Organizers have called off, for now, plans to hold The United Methodist Church’s first General Conference outside the United States.
Behind closed doors, the Commission on General Conference decided to cancel heading to Manila, Philippines, for the 2024 gathering of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.
“The decision was based solely on the lack of availability,” said the Rev. Gary George, the commission’s secretary, in reporting the group’s decision.
“Financial implications and the current climate in the church were not factors in the decision,” he added.
George, a member of the East Ohio Conference, reported the commission’s decision moments before it adjourned its Aug. 7-9 meeting at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, Ky.
The decision comes less than a year before the next General Conference. Minneapolis will host that gathering on May 5-15. The commission has not yet determined where the 2024 General Conference will be.
The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have held a General Conference every four years since 1792.
Regardless of the reasons, Filipino commission members still expressed disappointment in the decision.
“I feel so sad. I spoke passionately about my disappointment in this decision,” said Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso “Rudy” Juan, a commission member. “I did not support the cancellation, but I respect the decision.”
Juan, who leads the Davao Area in the southern Philippines, initially issued the invitation for the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly to meet in his home country.
Phebe Cosmiano, a commission member and deaconess in the Visayas Conference, said the August meeting was the first time she heard about possible problems with holding the big meeting in Manila.
“There’s frustration,” she said. “My bishop did his best to fight for it. But the decision is final. … In spite of that, I know God always makes a way.”
The U.S. State Department currently has a travel advisory related to violence in certain parts of the Philippines, but it does not apply to Manila.
The issue was availability of hotel rooms and convention space for the assembly, Sara Hotchkiss — General Conference business manager — told United Methodist News. A press release, published Aug. 13, added that space was not available for the entire two weeks needed, and General Conference organizers received no bid from facilities contacted in the bid process.
In March, United Methodists in Manila hosted some 75 church leaders who are drafting proposals on which parts of the Book of Discipline apply globally and which parts can be adapted in Africa, Europe and Asia.
However, that was a significantly smaller gathering than the typical General Conference, which draws thousands of people.
At the time, Hotchkiss raised concerns during public session about whether the Philippines capital city had the space for the denomination’s biggest meeting.
She said the city’s International Convention Center had booths set up for interpreters but it would require theater seating, rather than the tables delegates usually use during plenary. She also said the closest hotel within walking distance had a casino, a destination in conflict with the denomination’s Social Principles.
Even in 2015, the commission agreed no contracts would be signed unless facilities were sufficient.
While infrastructure was the main concern, the fact remains that the commission’s decision comes at a stressful time for the denomination.
Following the special 2019 General Conference — called to address the denomination’s longtime debate over homosexuality — United Methodist leaders have been discussing ways to divide the denomination along theological lines. Giving to support general church ministries, including General Conference, has also declined significantly.
Still, Juan held out hope the Philippines might indeed one day play host to United Methodist decision-makers from around the globe.
During closing worship, he said, “Maybe General Conference will be in Manila in 2028.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.