Groups offer conflicting calls on General Conference

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Key points:

  • A letter signed by 170 General Conference delegates — including 32 in Africa — urges organizers to postpone the legislative assembly to 2024.
  • The letter also asks for an investigation of a vaccine initiative launched by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
  • Meanwhile, an African advocacy group that works with the WCA is urging that General Conference move forward this year.

Pointing to ongoing concerns around COVID-19, a group of General Conference delegates is urging a third postponement of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — this time to 2024.

“We strongly urge the Commission on the General Conference to postpone the General Conference until 2024, when it seems more likely that we could properly ensure the health, safety, and participation of all attendees,” said a letter to the commission signed by 170 delegates from around the globe. The commission received the names of all the signers. 

The letter also expressed concern about an advocacy group’s initiative to cover some delegates’ travel to receive vaccines.

In January, the Wesleyan Covenant Association announced that it was working with other like-minded, theologically conservative groups to pay General Conference delegates in Africa, Eurasia and the Philippines for the travel costs of getting their shots.

The WCA argues that some delegates need financial assistance to reach the cities where governments are distributing vaccines for free. International travelers to the U.S. are required to have proof of vaccination.

However, the delegates’ letter urged the General Conference commission to appoint a task force “to investigate the WCA’s efforts to exert undue influence by offering direct cash payments to General Conference delegates outside the U.S.”

Meanwhile, the Africa Initiative — an advocacy group of African church leaders aligned with the WCA — released a statement urging that General Conference move forward.

“Further delay of this global gathering would do much harm to progressives and conservatives alike who are deeply convinced about moving forward to do ministry as they know and understand it based on their convictions,” the group said. Nineteen Africa Initiative leaders, many of whom are delegates, signed the statement.

More than 30 General Conference delegates from Africa signed the letter urging delay. Another African advocacy group, the Africa Voice of Unity, also sent a statement to the General Conference commission urging delay and noting that delegates are having trouble getting visas. 

The commission received the correspondence as it considers whether The United Methodist Church’s top legislative meeting — already twice postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic — can go forward as now scheduled Aug. 29-Sept. 6 in Minneapolis. The commission next meets on Feb. 24 and plans to make a decision by the end of March.

Chief among the commission’s criteria for going forward is that a reasonable threshold of delegates from around the world can participate. The commission previously identified barriers to holding the gathering online.

The coming General Conference has 862 voting delegates — 55.9% 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.

The delegates’ letter asks the commission to make its decision “as soon as possible to give delegates, bishops, and denominational officials ample time to make preparations and plans…”

Many expect this General Conference to be pivotal. After decades of intensifying debate over the status of LGBTQ people in the church, the coming General Conference faces multiple proposals to divide the denomination along theological lines.

The most endorsed of these is the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. If adopted, the protocol would allow churches and annual conferences that support restrictions on gay marriage and ordination to leave with church property and $25 million in United Methodist funds to form a new denomination. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is leading the formation of that new denomination, the Global Methodist Church.

With so much at stake, the coming General Conference needs to have integrity, said the Rev. Jeffrey Kuan. He is one of the letter signers and a veteran delegate from the denomination’s California-Nevada Conference.

“If we cannot have a significant number of delegates from the central conferences, this will be a compromised General Conference, whatever the outcome is,” he said.

Central conferences are church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The letter notes that many delegates from those regions may not be able to get visas in time to participate in General Conference because of COVID-related backlogs.

According to the U.S. State Department, the current wait time for a visa appointment is 850 days in Abuja, Nigeria; 448 days in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo; 370 days in Manila, Philippines; and 250 days in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

It is also unclear what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will mean for travel. The U.S. embassy in Moscow is granting visas only on an emergency basis, and the embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, is closed. General Conference has delegates from both Russia and the Ukraine-Moldova Conference.

Of the letter signers, 43 live in United Methodist central conferences. The other signers come from across the U.S.

The Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau, a veteran delegate from the North Katanga Conference in Congo, is one of 32 signers who live in Africa. She also is one of 19 signers of the Africa Voice of Unity statement. 

She typically travels to the U.S. embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, to obtain a visa. Kazadi said she has tried to secure an interview date, but none is available at least through April. Even with an appointment, she said, travel can take three or four days to reach the embassy and another few days after the interview to obtain a visa. She added that COVID-19 tests are required to travel between regions.

While she sees no need for a task force to investigate the WCA, she agrees with the letter that the association is acting inappropriately in sending funds to delegates.

“It is a way to create disorder within a respective annual conference,” she said. “And such an attitude is not acceptable. It is not an appropriate way of lobbying for the agenda to pass.”

She said the North Katanga Conference has held training to mobilize people to get vaccinated. “This is the work of the church.”

Dave Nuckols, one of the letter signers and co-head of the Minnesota Conference delegation, supports the formation of a task force to investigate the WCA’s vaccine effort. He especially takes issue with the advocacy group continuing the effort, despite alarm bells raised by United Methodist bishops and some General Conference commission leaders.

Nuckols said the WCA’s effort “has undermined both (1) the perceived legislative integrity of the General Conference body and (2) the UMC's current missional priority to combat vaccine hesitancy and mistrust.”

He is a member of the Connectional Table, a denominational leadership body that alongside the United Methodist Council of Bishops, is working to promote global equity in vaccine distribution.

The United Methodist Church also has the Love Beyond Borders Advance, a designated fund that helps procure and supply vaccines worldwide.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, for its part, insists that General Conference can go forward, and its vaccine effort is part of that.

In a Feb. 11 essay titled “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way,” the Rev. Keith Boyette wrote that the WCA and its partners are pleased to report more than half the delegates in Congo, Tanzania and Zambia are now vaccinated.

“We anticipate the remaining delegates who opt to be vaccinated will have completed their regimen of shots by the end of February,” wrote Boyette, WCA’s president. “More than $119,000 has been generously given to the Vaccination Access Initiative.”

The Africa Initiative statement advocating for General Conference this year says the group has tried to survey 286 delegates elected from Africa. The group said it estimates only 10% are unvaccinated, and that the remaining can get the needed shots before May. The initiative also says visa appointments have begun to open up.

Nuckols and other letter signers acknowledged that the General Conference commission faces many challenges in planning this church-defining meeting during a pandemic. 

“Commission members are in a hard and lonely position, so I’m glad we can support them in making the best and timely decision,” Nuckols said.

Letter signers also acknowledged that after decades of church debate, many delegates are eager to move on with a formal separation.

Molly McEntire, a letter signer from the Florida Conference, said she knows the commission members are facing a lot pressure to hold General Conference in 2022.

“I would love to have General Conference,” she said. “But for the last two years, I have been thinking about how can I protect and care for my neighbors.”

She said those neighbors include delegates from four continents.

“I think we have to listen to God to figure out a way that we can have full in-person participation from all persons around the world.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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