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

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

News

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

2024-04-24 06:36 Last Updated At:06:40

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.

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.

Yes. 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.

It’s possible. The delegates in Charlotte are expected to vote on whether to eliminate them. 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.

— 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.

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 congregations 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

No. 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.

However, denominational officials defended their work Tuesday, telling the General Conference that visa requirements are stricter than in the past, that some regional conferences hadn’t followed correct procedures in sending reserve delegates — and that some would-be delegates received invitations sent by “an unauthorized person or people.” Delegates now must wear picture badges amid heightened scrutiny that their credentials are authentic. The conference overwhelmingly approved a resolution "to make every effort to listen to and carefully consider voices from regions that are underrepresented."

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.

They’re 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.

5.4 million in the United States as of 2022, but that will decline significantly due to 2023 disaffiliations.

4.6 million in Africa, Asia and Europe. That’s lower than earlier estimates but reflects more recent denominational reports.

SOURCES: General Council on Finance and Administration and other United Methodist entities.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

FILE - The Rev. K Karen, left, of St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church in New York joins other protesters in song and prayer outside the United Methodist Church's special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Since 2019, the denomination has lost about one-fourth of its U.S. churches in breakup focused in large part on whether to accept same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings, File)

FILE - The Rev. K Karen, left, of St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church in New York joins other protesters in song and prayer outside the United Methodist Church's special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Since 2019, the denomination has lost about one-fourth of its U.S. churches in breakup focused in large part on whether to accept same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy. (AP Photo/Sid Hastings, File)

The Rev. Tracy Cox of First United Methodist Church gives a sermon on Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Pittsburgh. Three members of her church are set to attend the United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C. Many, including Rev. Cox, hope that this is the year they change longstanding bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

The Rev. Tracy Cox of First United Methodist Church gives a sermon on Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Pittsburgh. Three members of her church are set to attend the United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, N.C. Many, including Rev. Cox, hope that this is the year they change longstanding bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

The Rev. Tracy Cox of First United Methodist Church and members of her congregation pray for Tracy Merrick, who will attend the United Methodist General Conference as a delegate representing Western Pennsylvania, as well as Anais Hussian and Joshua Popson who will also be in attendance, Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Pittsburgh. Hussian is a reserve delegate and Popson will be advocating for LGBTQ inclusion with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. Many, including Rev. Cox, hope that this is the year they change longstanding bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

The Rev. Tracy Cox of First United Methodist Church and members of her congregation pray for Tracy Merrick, who will attend the United Methodist General Conference as a delegate representing Western Pennsylvania, as well as Anais Hussian and Joshua Popson who will also be in attendance, Sunday, April 14, 2024, in Pittsburgh. Hussian is a reserve delegate and Popson will be advocating for LGBTQ inclusion with the Love Your Neighbor Coalition. Many, including Rev. Cox, hope that this is the year they change longstanding bans on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

PARIS (AP) — Even Carlos Alcaraz couldn't tell you exactly what's been wrong with his right forearm, the part of his body that is responsible for his thunderous forehands — and also is responsible for sidelining him during nearly all of April and May as the French Open approached.

He knows this much: “I'm a little bit scared about hitting every forehand 100%.”

Alcaraz, a two-time major champion, is just one of the top players in men's tennis who enters the year's second Grand Slam tournament with some doubts about what form they will be in when competition begins at Roland Garros on Sunday.

Jannik Sinner, who won the Australian Open in January, hasn't played at all in May because of a bad hip that forced him to pull out of the Madrid Open before the quarterfinals and skip the Italian Open entirely.

Defending French Open champion Novak Djokovic, he of the No. 1 ranking and 24 Grand Slam titles, had only played eight matches since January by the time he lost his second contest in Rome, so took the unusual-for-him step of entering the lower-tier Geneva Open this week to prepare on clay — and lost in the semifinals there Friday to 44th-ranked Tomas Machac.

With 14-time champion Rafael Nadal about to turn 38, just 7-4 this season after hip and abdominal injuries and no longer the near-lock for the title he used to be in Paris, it's anyone's guess what'll happen over the coming two weeks.

Then again, Alcaraz is not taking anything for granted.

“It doesn’t matter (if Sinner is) coming from an injury. I think he has the capacity to come here and play in such a high level and be able to win it. Same as Rafa; same as Djokovic,” Alcaraz said. "Probably we don’t see them playing at (their) best tennis, but it’s a Grand Slam, it’s Roland Garros, and I think they have chances to win the tournament.”

