Court ruling spurs competing interpretations

Bishop Bruce R. Ough (left) greets Bishop Scott Jones prior to the May 22 oral hearing before the United Methodist Judicial Council in Evanston, Ill. The two argued different positions before the court.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough (left) greets Bishop Scott Jones prior to the May 22 oral hearing before the United Methodist Judicial Council in Evanston, Ill. The two argued different positions before the court.

The Judicial Council has opened the way for the special General Conference to receive petitions from more than the Council of Bishops. The question remains: What sort of legislation can be submitted?

The denomination’s top court, in Decision 1360, ruled that any United Methodist organization or individual can submit petitions “as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.”

Determining what qualifies as in harmony, the Judicial Council says, is the job of General Conference itself, “through its committees, officers and presiders” and its “rules and procedures.” Business deemed not in harmony will not be allowed unless approved by a two-thirds vote of General Conference.

So the crucial matter of the parameters for legislation is still to be decided.

“Obviously that’s going to be the point of contention,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, who was among those arguing the case before the Judicial Council. “General Conference is going to have to figure out how it does that.”

Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial traditionalist advocacy group.

Jan Lawrence, executive director of the unofficial progressive advocacy group Reconciling Ministries Network, said the Judicial Council ruling likely adds confusion. “What we know is that we have a limited time and that there is a lot of anxiety across the church,” she said.

United Methodists have differing projections of what the ruling will likely mean in practice when the denomination’s top lawmaking body meets Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.

Some see the ruling as inviting a wide array of proposals related to church teachings on homosexuality. Still others see it as requiring that petitions hew close to the bishops’ recommendation.

The Council of Bishops called the special General Conference with the purpose “limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.”

With the Judicial Council decision, attention now turns to General Conference organizers who have a say in what petitions are deemed valid.

The Rev. Gary Graves, the secretary of General Conference, said the basic requirements for submitting legislation will be released by Friday, June 1, to give people enough time to submit properly formatted petitions by the July 8 deadline.

He added that he will work “with our staff, the Commission on the General Conference and its leadership, the leaders of the appropriate General Conference committees and the Council of Bishops to develop and implement the process” of reviewing legislation to ensure it’s in harmony.

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of General Conference, answers questions during the May 22 oral hearing before the United Methodist Judicial Council in Evanston, Ill. After the Judicial Council decision, Graves said he would offer basic instructions by June 1 for submitting properly formatted petitions to the special General Conference. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of General Conference, answers questions during the May 22 oral hearing before the United Methodist Judicial Council in Evanston, Ill. After the Judicial Council decision, Graves said he would offer basic instructions by June 1 for submitting properly formatted petitions to the special General Conference. Photo by Kathleen Barry, UMNS

In 2016, General Conference authorized the bishops to form a commission to help find a way through the potentially denomination-splitting disagreements over how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals.

The Council of Bishops requested a Judicial Council ruling on whether petitions inconsistent with the bishops’ own report could be considered at the special General Conference.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, the immediate past president of the Council of Bishops, argued that only legislation consistent with the bishops’ report would be in order.

The Judicial Council agreed in part, ruling: “Yes, petitions may be filed, but No, petitions must not be inconsistent with the purpose stated in the call.”

Bishops have talked about the broad outlines of their report. But they do not plan to make the document public until it is translated into all the languages in which the church does business.

In a May 22 oral hearing, Ough told the Judicial Council that the bishops would submit their recommended One Church Plan as legislation. The plan would give local churches and annual conferences more freedom in regard to same-gender marriages and ordination of gay clergy.

Ough, who also leads the Dakotas and Minnesota conferences, added that the bishops’ report also would provide supplementary materials about two other options, the Traditionalist Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. But neither of those plans would be in the form required of submitted legislation, he said.

Bishop Scott Jones, who leads the Texas Conference, argued before the Judicial Council against constraining General Conference to the Council of Bishops report. He cheered the court’s ruling.   

“This decision represents our commitment to transparency, fair process and inclusiveness of conversation,” he said. “It protects the right of lay and clergy members of our church to provide input into the process and enriches the range of options that delegates will have before them.”

For Alaska Conference layman Lonnie Brooks, who submitted a brief in the case, the ruling rightly allows General Conference delegates to get a long look at petitions in advance of the St. Louis gathering.

“A much more rational decision about what is ‘in harmony’ can be made in that context than in floor debate when amendments and substitutes are offered,” he said.

Both the Revs. Alex da Silva Souto and Lois McCullen Parr worry the ruling has made the work harder for General Conference delegates. The two are co-conveners of the unofficial advocacy group, the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.

"In fact, it seems to return us to where we were before the time, cost and energy devoted to the Commission on a Way Forward," McCullen Parr said. "My despair is mitigated by the faithful teaching and evangelism of my LGBTQ siblings whose ministry continues to preach the gospel, grow the church and reach those who have been left at the margins."

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht believes the ruling opens the process to alternative proposals, especially from fellow traditionalists who oppose any change in church policies related to homosexuality and marriage.

“If a Traditionalist Plan with legislation is not included in the bishops' report, it can still be submitted separately through this process,” Lambrecht wrote in an essay for Good News, an unofficial advocacy group he serves as vice president. He was also a Way Forward Commission member.

“This ensures that a plan that evangelicals can support will be considered by the delegates at General Conference,” he said.

Thomas Starnes, Baltimore-Washington Conference chancellor, has a different take. He was among a group of conference chancellors who filed a brief in support of confining the special General Conference to consideration of the One Church Plan.

“In truth, there is no question that the Judicial Council has held that, although additional petitions may be filed, all such petitions ‘must not be inconsistent’ with the legislative solution recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward,” he said.

The Commission on General Conference, which organizes the legislative assembly, did not take a position on the case.

Stephanie Henry, chair of the commission’s rules committee, submitted a brief as an individual, arguing for a more constrained agenda.  

She said it’s too soon to tell what impact the decision will have on General Conference rules. The rules committee will meet electronically over the summer.

A group of bishops and commission leaders known as the design team will meet in August to work on plans for the special General Conference. However, the commission won’t finalize plans for the special General Conference until its meeting in October.

Bishop Ken Carter, current Council of Bishops president, in a statement thanked the Judicial Council for its affirmation of the specific nature of the bishops’ call and General Conference’s authority.

Carter, who leads the Florida Conference, also was one of three bishops who were moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward.

He said the bishops requested a Judicial Council ruling in recognition of the special session’s historic nature and need for focus. The bishops — who serve as presiders at General Conference — also want “to create an orderly environment without distraction and chaos, so that the delegates can do their best work,” he added.

“We will continue to serve our beloved denomination,” Carter concluded, “under the guidance of the decision and in consultation with the Commission on the General Conference.”

Hahn and Hodges are writers for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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