The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the United States' oldest historically Black denomination, launched its General Conference on Tuesday with delegates expected to address racial issues such as voting rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Our church claims to have the issue of justice in its DNA,” Senior Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr said. “It will come up in sermons, it will come up in reports.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced a one-year delay in the five-day legislative gathering. And a planned simultaneous gathering in Cape Town for church representatives from several African countries had to be canceled after South Africa barred large gatherings due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
So the denomination, which has churches in numerous countries and is particularly strong in places such as South Africa, Liberia, Namibia and Zambia, is combining in-person events in Orlando, Florida, with members across Africa attending online either individually or in smaller groups.
“It was extremely important to us to have that part of our church represented in our General Conference,” said Richardson, who is the longest serving active bishop in the church and whose district includes Florida and the Bahamas.
The gathering opened with worship before getting down to business.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were expected to address the members by video, and Florida Rep. Val Demings, an AME church member, was also scheduled to speak.
The church traces its roots to 1787, when Black worshippers walked out of a segregated, white-run Methodist church and formed the AME, which also became a pioneer in ordaining women.
One member, Ravi Perry, who is chair of the political science department at Howard University, is urging the denomination to build on that legacy at the conference by repealing its policy of opposition to same-sex marriage.
The proposal follows similar debates in several historically white denominations. Some, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church, have authorized their clergy to officiate same-sex marriages.
“If any Black church is going to do this first, it’s going to be the AME Church,” Perry said. “My hope is the AME Church will remember its social inclusion roots.”
The repeal faces uncertain prospects. A rules committee decides which legislation to bring to the conference floor this week, though delegates can seek to have additional matters considered.
A 2016 policy statement says the denomination's opposition to same-sex marriage is based on biblical interpretation. At the same time, it acknowledges that the AME has gay members in many of its congregations and says they are eligible for church office at all levels.
Other Methodist denominations have confronted the issue.
The United Methodist Church, which is also U.S.-based with a strong African presence, currently forbids same-sex marriages or ordaining gay clergy. But long-running divisions on those issues prompted a widely endorsed proposal to split the denomination, likely to be voted on in 2022.
The Methodist Church in Great Britain, meanwhile, voted in June to allow same-sex marriages.
Richardson said that while he doesn't foresee an immediate repeal of the AME's stance, he sees an evolution underway that mirrors trends in broader society — “the more we have families being supportive, and mothers and fathers who are standing with their children.”
Delegates to the conference are also electing new bishops and other officers. Thabile Ngubeni of South Africa is urging delegates to “make history” by choosing her as the first African laywoman to serve on the church Judicial Council.
And retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, who was ordained in 2000 as the first woman AME bishop, will be recognized for her leadership.
“She has been able to do extraordinarily well in bringing administrative strength, spiritual strength and community development strength,” said Bishop Anne Henning Byfield, president of the AME’s Council of Bishops.
The pandemic, which claimed the lives of numerous AME members and ministers, continues to be at the forefront of delegates' minds. Attendance in the Orlando meeting hall will be limited, with masking and other health precautions in place.
Richardson, who said he has conducted more funerals in the last year than ever before, said church officials will continue to urge people to get vaccinated. And the surge in South Africa is a reminder that many countries are still deep in the pandemic.
“People are still dying,” Richardson said. “It really is serious.”
John Thomas III, editor of the Christian Recorder, the AME's official news outlet, said the pandemic forced the denomination to go on an austerity budget but overall it has weathered the storm well.
“What we’ve seen is that people are very loyal to the church and community,” Thomas said. If a church was already "doing the community work and engagement before the pandemic, all you had to do was pivot.”
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