As for his arm, the good news is Alcaraz says he doesn't have discomfort.

Even if the precise nature of what's been wrong escapes him.

“When I do the tests, when I’m talking with the doctors, my team, they explain to me what I have. ... I listen to them, but I forget,” Alcaraz said with his trademark wide smile. “What I remember is they told me that this is not going to be serious, it’s not going to take too much time. But here we are, recovering. I’m not feeling any pain in the practices when I step on the court. But I’m still thinking about it when I'm hitting forehands.”

There is a lot to like about the way Coco Gauff plays tennis, of course. That's why she enters the French Open as the No. 3 seed and the reigning champion of the U.S. Open.

It's not all perfect, of course. And among the things Gauff has been working on lately is her serve, particularly her second serve, in order to try to avoid accumulating the high double-fault counts she's had recently.

During the clay-court circuit that leads into the major that begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Gauff has double-faulted 92 times across 10 matches, an average of 9.2. Hardly ideal.

That total came from 45 double-faults in five matches in Rome — where she reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Iga Swiatek — 24 in three matches in Madrid, and 23 in two matches in Stuttgart.

How Gauff fares with that aspect of her game could affect how far she can make it this time in Paris, where the 20-year-old American was the runner-up to Swiatek in 2022.

“I have been trying to improve it with every tournament, from the start of the clay to Rome,” she said Friday.

“I feel like it’s getting better, but it’s obviously a shot that I feel is tough to change just because, when you’re tight or whatever, you kind of revert back to what you know works,” Gauff said. “Sometimes it’s tough to push yourself to do the uncomfortable things which you know in the long term are better for you.”

The first time Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka played each other came at a Davis Cup match in 2005. Murray was 18; Wawrinka 20. When they meet each other for the 23rd time — in the first round of the French Open on Sunday — Murray will be 37 and Wawrinka 39, and each is a three-time major champion.

“I smiled at the draw, of course,” Wawrinka said Friday.

It is a showdown that would have garnered headlines when they were in their primes. Still could draw a good crowd, not so much for what both are capable of these days, but where both have been.

“Should be a brilliant atmosphere,” said Murray, who is recovering from a serious ankle injury that kept him out of action for the better part of two months.

There's this oddity involved with the matchup: This will be the fourth consecutive French Open appearance for Murray that will feature a match against Wawrinka. Murray beat Wawrinka in the 2016 semifinals in Paris, lost to him in the 2017 semifinals, then missed the 2018 and 2019 editions, lost to Wawrinka in the first round in 2020, and did not make it to Roland Garros in 2021, 2022 or 2023.

Murray points to his five-set loss to Wawrinka seven years ago as the final match his hip could take before requiring the first of two operations.

“My hip was in so much pain. I remember, we were staying in a house near here and I remember getting up in the night because I couldn’t sleep. I was just lying on the sofa in loads of pain. Never recovered,” Murray said. “I couldn’t extend my leg behind me anymore properly after that match. It was a shame.”

Murray vs. Wawrinka in 2020 was the first time two men with Grand Slam titles faced off in the first round at Roland Garros since Yevgeny Kafelnikov against Michael Chang in 1999. They'll do it again Sunday.

Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine returns a ball to Anna Kalinskaya, of Russia, during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Elina Svitolina of Ukraine returns a ball to Anna Kalinskaya, of Russia, during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament in Rome, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

FILE - Britain's Andy Murray, left, applauds for Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, right, after Murray won the semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament in four sets, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Friday, June 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

FILE - Britain's Andy Murray, left, applauds for Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, right, after Murray won the semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament in four sets, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Friday, June 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

FILE - Britain's Andy Murray, right, shakes hands with Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka after their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Friday, June 3, 2016 in Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

FILE - Britain's Andy Murray, right, shakes hands with Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka after their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Friday, June 3, 2016 in Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

FILE - Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, left, and Britain's Andy Murray pose before their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros stadium, Friday, June 9, 2017, in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

FILE - Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, left, and Britain's Andy Murray pose before their semifinal match of the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros stadium, Friday, June 9, 2017, in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

Coco Gauff of the United States, left, shakes hands with Poland's Iga Swiatek during a semi final match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Coco Gauff of the United States, left, shakes hands with Poland's Iga Swiatek during a semi final match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

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