Church court asked to set scope of petitions

The briefs are in and the oral argument is set for a high-stakes meeting of the denomination’s Judicial Council next week in Evanston, Illinois.

At issue is what legislation may be considered during the Feb. 23-26, 2019, special session of the General Conference, called to deal with longstanding, schism-threatening tensions over The United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality.

Briefs submitted by the Council of Bishops and a group of United Methodist chancellors argue that only petitions consistent with the bishops’ own report to the special General Conference would be in order, given the rationale or “call” for the special meeting.

But others, including Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones, have written briefs holding that a broader approach is required under church law.

Both sides acknowledge that under church law the special General Conference can, by a two-thirds vote, expand the agenda.

The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, is to meet at the Evanston’s Hilton Orrington on May 22-25, with a 90-minute oral hearing set to begin at 9 a.m., on May 22. The hearing will be livestreamed.

Bishops Bruce R. Ough is the immediate past president of the Council of Bishops, and he is expected to speak at the hearing.  

Jones plans to speak for his own position, making this an unusual occasion, at the least, of bishops arguing differently before the Judicial Council. Jones’ sister-in-law, Deanell Reece Tacha, is on the Judicial Council, but she told United Methodist News Service that she is recusing herself from this case.

The Judicial Council has granted not only Jones but others submitting friend of the court briefs the chance to speak briefly.

The United Methodist Church has faced decades of conflict over how to be in ministry with LGBTQ individuals. Many U.S. clergy and churches, and some conferences, have challenged official church positions by performing and hosting same-sex weddings, and by ordaining “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

At General Conference 2016, with open talk of a denominational breakup, delegates agreed to put on hold consideration of petitions related to human sexuality. They voted to let the Council of Bishops, with the help of a Commission on a Way Forward, review relevant church law and look for changes that would allow for as much unity as possible.

The bishops called the special General Conference, set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, to deal solely with the human sexuality question.

The Council of Bishops recently announced it is recommending the One Church Plan, which would allow local churches and conferences more freedom about whether to participate in same-sex weddings and ordain gay clergy. But the bishops said they would include in their report two other plans, one of which would keep current church law and provide for more rigorous enforcement of violations.

Jones has complained that the bishops reached different conclusions about whether all three plans or just their recommended plan are to be placed before the special General Conference as legislation.

The report is still being finalized and then will be translated into all the languages used by the church. The bishops have promised to release it before July 8, the deadline for petitions to be submitted for the special General Conference.

The Judicial Council will be meeting next week in its own special session, called after the bishops asked for a declaratory decision on whether United Methodist can submit “valid positions” for General Conference 2019 if the petitions are inconsistent with the bishops’ own report.

Ough has submitted a brief for the Council of Bishops, noting that church law requires petitions considered at a special General Conference to be “in harmony” with the stated call for the meeting.

Ough, as president of the Council of Bishops, issued the call this way: “The purpose of this special session of the General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendation of the Commission on a Way Forward.”

The brief argues that petitions inconsistent with the report are outside the boundaries of the special General Conference.

Ough also stresses the looming petition deadline.

“Because the petition of the COB will not be filed until on or immediately before the deadline of July 8, persons, other than the COB, filing petitions by that deadline must guess the content of the report and petition,” the brief says.

Thus, the brief goes on, it’s important for the Judicial Council to offer guidance “on the scope of permitted permissions.”

A group of present and past chancellors of The United Methodist Church has offered a brief that supports limiting petitions to those “congruent with the recommendations made by the COB.”

Thomas Starnes, Baltimore-Washington Conference chancellor, stressed that he and his colleagues are speaking for themselves, not for their conferences. 

The chancellors’ brief emphasizes that the constitution of The United Methodist Church gives bishops the right to limit a called session of the General Conference to a specific purpose.

General Conference 2016, the chancellors continue, was seeking a new, more focused way of trying to find unity after past legislative gatherings generated protest and frustration amid scores of human sexuality-related petitions.

“Indeed, opening the floodgates to an inevitable multitude of petitions on the general ʽsubject matter’ of human sexuality would essentially nullify what the record shows the 2016 General Conference was seeking to accomplish,” the chancellors maintain.

Jones supported the Council of Bishops’ request for the Judicial Council ruling, but he insists Ough never got the bishops’ authorization to argue on their behalf for the limited agenda. Ough has declined to respond to Jones’ assertion.

In his own brief, Jones stresses that the church constitution gives legislative authority to the General Conference. And he argues for a different understanding of a key term.

“The criterion ʽin harmony’ describes the subject matter and not the content of a specific proposal to alter the Book of Discipline,” Jones writes.

The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association and a Virginia Conference elder, argues in a brief that to “act upon” the bishops’ report does not preclude offering alternative petitions related to human sexuality.

Lonnie Brooks, Alaska Conference layman, echoes that view in his brief and notes that trust in the church, which he asserts already has been compromised by closed-door meetings of the bishops and Commission on a Way Forward, will be further eroded if bishops seem to control the legislative agenda.

John Lomperis, an Indiana Conference delegate to GC2019 and United Methodist director with the advocacy group Institute on Religion and Democracy, has submitted a brief that argues for a broader agenda.

Stephanie Henry, a member of the Commission on General Conference, has a brief arguing a position more in line with Ough and the chancellors. Henry submitted her brief as an individual United Methodist, not as representative of the commission.

The Judicial Council named the Council of Bishops as petitioner and the Commission on General Conference as respondent. But the Commission on General Conference has not taken a stand on the question before the church court and intends only to answer questions at the hearing.

“The Commission on the General Conference understands its role as that of facilitating and supporting the work of the legislative body,” said Samuel Duncan McMillan IV, commission chair. “We do not believe that role includes making determinations about what legislation is proper within the scope of the call to a special session.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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