Tackling a petitions conundrum

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The General Conference commission spent time grappling with what to do about petitions submitted by people who, for whatever reason, are no longer part of The United Methodist Church. 

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states that any United Methodist organization, clergy member or lay member may submit a petition to General Conference. The key phrase in that provision, the Discipline’s Paragraph 507, is “United Methodist.”

With each postponement, the window has opened again for United Methodists to submit additional petitions proposing changes to the Discipline or requesting General Conference take a certain action. The deadline for petitions to the coming General Conference is now Sept. 6. Instructions for preparing petitions can be found online.

But between 1,000 and 1,200 petitions already have been submitted to General Conference — the vast majority before the current wave of disaffiliations.

The Rev. Gary Graves, the General Conference secretary, said he has not reviewed the petitions to see if any were submitted by individuals who have since withdrawn from The United Methodist Church. “I don’t know that there are any,” he said. “But I think it’s a good likelihood that there are.” 

At the same time, Graves warned that legislation from undeniably United Methodist organizations may bear the name of a submitter who has since left the denomination. 

Former United Methodist Bishop Scott Jones, as chair of the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order, would have submitted the committee’s legislation. Similarly, former Bishop Mark Webb, as president of Discipleship Ministries, would have submitted the legislation on behalf of that agency. Jones and Webb now each serve as bishops in the Global Methodist Church. 

Commission members spoke of how they do not want to wholesale remove any legislation from consideration by the delegates. However, the commission members agreed that they want to make information available to delegates if they desire it.  

Previously, the commission formed the Advance Legislative Research Panel, a group of church law experts who could provide an early warning if proposed legislation might be struck down by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court. 

The panel members’ task was to review all petitions, identify closely related Judicial Council decisions and memoranda as well as related paragraphs in the Book of Discipline. The General Conference secretary and petitions secretary coordinated the panel’s work. 

But it was up to the 2016 General Conference delegates whether to use the panel’s information when they voted on the rules and orders of the meeting.

The commission is planning to use the panel again ahead of the coming General Conference. Commission members suggested that the panel also could work with heads of delegations to flag any legislation submitted by someone who has exited the denomination. 

To that end, the commission is asking its Rules Committee to meet online this summer to consider how that idea could be crafted into a new rule. 

Any new rule would first go before the commission for a vote when it next meets in person in September. But just as in 2016, the new rule also would need approval by General Conference delegates if they wanted to see the additional information. 

Kim Simpson, the commission’s chair, emphasized that even if legislation is flagged, “we do not change the content of a petition.”

The Rev. Aleze M. Fulbright, a new commission member from the Indiana Conference, said the proposed new rule could be part of improving the climate in the denomination. 

“There is vast mistrust within the church right now,” she said. “And I feel that we have an opportunity to help mitigate some of that mistrust with this action that could be presented to the General Conference for consideration.”

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