Talk about major homework assignments.
Nearly 30 briefs, totaling more than 400 pages, confront the Judicial Council as it prepares to consider the constitutionality of three plans for dealing with The United Methodist Church’s schism-threatening division over homosexuality.
Both the One Church and Traditional plans as proposed would require multiple changes in church law, but not changes in the church constitution. Many of the briefs, though, argue that certain petitions in those plans would violate the constitution and thus would have to be approved as constitutional amendments.
Changing the constitution is a high hurdle, requiring a two-thirds vote of General Conference and two-thirds ratification votes in the annual conferences. Other changes to denominational policies require a majority vote at General Conference.
The volume of writing from interested parties is among the most ever for a single Judicial Council docket item and suggests the high stakes as the church tries to make changes that will avoid a breakup.
In one brief, the United Methodist Council of Bishops asserts that “the present request for a declaratory decision may be the most important matter that the Judicial Council has ever faced.”
The bishops asked the Judicial Council to decide in advance whether petitions in the One Church, Traditional and Connectional Conference plans — all due to be considered at a special session of General Conference Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis — would violate the church constitution.
The Judicial Council’s next meeting is Oct. 23-26 in Zurich, Switzerland, and the bishops’ request is just part of a full docket. Oral hearings are scheduled in the matter, with each plan to get one hour.
For nearly its entire 50-year history, The United Methodist Church has faced conflict over how accepting to be of homosexuality. With schism a clear possibility, the 2016 General Conference agreed to have the bishops form a Commission on a Way Forward to envision changes in law and structure that might help preserve unity.
The three plans emerged from the commission’s work with the bishops, and the special General Conference will consider those and any other petitions judged to be in harmony with the bishops’ call for the special legislative assembly in 2019.
The One Church Plan, recommended by the bishops, would give U.S. conferences, clergy and churches more latitude in ordaining openly gay people and officiating and hosting same-sex unions.
The Traditional Plan retains church law restrictions in those areas and strengthens enforcement of violations, which have been widespread. The plan also establishes a way out of the denomination for churches and conferences that could not go along.
The Connectional Conference Plan would reorganize the church in the U.S., with conferences aligning based on theology or perspective on LGBTQ ministry. This plan calls for multiple constitutional amendments and gets little attention in the briefs.
But the One Church Plan is targeted by various brief writers as violating the constitution in broad and narrow ways.
“A fatal flaw in the One Church Plan … is that on distinctively connectional matters the General Conference would legislate in such a way as to enable annual conferences to enact diverse and conflicting provisions on the same subject thereby destroying the connectional nature of the Church,” writes the Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial traditionalist group in the denomination.
John Lomperis, an Indiana Conference layman and delegate to General Conference, argues that the One Church Plan unconstitutionally changes the doctrine of the denomination.
The Rev. Tim McLendon focuses on what he considers to be the plan’s attack on constitutionally-guaranteed connectionalism.
McLendon sees that in the plan’s allowance of different approaches to ordination.
“Annual Conferences cannot dictate what minimum standards are for ministerial credentialing,” the brief by McClendon, of the South Carolina Conference, asserts. “That is the constitutionally protected prerogative of the General Conference that ensures a baseline of connectional expectations of clergy.”
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, president of the Council of Bishops and a moderator for the Commission on a Way Forward, contributed a 31-page brief that answers constitutional objections to the One Church Plan. The Rev. Tom Berlin, a Commission on a Way Forward member, also wrote in the plan’s defense.
Berlin argues that to require General Conference to adopt one moral stance on marriage and sexuality amounts to a “caricature of connectionalism.” He notes that church law restricting “self-professed practicing homosexuals” from ordination is fairly recent and an exception to denominational tradition in requiring a “behavior-based litmus test” for clergy.
Carter holds in one brief that “the General Conference determines what is distinctively connectional.” He argues further that General Conference would be within the constitution to allow conferences and churches decision-making authority on ordination standards and same-sex unions.
“There is no constitutional problem when an action is expressly authorized by the General Conference and does not run afoul of other provisions in the constitution,” Carter writes.
Narrower concerns about the One Church Plan are addressed in briefs by the Rev. William Lawrence, former president of the Judicial Council, and Lonnie Brooks, an Alaska Conference layman.
Lawrence found constitutional issues in five of the plan’s 17 petitions. He and Brooks both challenged the proposal to require reassignment of clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a church because of unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage.
The legislation “seizes the constitutional authority of the bishop” to decide appointments, Lawrence writes.
Carter notes that the General Conference has the authority under the church constitution to define the powers of the episcopacy. He adds: “In this one limited instance, the General Conference would be enacting such a definition of the power of the bishop by requiring a reassignment of the pastor, with the bishop making the actual appointment to a new charge.”
The Traditional Plan’s constitutionality is challenged in a handful of briefs, including one written by Thomas Starnes, representing a group of conference chancellors.
Starnes notes that only business “in harmony” with the Council of Bishops’ call for a special General Conference is allowed under the church constitution. He argues the Traditional Plan is not aimed at preserving denominational unity amid diverse perspectives on human sexuality, and therefore falls outside the call and the expressed intent of the 2016 General Conference.
But the Rev. Tom Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of the unofficial traditionalist church caucus Good News and a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, reviews the historical record differently. He says in a brief that maintaining “structural unity” was never the 2016 General Conference’s intent, and that the Traditional Plan represents a good faith, and constitutional, effort to imagine a new way forward for the denomination.
The Rev. Paul Fleck, a New York Conference elder, argues that the Traditional Plan’s mandatory minimum penalties for chargeable offenses violate the constitutional protections for clergy. The Council of Bishops, in a brief signed by Carter, also questions the constitutionality of this petition.
Brooks and Starnes zero in on the lengthy Traditional Plan petition that seeks to “implement gracious accountability” for conferences and clergy that won’t uphold restrictions against same sex unions or ordaining gay clergy. Starnes argues that the Traditional Plan essentially, and unconstitutionally, seeks to evict church members in those conferences.
Lambrecht, in a reply brief, states: “The Traditional Plan ‘evicts’ no one. It sets requirements that annual conferences, bishops, pastors and local churches are bound by the (Book of) Discipline to adhere to, and it sets penalties for those who refuse to abide by such properly established requirements.”
As for mandatory minimum penalties, Lambrecht holds that General Conference can stipulate the range of options available to a trial court.
Whether the Judicial Council should weigh in with specificity on the constitutionality of legislative proposals, as opposed to petitions approved by General Conference, is yet another a matter of dispute in the briefs.
Lawrence notes that the constitution gives General Conference “full legislative power” and argues that the denomination’s high court should be wary of intruding.
Carter writes: “Waiting until the General Conference enacts legislation to address its constitutionality may heighten the denomination’s difficulties even more.”