By: Heather Hahn, UMNS
The Council of Bishops announced the call to a special General Conference Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri.
The special meeting of The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly will be limited to acting on a report by the Council of Bishops, based on the proposals from the Commission on the Way Forward. The 32-member commission, appointed by the bishops, has the charge of finding ways for the denomination to stay together despite deep differences around homosexuality.
General Conference, which usually meets every four years, is the only body that can speak for the denomination.
“The Council of Bishops encourages the entire church to continue in deep, unceasing prayer for Holy Spirit breakthroughs for the Commission on a Way Forward and the Special Session of General Conference,” said Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce Ough, the president of the Council of Bishops, in a letter released Tuesday.
The bishops said last year a special General Conference would be held in 2019, but did not issue a specific call or set the date and location.
The bishops made their announcement the same day the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, heard oral arguments in a case that could affect Mountain Sky Area Bishop Karen Oliveto, who is openly gay and married to a deaconess.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document approved by General Conference, bans same-gender weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. However, debate over those rules has intensified recently.
In July last year, the Western Jurisdiction elected and consecrated Oliveto, who was at the time the senior pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Also in the months since last year’s General Conference, a number of conferences voted not to conform with church restrictions related to ministry with LGBTQ individuals.
Meanwhile, a group of United Methodists has formed the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a member-based network for congregations that regard the church’s teachings on homosexuality as part of Christian orthodoxy. At its first meeting, that group urged the Way Forward Commission to either find a way to hold church members accountable for the church’s provisions on homosexuality or prepare for a church split. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is set to hold its second meeting April 28-29.
The Commission on a Way Forward includes two leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association as well as at least three openly gay members. All told, the commission includes eight bishops, 11 laity (including Dave Nuckols from Minnesota, a member of Minnetonka UMC), 11 elders, and two deacons from nine countries. The group is currently looking at ways to loosen the church’s structure.
The special General Conference session would use the same delegates as General Conference 2016 unless annual conferences choose to elect new delegates.
The Commission on General Conference, which plans the lawmaking assemblies, has set the delegate number at 864—about 58 percent from the United States and 30 percent from Africa. The remaining delegates are from the Philippines, Europe and Eurasia as well as 10 from “concordat” churches with which The United Methodist Church has formal relationships.
The St. Louis location was unexpected in the Missouri Conference, which learned late April 24 it would be hosting the special General Conference.
"While it comes as a surprise to us, we look forward to offering the church and her guests radical hospitality in the days leading up to and throughout the special session," the Missouri Conference said in announcing the gathering.
Sara Hotchkiss, business manager of the United Methodist General Conference, said the St. Louis Convention Center and hotel packages were reasonably priced and able to meet United Methodists' needs.
"Meet St. Louis, the Convention and Visitor Bureau, has a volunteer corps that can assist in some of the areas that are often done by a local host committee," she added. "With limited planning time, this was a benefit from a host city."
Last year, Moses Kumar—the chief executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration—told church leaders that a special General Conference session would cost $3.39 million for two days or $4.12 million for three days. Kumar is also the treasurer of General Conference.
To pay for such a gathering, Kumar recommended shortening the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis by the number of days used for any special General Conference session.
Last year, by a vote of 428 to 405, General Conference decided not to take up any legislation related to homosexuality and instead authorized the bishops to form the Commission on a Way Forward. The vote came after rumors of a potential church split reached a fever pitch.
The bishops do not have a vote at General Conference. However, they do have the authority under the Book of Discipline to call for a special session of the General Conference, a possibility last considered to address the worldwide economic crisis of 2008. The bishops in 2009 ultimately opted not to call a session that time.
Since The United Methodist Church formed in 1968, it has only held a General Conference once outside of the normal four-year schedule. That was in 1970, and its purpose was to organize the merger of Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren denominations.
The hope is the special General Conference will help strengthen the denomination that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.
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