From October 20-23, the Executive Committee of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference of the UMC met in Budapest. The fact that the members of this governing body were able to have an in-person meeting for the first time in 18 months contributed significantly to a helpful atmosphere for conversation.
A clear focus of the deliberations and conversations was the question of what the future of the Episcopal Area might look like after the upcoming decisions of General Conference, which is now scheduled for 2022. It is expected that there will then be a split within the worldwide UMC. At the heart of the dispute are differing attitudes on issues of human sexuality.
As things stand today, it is also to be expected that some parts of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe will leave. The members of the meeting therefore took note of a paper in which the consequences of such a separation were formulated in structural and financial terms.
Some leading Methodists from Bulgaria, Slovakia and Romania had recently formed the Eastern Europe Regional Chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), an association of traditionally aligned members of the UMC. When asked if this was the first step toward separation, Bulgarian Superintendent Daniel Topalski underlined that the decision was not up to him, but to the respective conferences. However, if there was an opening in the worldwide UMC with regard to the handling of same-sex partnerships or the ordination of homosexual pastors, staying in this church would not be an option for him.
Within the framework of the meeting in Budapest, a meeting of an extended round table also took place. This round table is working on what a common future could look like. The discussions showed a growing trust across the different points of view and a basically open atmosphere of discussion. Efforts were made to consider not only one's own political, social and missional viewpoint, but also to ask what this might mean in other contexts of the church. Bishop Patrick Streiff formulated the underlying question this way: "As you strive to continue the mission of the UMC in your own country so that it may prosper, how can you contribute to not endanger the mission of the UMC in another country of the Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe where the context is very different?"
A document written by Bishop Patrick Streiff provided an opportunity for intensive, open exchange. Discussions were held using a method that seeks consensus. This resulted in exceptionally open and attentive conversations in which the participants treated each other with a great deal of respect.
During the exchange, however, the differences between the members also became clearly visible. For example, of five questions formulated on how the church order should reflect the reality of the church in matters of homosexuality in the future, only one proposal found broader agreement on all sides: the possibility for annual conferences to define their own binding statements on human sexuality in deviation from the common church order.
Despite all the discussions, no substantive decisions were made at the end. It was only decided that a small working group will work on the church order in such a way that a broader agreement on questions of dealing with homosexuality can become possible. This will then be presented at the next meeting of the Executive Committee of the Central Conference. The Round Table will also continue with an external facilitator from now on, as the leadership is becoming increasingly challenging. As before, the goal is to maintain the unity of the Central Conference with as many Annual Conferences and countries involved as possible.
For the election of a successor to Bishop Patrick Streiff at the next meeting of the Central Conference, it would have been foreseen that for the first time the members of the Annual Conferences could have nominated pastors for this office. This procedure was stopped at the last moment by a narrow majority decision. Representatives of some Annual Conferences had raised concerns that too little is known about the eligible persons of the other conferences. Moreover, the uncertain situation in view of a possible separation had created a whole new reality in which such a nomination would be more confusion than help.
Whether the General Conference planned for 2022 can be held at all is still open in view of the Corona pandemic. Should there be another postponement, this could also extend Bishop Patrick Streiff's term of service once again. For this reason, the Working Group Episcopacy has been given the task of working with the bishop to examine options for relieving him of his duties and, if necessary, to initiate them.
Jörg Niederer, Switzerland