The United Methodist Council of Bishops has canceled its call for a special virtual General Conference on May 8.
The bishops made the decision to cancel during a March 22 online meeting that was closed to the public.
The bishops also announced that they plan to use their regularly scheduled April meeting to have conversations based on results of listening sessions and discern a possible new timeline.
“Much has been learned over the past few weeks and the extended timeline will allow for even deeper listening by the bishops at the general church level but also in our residential settings,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Council of Bishops president and leader of the Louisiana Conference, said in a press statement after the meeting.
Ultimately, the team concluded and the commission agreed that no virtual solution could overcome barriers that include a 16-hour time difference across the denomination, inequities in internet access and the need for vote security.
The bishops had planned for the May 8 General Conference only to be long enough for a quorum of delegates to suspend the rules so delegates could vote by mail on 12 legislative items. The items mostly dealt with administrative functioning amid the General Conference delay, and the bishops planned to announce the results of the votes on July 13.
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However, the bishops ran into the same obstacles that the General Conference commission did, as well as concerns from delegates that would actually be part of the deliberative process.
Of the 862 delegates elected to the coming General Conference, 55.9% come 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 bishops’ plans for a special General Conference already were facing pushback across the denomination.
The advocacy group the Africa Initiative sent questions to the Council of Bishops citing the General Conference commission’s finding that internet and even electricity is not readily available in some areas where United Methodists are located.
“This is absolutely true for us here in Africa. How can we have this Special Called Session without delegates from Africa being disenfranchised?” asked the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, Africa Initiative’s general coordinator, in a letter to bishops. Kulah is also a General Conference delegate from Liberia.
As the bishops were meeting March 22, the denomination’s top court also released a decision that could help church leaders on one matter before the special General Conference.
Judicial Council eases pressure for vote on due process
For now, planning for when delegates can meet to deliberate on the denomination’s future remains a work in progress.
“We are thankful for the collaboration fostered with the Commission on General Conference and especially grateful for the work that had already begun in the planning for the special session,” Harvey said.