Archives for November 2018

Why I Appealed the Judicial Council Decision on Exit

I have submitted a request to the Judicial Council that it reconsider part of its Decision 1366 that declared the local church exit provisions of the Traditional Plan (TP) unconstitutional. The TP provided that individual congregations or groups of 50 or more congregations could vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in order to form or join a “self-governing Methodist church” that would be separate from the UM Church. Part of the TP’s “gracious exit” provisions for those who cannot live within the teachings and requirements established by General Conference, withdrawal would require a 55 percent vote of the church conference (a congregational meeting) and payment of unfunded pension liabilities, with no other requirements.

The Judicial Council in Decision 1366 ruled this provision conflicted with ¶ 41 of the church’s Constitution, which requires that congregations transferring from one annual conference to another need a 2/3 majority vote by the local church and by both the sending and receiving annual conferences. Based on this ruling, an exit path for congregations would apparently require a 2/3 majority vote of the local congregation and also 2/3 majority approval by their annual conference before the church could withdraw.

However, the language of ¶ 41 explicitly governs “a local church … transfer[ring] from one annual conference to another in which it is geographically located.” In other words, a transfer within The United Methodist Church, not a withdrawal from The United Methodist Church. The only situations currently governed by this provision are in Kentucky and Oklahoma, where missionary annual conferences are geographically coinciding with regular annual conferences.

With all due respect, the Judicial Council erroneously applied ¶ 41 to the TP exit provisions, when in reality they address two different situations. The church Constitution gives the General Conference authority to “define and fix the powers and duties of … charge conferences and congregational meetings” (¶ 16.3). So the General Conference can determine the provisions that would govern a church exiting the denomination. The request for reconsideration gives the Judicial Council an opportunity to correct its error. Should it choose to reconsider, the Judicial Council would render a revised decision at its special meeting scheduled to take place February 19-22, just prior to the special General Conference, and its revised decision could be taken into account by the delegates.

This request for reconsideration was submitted for two reasons. First, it is my job as the person assigned by the Commission on a Way Forward to defend the Traditional Plan. I need to ensure that the church’s legal decisions regarding the TP are justly arrived at after full consideration. The Judicial Council did not have the opportunity to fully consider arguments around this particular aspect of its decision, as this issue did not come up in the written briefs submitted to the Judicial Council in advance of its decision. Interestingly, a person with much more progressive views than mine regarding LGBTQ persons has supported my request for reconsideration.

Second, the gracious exit provisions are an integral part of the Traditional Plan. The TP envisions that there will be some progressive United Methodists who will be unable to live with a continuing prohibition on same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals in the UM Church. In order to secure the unity of the church, the TP gives annual conferences, groups of 50 or more congregations, and individual congregations the ability to withdraw from the UM Church in order to form a (progressive) church allowing same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.

The work of the Commission and the special General Conference is to resolve the conflict over these issues. The TP advocates resolution through graciously allowing those who cannot abide by the 46-year explicit position of the global UM Church to depart and engage in ministry in the way they believe is right. The church can no longer live as a “house divided” – it is causing too much harm to the church, its members, and its mission. Providing an exit path with few barriers to exit is the loving and respectful way to handle this dispute.

In an email sent to General Conference delegates, Mainstream UMC (an organization formed to promote the One Church Plan) alleges that seeking to provide a gracious exit path is schismatic, and that the ultimate aim of the TP is to provide an exit path for traditionalist churches to leave the denomination. While there may be a few traditionalist churches who would seek to leave the denomination under the exit path provided, the TP is the only plan that would keep most traditionalist churches in the denomination. Adoption of the One Church Plan would lead to many more traditionalist congregations and members leaving the church.

Mainstream UMC thinks it is suspicious that the only part of Decision 1366 that I am appealing is the one related to exit for congregations, not any of the other aspects of the TP that were ruled unconstitutional. That is because nearly all the other defects in the TP identified by the Judicial Council can be easily corrected by simple language changes in the plan’s provisions. There is no need to appeal those other provisions, nor is there any legal basis to do so. The exit path portion of the decision was erroneously decided, and this gives the Judicial Council the opportunity to reverse itself upon further reflection. It has done so before regarding other important and controversial decisions.

It is disappointing that the folks at Mainstream UMC appear to be resorting to secular political tactics in an effort to strong-arm acceptance of the One Church Plan. Distortions and misinformation seen in this email and in other publications by Mainstream UMC have no place in the church’s decision-making process. General Conference delegates need the best and clearest information about all three plans (and other proposals), so that they can make informed and well-reasoned decisions about our church’s future.

