
The denomination’s top policymaking assembly is currently scheduled for May 5-15 in Minneapolis. The event is supposed to draw 862 delegates, 66 bishops and guests from four continents. However, the coronavirus jeopardizes the ability to hold such a gathering.
“We want to communicate to the world that people are more important than our getting closure on our legislative work,” Bishop Kenneth Carter, Council of Bishops president and leader of the Florida Conference, told UM News.
“I believe this could save lives.”
In a letter to General Conference organizers, the Council of Bishops executive committee said travel restrictions to the U.S. make it difficult for European, African and Asian delegates to reach Minneapolis.
“Consideration must also be given to the grave risk resulting from international travel and meeting in a very large gathering with the potential spread of the virus when we are together,” said the bishops’ letter.
The bishops sent the letter to the Rev. Gary Graves, General Conference secretary, and Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission on the General Conference. The decision to reschedule is in the hands of the commission, which plans the big meeting.
The commission plans to hold a meeting by teleconference March 21 to discuss escalating concerns over the coronavirus.
“We take our responsibility seriously to provide the delegates with a safe environment in which to make important decisions affecting the life and future of the denomination and to assure the full participation of all delegates in the decision-making process,” Kim Simpson, chair of the commission, said in a statement. “We appreciate the counsel of the Council of Bishops’ executive committee and others as we seek to make a decision that is in the best interest of all concerned.”
Bishop Thomas Bickerton serves on both the executive committee and represents the bishops on the General Conference commission with voice but not vote.
“We realize that the final decision is in the hands of the commission but in response to our role as shepherds of the church worldwide, we felt strongly that we needed to urge the postponement of General Conference at this time,” said Bickerton. He also leads the New York Conference, which includes New Rochelle, where a containment zone for the virus is in effect.
As of March 16, more than 140 countries and territories have reported cases of the COVID-19 virus. In total, there are more than 179,000 cases and more than 6,500 related deaths.
Efforts to reduce the spread of the disease have led to closures and cancellations around the globe. Leaders all over the world have banned public gatherings. Sports leagues have suspended their seasons, Broadway theaters are dark, and tourist attractions from the Eiffel Tower to the Tokyo Tower are shuttered. Many United Methodist pastors also have suspended worship at their churches, with some turning to online services instead.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 15 called for the cancellation of mass gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
The Minneapolis Convention Center — where the next General Conference is scheduled — announced that on the recommendation of the Minnesota Department of health and governor, it is postponing or canceling events through April 12 and may extend that based on further health guidance.
Significantly, for General Conference, travel restrictions from Europe to the U.S. took effect March 13.
Those restrictions particularly affect delegates from central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. Even delegates from outside Europe frequently must stopover at an airport on the continent before landing in the U.S.
Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso “Rudy” Juan, who leads the Davao Area in the southern Philippines and serves on the General Conference commission, said Filipinos were already having trouble gaining visas to the U.S. — possibly because of the Philippines' moves to end a longstanding defense agreement with the U.S.
Filipinos also now face increasing travel restrictions at home, Juan said. Manila and other cities in the country are locked down because of the pandemic. "It is a wise idea to postpone," he said.
Even if there is a quorum present in Minneapolis, Nordic-Baltic Area Bishop Christian Alsted said, "the absence of a high number of delegates from central conferences will create a democratic deficit that will be damaging to the credibility of all decisions made at General Conference." Under church law, General Conference only requires a majority of delegates to have a quorum.
The bishops acknowledged that any decision to delay comes at a sensitive time for the church.
This General Conference was set to consider multiple proposals to resolve the denomination’s longtime debate over homosexuality by splitting the church. Among the proposals under consideration is the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” a mediated agreement among leaders who are usually on opposing sides of the debate. Bishops Carter, Bickerton, Juan and Alsted all signed on to the protocol.
General Conference, which has typically met every four years since 1792, also is responsible for other crucial decisions in the life of the church. These include electing members of the Judicial Council, the denomination’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, and voting on the four-year budget that funds denomination-wide ministries.
Planning the 10-day meeting, which costs millions of dollars, also is a multiyear endeavor that requires reserving a convention center, hotel space and flights for the delegates.
In their letter, the bishops promised to walk alongside the commission in the work of rescheduling as well as with those who suffer from the pandemic.
“We must be mindful first and foremost of the mission,” said Bishop Cynthia Harvey, the next president of the Council of Bishops and leader of the Louisiana Conference. She also signed the protocol.
“Many have been and will be impacted by this virus. What I know about United Methodists is that we are resilient and we know how to respond in times of disaster; perhaps we should apply much of what we have learned over time to this current crisis.”