Various Annual Conference gatherings of The United Methodist Church (UMC) in the area of Central and Southern Europe were to be held in the first half of 2020. Due to the Corona pandemic, all these conferences were postponed until autumn. However, the hopes of that time do not seem to be fulfilled now in most countries.
An "Annual Conference" of the UMC is on the one hand an organizational unit formed by congregations from one or more countries. On the other hand, the term also describes an annual gathering at which important common concerns are discussed. The fact that a year passes without such a conference taking place is a rare occurrence. The war in the Balkans, for example, was an event that made it impossible for Methodists from the southern and northern parts of the former Yugoslavia to meet.
When on-site gatherings were no longer possible in the spring of 2020 due to the Corona pandemic and the associated restrictions, all seven meetings of the Annual Conferences in Central and Southern Europe were postponed. The hope at the time was that by autumn the restrictions on travel and events would be lifted again. However, reality now seems to care little about these hopes. Rather, the sometimes sharp increase in the number of cases and the associated travel warnings and quarantine regulations mean that not a single conference can be held as planned:
Although the conference in Bulgaria will take place on September 25/26, 2020, the Romanian Methodists will not be able to travel to the southern neighboring country and will therefore have to attend the gathering online. Bishop Patrick Streiff will make use of the opportunity to be in Bulgaria by also visiting some local churches.
The Annual Conference meeting in the Czechia, which would have been combined with a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the UMC in that country, was initially planned in a shortened form, but was eventually cancelled altogether. Even for the participants from Czechia, it would have been difficult to travel to the meeting site, and the participation of Annual Conference members from Slovakia would not have been possible at all. There will now only be a closed session of the clergy members online - the anniversary celebrations have been postponed to 2021.
After some decisions have already been taken in writing in Austria, a half-day online conference meeting will now take place on October 10, 2020. This will be supplemented by an exchange of views on the church experiences during the lockdown and after the opening - and the question of what insights can and must be gained from this with regard to the future.
The Annual Conference of the UMC in Poland had to be cancelled completely. However, it is planned that a closed session of the clergy members and a live-streamed service with ordination will take place in mid-October 2020 – the latter provided that Bishop Patrick Streiff will still be allowed to travel at that time.
The joint Annual Conference of the UMC in Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania cannot take place either. Instead, a closed session of the clergy members is to be held online on October 24, 2020. In addition, district conferences are planned, where the conference members will have an opportunity to share experiences and discuss important questions on a smaller scale – and to take decisions for their respective country.
In view of the Annual Conference in Hungary, which is planned for the end of October 2020, a decision on the final form of the implementation is still pending. A closed session of the clergy members will take place prior to the gathering – most of the participants will join online.
It will be important for all Annual Conferences to find helpful ways to strengthen the connection in spite of the current restrictions - and to encourage each other to continue being ambassadors of hope and love in these challenging times.
Urs Schweizer, Assistant to Bishop Patrick Streiff (Photo: AC 2019 in Hungary)