Mainstream UMC says “unity in Christ means embracing difference.” However, the only difference that they are asking us to embrace is over our understanding of marriage and human sexuality. They are not advocating for different practices on infant baptism or women’s ordination or the payment of apportionments. (I intentionally chose to mention other hot-button issues here.) Different practices in these areas would result in an incoherent denomination. In the same way, different standards regarding marriage and sexual morality would also result in an incoherent denomination.

Traditionalists are not schismatics. The church is already in schism due to the refusal of some annual conferences, bishops, and clergy to abide by the policies and requirements established by the church. Votes and actions of “non-conformity” are in fact schism.

The question is, will we resolve the schism by institutionalizing it in differing moral standards across the church? Or will we restore unity through requiring conformity to the decisions of General Conference and graciously allowing those who cannot conform to depart with our blessing?

Laity and the One Church Plan

One of the less noticed aspects of the One Church Plan (OCP) is how it minimizes the voices of laity in the various decisions around marriage and sexuality.

The OCP allows any pastor to perform a same-sex wedding, whether the local church approves or not. Laity would have a voice in whether same-sex weddings could take place on local church property, but such a decision would require a congregational vote in a church conference.

The OCP would delegate to every annual conference the decision about whether or not to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. In the first instance, this decision would be made by the annual conference board of ordained ministry, which does include some laypersons making up 20 to 33 percent of the board’s membership. Ultimately, however, the clergy session of the annual conference would vote whether or not to approve individual candidates who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. This group consists of all the annual conference’s ordained clergy, plus the lay members of the board of ordained ministry. The lay voice would be overwhelmed in this setting.

It is ironic that two of the three provisions of the OCP declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council would have broadened the voice of laity.

One provision provided that the bishop could “seek the non-binding advice of an annual conference session on standards relating to human sexuality for ordination to inform the Board of Ordained Ministry in its work.” This provision was ruled unconstitutional because the bishop cannot advise the Board of Ordained Ministry about anything. (The provision could be made constitutional by rewording it to eliminate any reference to the bishop.)

The other provision said, “Clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shall be reassigned.” This provision provided a voice to a congregation’s laity in requesting a new pastor via the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. It was ruled unconstitutional, however, because the General Conference cannot infringe upon the bishop’s right to decide appointments. So the congregation can request a new pastor because of “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage,” but there is no guarantee that the bishop will appoint a new pastor. (A change of wording cannot salvage this provision.)

As of this writing, there has been no public indication that I am aware of that the authors of the One Church Plan intend to rectify the areas found unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

In an October 22 article by UM News Service, the Rev. Stan Copeland (a presenter at a Uniting Methodists event last summer favoring the OCP) reflected the attitude of some toward lay participation. According to the article, “one part of the plan doesn’t thrill Copeland: A congregation must have a majority vote in favor of hosting same-sex weddings before holding one on church property. Copeland would rather the pastor and other local church leaders make that call. ‘Any time we have a (congregational) vote it’s potentially divisive,’ said Copeland, longtime pastor of Dallas’ Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.”

The OCP comes across as somewhat paternalistic toward laity. Many advocates of the plan seem to imply that they alone know the best course for the church’s future, and that laity in general do not need to be involved in making those decisions.

This is a mistake. If laity do not feel empowered to be part of the decision-making process regarding their church’s beliefs and practices, they will have less ownership of the outcome. Less ownership means reduced loyalty and a diminished inclination to stay in the church.

Closely aligned with that concern is the question whether the final decision of General Conference represents the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of grass-roots laity. While no surveys have been done of United Methodist members, there is reason to believe a large proportion (if not the majority) of laity in the U.S. hold to a traditional definition of marriage and hope the church continues to uphold what they believe is the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter. Not all would leave the church if it changes its definition of marriage, but many would.

Of course, the views of laity in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe (over 40 percent of the global church’s membership) are strongly traditional. Will the outcome of General Conference adequately reflect their views?

By contrast, both the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) and the Traditional Plan (TP) involve laity in the crucial decisions regarding the church’s future. Under the CCP, jurisdictional and annual conferences, consisting of one-half lay delegates representing their local churches, would vote on which of the three theological branches to affiliate with. Local churches that disagree with the decision of their annual conference could vote in a congregational meeting to affiliate with a different branch.

The TP would require every annual conference (again, one-half laity representing their local churches) to vote whether or not that annual conference would “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the Discipline. If not, laity would have the same large say in whether that annual conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church to form or join a new self-governing Methodist church. Local churches that disagreed with the decision of their annual conference could vote by a congregational meeting to take a different decision, including the possibility of withdrawing from the UM Church to join a new self-governing Methodist church.

 

Laity’s voice is an integral part of the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, whereas the One Church Plan tends to minimize the voices of lay members. That is a factor that General Conference delegates should consider when they evaluate the various options before them in St. Louis.