A historic meeting of the global United Methodist Church — one in which its future position on LGBT clergy and marriage was expected to be determined — has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Minneapolis Convention Center was going to be the epicenter of the debate, with up to 7,000 visitors from across the world expected to arrive starting in late April for the 2020 United Methodist General Conference.
Methodist leaders, already alert to the coronavirus implications, last week announced that the conference would be postponed following a decision by the Convention Center to restrict gatherings to fewer than 50 people.
For state Methodists, the majority of whom support LGBT inclusion, it means a critical denomination issue will not get a vote for the foreseeable future, nor will hundreds of other resolutions that were slated for votes at the convention, which had been scheduled for May 5 to 15.
"Many Methodists from around the world were hoping for clarity on the issue of human sexuality," said Bruce Ough, United Methodist Church bishop for Minnesota and the Dakotas. "The postponement means we're entering another season of waiting to resolve these longstanding conflicts."
It is unclear what will happen with the thousands of hotel rooms and airfares booked for the conference. Becky Boland, co-chair of the Minnesota host committee for the conference, said those are among the issues that will be discussed Saturday at a national teleconference of the Commission on the General Conference, the main organizing body.
Last year, Methodist leaders formed a coalition called Minnesota Methodists to gather support for inclusion for LGBT clergy and marriage, which is now banned by Methodist doctrine. The Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard, one of its founders, said even though the conference had to be postponed, the fight for LGBT clergy and marriage would go on.
"Waiting is a disappointment, but there are ways we can still come together and work for full inclusion," said Tollgaard, of Hamline Church United Methodist in St. Paul.
Minnesotans had played a major role in hosting the convention. For several years, Methodist clergy and lay members have been arranging detailed logistics for the thousands of visitors, ranging from airport pickup to convention center welcome bags to tours of Minnesota landmarks like the Walker Art Center and Paisley Park.
Boland said volunteers have knitted thousands of purple scarves for those attending.
"But everyone's health and well-being needs to come first when you're planning an event that brings 5,000 to 7,000 people from around the world," she said.
Those numbers include 862 voting delegates, an equal number of alternates, plus staff and other attendees.
Apart from the contentious issue of LGBT inclusion, the conference delegates would also vote on an annual budget and changes to its social teachings, Ough said.
The United Methodist denomination will not incur significant financial penalties for canceling the convention reservation because the convention dates reserved "will no longer be possible," according to the news release by national conference organizers.
Boland said organizers will explore their options for a future 2020 conference during the teleconference Saturday, including where and when it might be held.
"Right now, it's too soon to tell," she said.
Methodist leaders said the cancellation allows the church to focus on the debilitating impact of the coronavirus on their congregations and communities, including depression and financial worries.
"The church has turned its attention to leading our people during this pandemic," Ough said.