Bishops seek court ruling on Way Forward plans

Members of the 2016-2020 Judicial Council pose for a group photo. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the denomination’s top court to rule on the constitutionality of the legislation submitted by the Commission on Way Forward. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.
Members of the 2016-2020 Judicial Council pose for a group photo. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the denomination’s top court to rule on the constitutionality of the legislation submitted by the Commission on Way Forward. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the denomination’s top court to rule on the constitutionality of some of the legislation heading to the 2019 special General Conference.

Delegates to the special session of the denomination’s top lawmaking body will receive a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, which includes petitions for three different plans for steering through the denomination’s longtime divide on homosexuality.

The bishops want the Judicial Council — the United Methodist equivalent of the Supreme Court — to decide whether any of the Way Forward petitions that aren’t constitutional amendments run afoul of the denomination’s constitution. The Council of Bishops appointed the 32-member commission to develop ways for resolving differences over how to be in ministry with LGBTQ people.

We are asking for this so that we can gain greater clarity about constitutional issues within the three plans, and in service to and support of the delegations, who will do extremely important work in a very limited amount of time,” Bishop Kenneth H. Carter Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, said in a statement. Carter also leads the Florida Conference.

In a vote by email July 7, the bishops agreed to seek a ruling on the proposed legislation for the One Church, Connectional Conference and Traditional plans.

The bishops’ vote came a day before the July 8 deadline for submitting petitions.

The Council of Bishops announced July 9 that it was revising its call for the special General Conference so it would receive and act on a report from the commission rather than the Council of Bishops.

Meanwhile, the organizers of General Conference also announced that the translation work has begun on the Way Forward report as well as petitions submitted by other United Methodist individuals and groups.

The Way Forward report will be sent to the bishops and the Way Forward Commission to post publicly after it has been translated from English to the three other official languages of General Conference — French, Kiswahili and Portuguese.

The Commission on General Conference — the body that plans the big meeting — expects that work to be completed by July 30. General Conference organizers will send the translations to the Way Forward Commission and Council of Bishops’ leadership to publicize as they see fit.

The Council of Bishops is among the church bodies the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, authorizes to seek Judicial Council ruling. The deadline to request a ruling this fall is July 15; however, the court sets its own docket.

Getting a decision from the Judicial Council in advance of the special General Conference could prevent difficulties later.

In 2012, General Conference delegates passed a plan for restructuring the denomination’s general agencies by nearly 60 percent, only to see the denomination’s top court unanimously rule the plan unconstitutional and void.

The bishops in 2015 referred a revised version of that agency-restructuring plan to the Judicial Council. However, the court still deferred ruling on that legislation until immediately before the 2016 General Conference.

This year, the bishops will be submitting the following plans for Judicial Council review.

  • The Traditional Plan would affirm the current language in the Book of Discipline, which bans “self-avowed and practicing” gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. The plan would create swift and strong penalties for violations and create exit plans for churches that disagree.
  • The One Church Plan, which a majority of bishops recommended, would allow decisions about whether to ordain LGBTQ clergy or to allow same-gender unions to be made closer to the 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 Connectional Conference Plan 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 special General Conference is scheduled for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. The Judicial Council’s fall meeting is set for Oct. 23-26 in Zurich.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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