March 18, 2021 | by Heather Hahn
Bishops process into worship on Feb. 24, 2019, at the special session of General Conference, held in St. Louis. A group of delegates is urging bishops to rethink their plans for a special virtual General Conference on May 8 and a hold on U.S. bishop elections this year. File photo by Paul Jeffrey, UM News; computer image by Michael Gaida, courtesy of Pixabay.
A group of delegates is pushing back against the bishops’ plans to hold a virtual one-day General Conference and put off new U.S. episcopal elections this year.
“We believe that the Bishops’ plan, in its current form, constitutes an ‘episcopal overreach,’” said the statement circulated by General Conference and jurisdictional delegates in the United States.
The U.S. delegates released the document “Christian Conferencing: Discerning United Methodism’s Path through a Pandemic,” ahead of a closed-door Council of Bishops meeting planned for March 22.
The statement urges bishops to work more cooperatively with delegates — who, like them, are elected to help discern the church’s future.
So far, six U.S. delegations — from the Greater New Jersey, Iowa, Michigan, New England, Northern Illinois and Oregon-Idaho conferences — have endorsed the five-page document. Fifteen delegates from 13 conferences are among the document’s writers and original signatories, with more delegates able to sign at umc-conferencing.org.
“I genuinely hope the Council of Bishops hears and takes seriously the delegates' appeal to greater collaboration and transparency,” the Rev. Jay Williams, head of the New England delegation and one of the statement’s co-writers, told United Methodist News.
At a time when many church members are planning for a denominational split, Williams and other signers are delegates who, for the most part, hope to remain in The United Methodist Church.
The problem, as the delegates’ statement puts it, is that the bishops’ actions cut delegates out of the deliberation process and potentially tie their hands on the question of bishop elections.
Faced with depleting financial reserves, the bishops are urging that no new U.S. bishops be elected until 2024. At the same time, 16 U.S. bishops — more than a third of the country’s 46 bishops — plan to retire this year. That means the remaining U.S. bishops may end up serving expanded areas, or retired bishops will serve as interim with voice but not vote at Council of Bishops meetings.
“The Council’s proposals — including not electing new bishops until 2024 — limit rather than empower delegates through Christian conferencing to make transformational decisions that shape our shared future,” the delegates’ statement said.
Many delegates see the bishops’ proposal as more extreme than necessary and see a way to elect at least some new bishops in a way that’s financially sustainable.
Still, the delegates acknowledge that church leaders are dealing with challenges never anticipated in church laws.
Because of COVID-19’s continuing threat, General Conference organizers postponed the global United Methodist lawmaking assembly for a second time — to Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis. Organizers said they saw no way for nearly 900 delegates from four continents to gather for a full meeting this year either in-person or online.
In the meantime, the Council of Bishops has called for a special virtual General Conference on May 8. However, the bishops’ call makes clear that the brief online meeting is intended only to gain a quorum to suspend the rules and open the way for delegates to vote by mail on a very limited agenda.