The Council of Bishops has amended its call for the 2019 special General Conference.
Under the new call, delegates to the denomination’s top lawmaking body will receive petitions from the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward — not the bishops themselves. The bishops appointed the commission to help the denomination find a way through its intensifying debate over how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals.
“The purpose of this Special Session of the General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of the Bishops,” said the amended call by Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr., Council of Bishops president. The special General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative assembly, will be Feb. 23-26 next year in St. Louis.
The amended call means that delegates will receive legislation for not only the bishops’ recommended One Church Plan but also the Traditional and Connectional Conference plans the commission brought to the bishops.
However, bishops have delayed the public release of the report because translation is not yet complete, said Bishop Sharma Lewis on the Virginia Conference’s website.
In a separate statement, Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Conference said he expected it will be months before translations of the commission’s report — as well as additional legislation from other groups — will be complete.
“What seemed appropriate to the bishops, translate the one report by July 8, is unrealistic with the additional legislation,” Schol wrote.
“I recognize how important this material is not only for the General Conference delegates but for all United Methodists as we seek to discuss, understand and pray for the way forward of our beloved United Methodist Church. I regret that a commitment was made that in hindsight was not realistic.”
Previously, the bishops in a May 4 press release estimated the translations would be released “no later than July 8,” the deadline for legislation submitted to the special General Conference.
The official languages of the multinational General Conference are English, French, Kiswahili and Portuguese.
The Council of Bishops initially said the purpose of the special General Conference would be
Carter, in a statement, said the bishops decided to amend the call in response to a May 25 ruling by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court.
In a footnote in Decision 1360, the court said it expected legislation from the Commission on a Way Forward — not the Council of Bishops.
“There is nothing in the proceedings of the 2016 General Conference suggesting that the Commission on a Way Forward was supposed to submit its recommendations to the Council of Bishops,” the court said.
By a 428-405 vote, the 2016 General Conference authorized the bishops to name a commission to develop “a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.” The delegates also agreed that the bishops could call a special General Conference if the commission completed its work.
The Judicial Council ruled that other United Methodist groups or individuals could submit legislation to the special General Conference “as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.”
The court left the question of what is in harmony to General Conference itself.
After the court ruling, two authorities on church polity reiterated the concerns raised by the Judicial Council’s footnote, saying the bishops in modifying the commission’s report could be violating the denomination’s constitution.
The bishops were functioning “as a legislative committee of the called General Conference, for which they would be the presiding officers,” wrote the Rev. William B. Lawrence and Sally Curtis AsKew in an essay based on a Methodist Review article. The two are former Judicial Council members.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, says that while all people are of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book bans the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and the blessing of same-gender unions. However, some clergy and conferences publicly defy those policies, while other pastors and churches are threatening to leave unless the denomination enforces those policies.
Ultimately, it will be up to 864 delegates to decide the direction the denomination takes regarding homosexuality.
The Way Forward commission has offered the following three plans:
- The One Church Plan would allow decisions about whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy or to allow same-gender unions to be made closer to conference and congregational level. The plan would remove the restrictive language against the practice of homosexuality in the Book Discipline. It would also give assurances to pastors and conferences who in good conscience cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy that they don’t have to do so.
- The Traditional Plan, which would affirm the current language in the Book of Discipline and seek to create swift and strong penalties for violations and create exit plans for churches that disagree.
- The Connectional Conference Plan, which would allow conferences to choose among three connectional conferences for affiliation. The connectional conferences would align based on theology or perspective on LGBTQ ministry — be it traditionalist, progressive or allowing for a variety of approaches. This plan would require multiple amendments to the denomination’s constitution.
“The Council of Bishops encourages the entire church in this season to hear the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:3, that we ‘make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,’” Carter said in announcing the amended call.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.