The United Methodist Church is considering making its denominationwide legislative gathering, already postponed due to COVID-19, a virtual event and allow for online voting.
Scheduled to take place every four years, the UMC General Conference was supposed to have been held earlier this year, but it was delayed until August 2021 due to concerns about the virus.
The UMC Commission on the General Conference announced on Tuesday that they had created a “Technology Study Team” aimed at considering “the possibility of utilizing technology and online voting” next year.
At issue were concerns that younger delegates could not fully participate due to the gathering being during the academic school year as well as potential ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
One pandemic-related complication is that the General Conference is expected to gather around 900 delegates at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota. At present, the state is limiting in-person gatherings to 250 people.
“The study team will be aided by an advisory panel of volunteer staff and contractors who will work alongside the study team to provide practical reflection and suggestions on possible implementation of the ideas discussed,” explained the Commission.
“This team will also be consulting with a variety of individuals and groups, working to develop recommendations which will be brought to the Commission on the General Conference for consideration at the Spring 2021 meeting.”
Carolyn Marshall, who served as secretary of the General Conference for 16 years, was named chair of the new technology study team, according to the Commission.
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, president of the UMC Council of Bishops and head of the Louisiana Conference, recently expressed an openness to making the gathering virtual.
“With the proper preparation and training, I believe a General Conference could be held virtually,” Harvey told UM News.
“There are new technological developments every day that could make traversing the globe, languages and time zones possible.”
In late May, the Commission announced that the 2020 General Conference would be pushed back to Aug. 29, 2021–Sept. 7, 2021.
Commission Chair Kim Simpson said in a statement at the time that the new date was likely problematic for younger delegates, given it falls around the start of the typical academic year.
“Including young adults in the General Conference is always an important consideration. We affirm that their voices need to be heard,” Simpson said in May.
“Unfortunately, this request did not come to the Commission until late in the process. By that time, the available dates were secured and any attempt to change the dates would endanger the carrying forward of the deposits to the newly agreed upon dates.”
The UMC General Conference is a highly anticipated event, as many expect the delegates to approve an amicable separation proposal to end their longtime debate over homosexuality.
Although the UMC officially labels homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” many in the mainline denomination have sought to change the stance.
Earlier this year, a group of UMC leaders representing a diverse spectrum of theological views endorsed a proposal known as the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.”
The Protocol would allocate $25 million for conservative Methodists to leave the UMC and create their own denomination while those remaining can change the official position of the Church on LGBT issues.
In June, the Presbyterian Church (USA) held its first-ever virtual General Assembly due to the pandemic and the venue in Maryland for the event being converted into a field hospital.