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United Methodists open first high-level conference since breakup over LGBTQ inclusion

4/23: CBS Morning News 20:32

Thousands of United Methodists are gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina, for their big denominational meeting, known as General Conference.

It's a much-anticipated gathering. Typically it is held every four years, but church leaders delayed the 2020 gathering until now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the 11-day gathering runs from April 23 to May 3. Among those assembling are hundreds of voting delegates — the United Methodists from across the globe who were elected to represent their regional church body — though as many as one-quarter of international delegates are not confirmed as able to attend. The delegates, half clergy and half lay Methodists, are the decision makers at General Conference.

What is the General Conference?

General Conference — the only entity that can speak for the entire denomination — is a business meeting where delegates set policy, pass budgets and address other church-wide matters. It's the only body that can amend the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which includes church law. It also includes Social Principles, which are non-binding declarations on social and ethical issues. There's worship and fellowship, too.

This will be the first General Conference since more than 7,600 mostly conservative congregations left the United Methodist Church between 2019 and 2023 because the denomination essentially stopped enforcing its bans on same-sex marriage and having "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" serving as clergy and bishops.

The delegates in Charlotte are expected to vote on whether to eliminate the LGBTQ-related bans this year. Similar efforts have failed in years past, but with the election of more progressive delegates and the departure of many conservatives, supporters of removing the bans are optimistic.

What other key issues are up for consideration?

— Disaffiliations: The rules that allowed U.S. congregations to leave between 2019 and 2023. It allowed them to leave with their properties, held in trust for the denomination, under friendlier-than-normal legal terms. Some want similar conditions for international churches and for U.S. churches that missed the 2023 deadline.

— Regionalization: A proposal to restructure the denomination into regional conferences around the world, rather than having distinct names for U.S. and other jurisdictions. It would define the role of regions more precisely and put American congregations into their own regional body. Under this proposal, all regions would be able to adapt church policies to their local contexts, including those on marriage and ordination.

— Budgets: Because of all the disaffiliations, the conference will vote on a much-reduced budget proposal for the coming years.

"Committed to rebuilding the church"

New York Area Bishop Thomas Bickerton, president of the denomination's Council of Bishops, addressed the recent schism head-on in feisty remarks during Tuesday's opening worship, which included music and Communion.

Bickerton spoke of his recent visit to a Texas conference that had lost more than half its churches and said those remaining were committed to rebuilding the church. He said those at the General Conference should be doing the same — not continuing the controversy.

"Are you committed to the revitalization of the United Methodist Church?" Bickerton said to applause. "Are you here to work for a culture marked by compassion, courage, and companionship?...If you can't agree to that, what are you doing here anyway? Maybe, just maybe, you're in the wrong place."

He alluded to criticism of the denomination during the disaffiliation debates and said it was holding on to its core beliefs.

"Don't you tell us that we don't believe in Scripture," he said. "Don't you tell us that we don't believe in the doctrine of the church. And Lord have mercy, don't tell us that we don't believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. … We have got to rebuild the church and we've got to do it together."

Though thousands of Methodists with be attending the conference, there are only 862 official voting delegates from the following regions of the church:

• 55.9% from the U.S.

• 32% from Africa

• 6% from the Philippines

• 4.6% from Europe

• 1.5% from concordant (affiliated) churches

As of last week, only about three-quarters of international delegates were confirmed as able to attend, the Commission on the General Conference reported Thursday. The other quarter includes 27 delegates unable to get visas or passports, others who couldn't attend for various reasons, and 62 delegates still unconfirmed. African groups have strongly criticized denominational officials, faulting them for delays in providing necessary paperwork and information and raising questions about whether African conferences will accept voting results from the conference.

How are congregations preparing?

That varies widely, but those long active in the movement to repeal LGBTQ bans are focused strongly on the conference. First United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, for example, held a commissioning service on April 14 for three members attending the conference in varying capacities. "It will be deeply meaningful for me personally to vote for those changes," said member Tracy Merrick, who will be a delegate.

United Methodists are part of a larger worldwide family of Methodists and other groups in the tradition of 18th century British Protestant revivalist John Wesley, who emphasized evangelism, holy living and social service. They hold many beliefs in common with other Christians, with some distinct doctrines. United Methodists traditionally ranged from liberal to conservative. They were until recently the third largest and most widespread U.S. denomination. Methodist missionaries planted churches worldwide, which grew dramatically, especially in Africa. Some became independent, but churches on four continents remain part of the United Methodist Church.

There were an estimated 5.4 million United Methodists in the U.S. as of 2022, but that will decline significantly due to 2023 disaffiliations.

There are an estimated 4.6 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. That's lower than earlier estimates but reflects more recent denominational reports.

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