The United Methodist Church Judicial Council will hold an oral hearing to consider a request from the bishops for a declaratory decision of law about what legislation can come before next year’s special session of General Conference.
The Council of Bishops decided during its April 29-May 4 meeting to request the oral hearing.
The court set the one-hour oral hearing for 9 a.m. CDT May 22 at the Hilton Orrington Hotel in Evanston, Illinois. In an order issued May 12, the court said the interested parties will be the Council of Bishops as petitioner and the Commission on General Conference as respondent. All requests for change in interested party status were denied, the court said.
The hearing will be livestreamed, and the Council of Bishops and the commission will have 20 minutes each for oral arguments. The Council of Bishops will present arguments first and the council has the right to reserve up to five minutes for rebuttal. After the oral arguments, the Judicial Council will have 20 minutes for questions.
The court denied all requests for change to interested party status, but ordered that the six parties who submitted briefs will be considered amici curiae, or friends of the court. However, for any friend of the court to speak or present oral arguments, the petitioner or the respondent as interested parties would have to yield part of their time and notify the Judicial Council in writing by May 18.
Briefs in the case have been filed by Houston Area Bishop Scott Jones, Stephanie Henry, Baltimore-Washington Conference Chancellor Thomas Starnes on behalf of a group of annual conference chancellors, the Rev. Keith Boyette, John Lomperis and Lonnie D. Brooks.
Henry is a member of the Commission on General Conference who chairs its Rules Committee. Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial advocacy group of United Methodist clergy, laity and churches which formed in 2016 and is committed to what it describes as an orthodox understanding of Wesleyan Christian faith.
Brooks is a lay member of the Alaska Conference and past petitioner to Judicial Council.
Lomperis is an Indiana Conference delegate to the 2019 General Conference, and United Methodist director with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative Christian group committed to monitoring and reforming what it considers to be as the liberal trajectory of mainline Protestant denominations.
The Judicial Council order instructed the Council of Bishops to send a copy of the petition to the Commission on General Conference. Reply briefs are due to the Judicial Council by May 15. The commission just concluded a meeting May 11.
The final docket for the May 22-25 court session, which consists of the one request from the bishops for a declaratory decision of law, has been posted on the council’s website.
The special session of General Conference from Feb. 23-26, 2019, will focus solely on one topic: the church’s position on homosexuality. The bishops are asking the Judicial Council for a ruling on whether United Methodist organizations, clergy or lay members can submit “valid petitions” for GC2019 if the petitions “are not consistent” with the council’s own report to the special General Conference.
The request from the bishops defines valid petitions as those that are “in harmony” with the restricted purpose of GC2019 and postmarked or received by July 8. The Book of Discipline states that petitions to General Conference should be received by the petitions secretary or secretary of the General Conference no later than 230 days before the opening session.
In its petition, the Council of Bishops pointed to the call issued on April 24, 2017, by Bishop Bruce R. Ough, then council president, for the 2019 General Conference session. “The purpose of this special session of General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward,” the call stated.
The petition cited church law, which confines the business of a special session to that in harmony with the purpose stated in the call “unless the General Conference by a two-thirds vote shall determine that other business may be transacted.”
Judicial Council Decision 227 “confirmed that the scope of the business of a special General Conference is restricted by the call,” the bishops’ petition said.
That ruling was about the 1966 General Conference session of the Methodist Church and its limited agenda to review and act upon questions of union with the Evangelical United Brethren Church and a report about progress toward eliminating the Central Jurisdiction. The United Methodist Church has been marking the 50th anniversary of those two events this spring.
In its petition related to GC2019, the Council of Bishops noted that “the question has arisen” about whether other church organizations or clergy or lay members can submit petitions on human sexuality issues even if such petitions “may be inconsistent” with a report from the council that is based on recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York. Brown is news editor for UMNS.