The UMC high court hears arguments about how confined the agenda should be for the special General Conference.
LINDA BLOOM | SAM HODGES
United Methodist News Service
MAY 22, 2018 — For two hours, The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council heard arguments about how confined the agenda should be for the special General Conference called to help the denomination get through its longstanding impasse over homosexuality.
The debate, which occurred May 22 at the Hilton Orrington Hotel, touched upon constitutional issues, matters of precedent and practical realities.
The first Judicial Council oral hearing to be livestreamed featured bishops taking different positions on whether only petitions consistent with the Council of Bishops’ own recommendation should be before the special General Conference, set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.
Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones acknowledged that the special General Conference is to be confined to consideration of the church’s positions on human sexuality, but said it should be open to any related petition brought by clergy or laity.
“The Council of Bishops is not the final repository of wisdom,” said Jones, who had filed a brief and was allowed to speak as one of the council-designated “amici curiae.”
But Bishop Bruce R. Ough, immediate past president of the Council of Bishops, stressed that General Conference 2016 asked the bishops to lead by working with the Commission on a Way Forward to come up with a proposal for preserving denominational unity.
“It knew what it was doing,” Ough said of General Conference 2016. “It was stopping the endless quadrennial cycle of legislative battles over human sexuality.”
The Council of Bishops requested a declaratory decision of the Judicial Council on whether petitions inconsistent with the bishops’ own report can be considered at the special General Conference.
For decades, The United Methodist Church has faced internal division over its teaching that the practice of homosexuality is against Christian teaching. Increasingly, clergy, local churches, annual conferences and jurisdictions have disobeyed official restrictions on same-sex unions and the ordination as clergy of self-professed practicing homosexuals.
Meanwhile, many in the church have complained that church law isn’t being enforced.
Tensions were so pronounced at General Conference 2016, in Portland, Oregon, that bishops acknowledged a crisis in the church, with schism a possibility.
General Conference agreed to let the bishops, with the Commission on a Way Forward, review the church’s policies on human sexuality and propose changes that might help the church stay unified. The special General Conference is to act on the Council of Bishops’ report.
Just before the oral hearing, the Council of Bishops released a new statement on May 18, saying that “the One Church Plan will be placed before the General Conference for legislative action.” That plan would remove the language that the practice of homosexuality violates Christian teaching and give local churches and annual conferences more freedom in regard to same-sex unions and ordination of gay clergy.
But, as Ough pointed out during the hearing, the bishops’ yet-to-be-translated report will also provide supplementary materials about two other options, the Traditionalist Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan.
Besides Ough and Jones, the presenters before the denomination’s top court included the Rev. Gary George, a member of the Commission on General Conference, the Judicial Council-designated respondent; the Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of General Conference, and four other “amici curiae” speakers.
The Commission on General Conference declined to take a position, George explained as he read from its own brief to Judicial Council. The commission said it considered its role “as one of implementing the actions and logistical responsibilities determined by the General Conference,” rather than defining what legislation goes before the 2019 special session.
The Rev. Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, an unofficial advocacy group, argued that any petition related to the “underlying conflict” over human sexuality would be in harmony with the call of the special session and should be allowed for submission by July 8. Such petitions need to be translated and printed in advance to give time for reading, understanding and debating, he stressed.
Two young adults who had “amici curiae” status argued different sides of the question.
Stephanie Henry, a lay member of the Upper New York Conference who said she had recently moved to Seattle, believes allowing multiple petitions “would be disruptive” to the purpose of the special session. General Conference 2016, she said, “approved a different way to move The United Methodist Church forward.”
John Lomperis, a young adult and Indiana Conference delegate to the 2019 General Conference, supported the submission of other petitions by July 8, 2018, and noted that just as the 1966 special session of General Conference was able to manage its work in four days, “So can we.”
Thomas Starnes, chancellor for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, spoke on behalf of a group of annual conference chancellors who filed a brief in support of confining the special General Conference to consideration of the One Church model. The chancellors believe both the denomination’s constitution and authorization by General Conference 2016 allows for limiting the agenda.
Opening up to a flood of petitions would “nullify” the purpose of the special General Conference, Starnes told the council.
The purpose “is not simply to receive a report and act on it any way one might choose,” he said. “It is to receive a particular recommendation from our bishops … on how we can stay together.”
Ough, in responding to questions from the Judicial Council, said that while the bishops’ report would have details of the other two plans, only the One Church plan would be in legislative form. He also said the General Conference would be free to amend or propose a substitute for the bishops’ recommendation.
Speakers sought to invoke past Judicial Council rulings as precedent for their different arguments, but there was wide agreement that the special General Conference can, by a two-thirds vote, expand the legislative agenda.
During the question-and-answer period, Warren Plowden asked about the practical aspects of any decisions. Plowden is the court’s first lay alternate, filling in for Deanell Reece Tacha, who recused herself from the council’s special session.
Plowden zeroed in on the church law requirement that legislation at a special General Conference be “in harmony” with the specific call for that General Conference.
“I think we can probably define what is meant by ʽharmony,’” Plowden said of the Judicial Council, but he pressed for clarity on who would apply the standard to specific legislation.
Graves and George indicated they were looking to the Judicial Council for direction on that. Jones suggested the General Conference Committee on Reference could do the screening.
This was Ough’s first appearance before Judicial Council. The hearing had a light moment when he described the experience.
“I wouldn’t consider myself a ʽdisciplinary’ nerd, but it’s been fun,” he said, referring to the Book of Discipline, or church lawbook. “I appreciate the thoroughness of the various arguments.”
The oral hearing is the only part of the Judicial Council’s special session — which could continue through May 25 — that is open to the public. The court’s decision will be posted on its website after the session concludes.