The Executive Committee of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe met from March 12-14, 2020, in Vienna, at the premises of Vienna-Fünfhaus UMC and English-Speaking UMC of Vienna.
The meeting of the Executive Committee was essentially marked by two themes: the consequences of Covid-19 and the theme "Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality".
Against the background of the usual flu epidemics and the massive restrictions, which many countries imposed at short notice because of the coronavirus pandemic, cooperation was difficult. The already present members from Serbia, Czech Republic and North Macedonia had to leave earlier because of the threatened closing of the border. In the end, only executive members from Austria and Switzerland took part on site. The flexibility of the hosts in Vienna was put to the test: an additional internet connection for online participation, constant changes in the list of participants, arrangements at short notice and changes with the caterer and the hotel were necessary. A big thank you is due to them. At the same time, public life in Vienna was increasingly restricted. The meeting was shortened to what was necessary and the Central Conference Office was given the authority to decide and implement further steps where necessary.
Nonetheless, work was done: The Executive Committee received reports from the various working groups. The report of the Working Group Liturgy should be highlighted. On the basis of a large-scale survey of the congregations of the Central Conference and in cooperation with the Central Conference in Germany, it had in recent years worked out the basis for a new liturgy of worship of the UMC. At present, two congregations are in an experimental phase with elements of the new liturgy. The working group would like to see more congregations joining in this experimentation.
The basis for the main theme, which has occupied everyone intensively for a long time, were the reports of the Working Group Theology and Ordained Ministry and the study group, which began its work a year ago. The question here is whether and - if so - in what composition the Central Conference can and will remain together. The social, religious and political contexts in the various countries are very different, and the UMC deals with them differently. The work of the study group showed that it may well be conceivable for parts of the Central Conference which have a traditional conviction in the understanding of marriage and in their attitude towards homosexuality to remain in one church with parts which today judge these questions differently, provided they can retain their conviction. Other parts can only imagine staying in a common church if the whole church remains with the previous formulations in the Book of Discipline. This tension was difficult for the members of the study group to bear. Depending on the decisions of the next General Conference, the overall church situation may still change. Should the mediation protocol of January 2020 be adopted, the starting position would be reversed compared to the extraordinary General Conference in 2019.
Due to the massively reduced presence of the members of the Executive Committee, the two reports were only received but not discussed. The other European bishops reported on developments in their episcopal areas. These reports showed once again very clearly that the UMC in Europe is divided on the issues surrounding the unity of the Church and the common ground for it. The UMC in Europe will probably have to reorganize itself.
The further work on the topic was given to the competence of the Central Conference Office. Its members will decide on and implement the next steps. In addition, it is planned to have an additional meeting of the Executive Committee at the end of November 2020. At this meeting, proposals will be made on how a future Book of Discipline could look like and how further cooperation at the Central Conference level could be possible. A draft is to be prepared which removes restrictive formulations. Additional formulations could also be proposed, or some kind of “covenant of mutual trust”, expressing that freedom is given to each other in these matters. However, it cannot be said at this time what the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, which has been announced in the meantime, will mean for the further process.
In any case, a decision on the further course of the Central Conference will not be taken until after the next session of the General Conference at the earliest.
Superintendent Claudia Haslebacher, Switzerland