Organizers of General Conference got an update on two challenges that could particularly affect The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly later this year.
They discussed both the process for late-arriving legislation and problems that could prevent delegates from receiving needed visas.
“I just thought it’s better for us to be proactive and not reactive,” said Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission on the General Conference. She initiated the Jan. 30 online meeting.
Top of the agenda was how to handle legislation that has yet to arrive, including the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.” The mediated agreement by a diverse group of bishops and advocacy group leaders seeks to end the denomination’s decades-long dispute around LGBTQ inclusion.
The deadline for most legislation passed in September — 230 days before the opening of General Conference — and those validly submitted petitions are now available for review online.
However, a little-used part of the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — allows annual conferences to submit legislation later if they meet between 230 and 45 days before General Conference. The 2020 General Conference will be May 5-15 in Minneapolis.
The commission is aware of at least two legislative packages expected to be sent by annual conferences, and there could be more.
The Alaska Conference has called a special session Feb. 22 to consider submitting legislation that would discontinue its missionary conference status and open the door for it to become a missionary district of the Pacific Northwest Conference.
Four annual conference sessions plan to take up the protocol, the New York Conference’s Bishop Thomas Bickerton told the General Conference organizers. He is a member of both the General Conference commission and the protocol mediation team.
“One of the wildcards,” Bickerton said, is that each annual conference could amend the protocol legislation. “But we’re going in with leadership to encourage those annual conferences to simply be the vehicle to get the protocol to General Conference.”
The annual conferences would each meet in a few weeks with the goal of getting the legislation officially submitted in March, he said.
He later told UM News on Jan. 31 that the protocol legislation was being finalized that weekend and negotiations were still taking place about which conferences will take up the legislation. He said he and other protocol team members anticipated the legislation being released publicly in the coming week. The legislation was released Feb. 6.
Leaders of 14 conference delegations in the Southeastern Jurisdiction affirmed the protocol and urged that it be one of the first legislation items considered at GC2020.
There is also the possibility that annual conferences in the Philippines or Africa will submit legislation in support of the Christmas Covenant that calls for legislative equality between the U.S. and regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
The Rev. Gary Graves, General Conference secretary, walked the commission through the process of what happens with all legislation once it arrives.
First, he said, the petitions secretary — the Rev. Abby Parker Herrera — reviews legislation to see that it is in the proper format for General Conference to consider.
Any legislation deemed “invalid” or that arrives past the legislation deadline gets reviewed by the bishops-appointed Committee on Reference that meets the day before General Conference opens. This year, the committee is scheduled to meet May 4.
Although legislation submitted from the coming annual conference sessions would not technically be late, Graves said the petitions would undergo a similar review process. The Committee on Reference would assign the legislation to whatever it deems the appropriate legislative committee.
Graves added that he works closely with annual conference secretaries to make sure they properly submit petitions on behalf of their conferences. The General Conference commission agreed to produce a press release that would contain instructions for petitions from annual conferences.
The commission also received an update on visa difficulties that could prevent delegates from having a say on any legislation.
President Donald Trump's administration announced Jan. 31 an expanded travel restrictions on people from the countries of Belarus, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Nigeria and Tanzania.
The travel ban could affect 28 voting General Conference delegates from Nigeria and Tanzania, said Sara Hotchkiss, General Conference business manager. Such a ban could also affect two delegates from the affiliated, autonomous church in Myanmar, who have voice but not vote.
Hotchkiss’ office issues the invitation letters for U.S. visas. She said the ban appeared to be in effect before the Jan. 31 announcement. “We already have had some delegates turned down from Nigeria,” she said.
She said the United Methodist Board of Church and Society is working with the U.S. State Department and U.S. senators to advocate for those delegates to get the required visas.
She added that delegates from Liberia also are facing challenges. The country is not part of the travel ban, but the U.S. embassy of Liberia has temporarily suspended its non-immigrant visa operations. That means delegates cannot make the appointments necessary to interview for business visas.
Hotchkiss said she does not know the reason for the suspension or how long it will last. Her office is looking to see if the delegates can qualify for urgent-travel visas. The Liberia Conference is supposed to have 18 voting delegates at GC2020.
Thirty-one delegates were absent from the 2019 special General Conference, primarily because they could not gain visas.
“We are working as best as we can,” Hotchkiss said.
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.