(RNS) — The United Methodist Church has postponed its 2020 General Conference — where delegates were expected to take up legislation to split the denomination — over concerns about the spread of COVID-19, what’s commonly referred to as the coronavirus.
The quadrennial meeting of the denomination’s decision-making body was set to gather 862 delegates and other United Methodists from all over the world May 5-15 in Minneapolis.
Officials at the Minneapolis Convention Center informed the Executive Committee of the Commission on the General Conference that it was restricting all events at the venue through May 10.
That led to the announcement Wednesday (March 18) that the General Conference will be postponed.
Church leaders were already planning to meet Saturday (March 21) via teleconference to discuss plans for the General Conference.
It’s unclear how soon the denomination will be able to announce new dates for the meeting.
“This news is not unexpected based on the current guidance from health officials and we expect to move forward with new plans as quickly as possible,” Kim Simpson, chair of the Commission on the General Conference, said in a written statement.
Only the full Commission on General Conference is able to set a new date or alternate plan, according to the statement.
The postponement follows recommendations from bishops and from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Friday, United Methodist bishops had asked the Commission on General Conference to postpone the meeting.
“We write out of a deep love for our global church and as a tangible way of giving spiritual and temporal oversight in our role as shepherds and we are guided by the core value of helping delegates to do their best work,” wrote the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops in a letter signed by the Council of Bishops’ current president, the Rev. Kenneth H. Carter, and incoming president, Cynthia Fierro Harvey.
The bishops’ letter noted the “grave risk” of spreading the virus amid international travel and such a large gathering of people.
It also pointed out that international travel restrictions to the U.S. would make it difficult for delegates from Central Conference outside the U.S. to enter the country.
“We note the damage such a General Conference would do to the trust level if matters of great and lasting importance are voted upon. We are guided here by the core value of justice,” it said.
The CDC has also recommended organizers cancel or postpone all large group meetings for at least eight weeks.
Events of any size only should continue following the guidelines previously issued by the CDC for protecting vulnerable populations, practicing good “hand hygiene” and social distancing, it said.
“This recommendation is made in an attempt to reduce introduction of the virus into new communities and to slow the spread of infection in communities already affected by the virus,” according to the CDC.
Delegates to the General Conference were expected to take up a proposal to split the denomination called “A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” The proposal, negotiated by 16 United Methodist bishops and advocacy group leaders from across theological divides, would create a new conservative “traditionalist” Methodist denomination that would receive $25 million over the next four years.
The protocol was announced in January, and three regional United Methodist annual conferences approved measures to send the protocol to the General Conference for a vote.
Bishops then asked the denomination’s top court to decide whether the proposed legislation implementing the protocol is constitutional.
Calls to split one of the largest denominations in the United States have grown since last year’s special session of the United Methodist General Conference approved the so-called Traditional Plan strengthening the church’s bans on the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ United Methodists.