Is the One Church Plan Unconstitutional?

The process of formulating and releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward has been a long and winding road with unpredictable turns and unexpected surprises. Now that the report has been released in four translations, one foreseeable wild card in the process remains. This October, the Judicial Council has been asked to determine the constitutionality and legality of the three plans submitted by the Commission.

The Constitution is the document that sets forth the governing principles of our church. No legislation may be passed or implemented that goes contrary to our Constitution. Proposals (like the Connectional Conference Plan) that want to enact structures or processes that go against the Constitution must pass amendments to the Constitution in order to be legal. That is why the Connectional Conference Plan has nine constitutional amendments. That is the only way that plan could be enacted, since it makes some rather dramatic changes to the church’s structure and governing processes.

Both the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan claim to not need any constitutional amendments in order to pass. In other words, both claim to be congruent with the requirements of our Constitution. That is a selling point because, rather than needing a two-thirds vote to pass, these plans would only need a simple majority. And neither would need to be ratified by the annual conferences in order to be implemented.

Over the past two weeks, as many as twenty different people – plus two larger groups – have weighed in with legal arguments over the constitutionality and legality of the three plans. As the designated defender of the Traditional Plan before the Judicial Council at its upcoming meeting in October, I submitted a regular brief and a reply brief to the Council.

There were a number of persons who argued that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional, despite the claims of the plan’s authors that no constitutional amendments would be required. What are the important issues they have raised?

  1. The One Church Plan unlawfully delegates authority to set standards for ministry to the annual conferences.The authority to set standards for ordained ministry is reserved by the Constitution to the General Conference. But the One Church Plan removes the restriction that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not qualified to serve as ordained clergy. At the same time, it allows any annual conference (including those outside the United States) to continue disqualifying self-avowed practicing homosexuals from serving as ordained clergy.

The One Church Plan therefore sets up the probability of conflicting standards for ministry in different annual conferences. Some will ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, while others will not. This would be unlawfully allowing annual conferences to set standards for ministry, something that the Judicial Council has previously ruled is “distinctively connectional” and not something that can be delegated to the annual conferences.

In the words of the Judicial Council, “It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject” (JC Decision 7). “The requirements for admission into the ministry are distinctively connectional because, as observed in Decision 544, ‘[o]rdination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide'” (Brief by Keith Boyette).

When full clergy rights were extended to women in the (former) Methodist Church, the question was asked whether central conferences outside the United States could decline to ordain women. The Judicial Council ruled that this was a “distinctively connectional” matter that governed all annual conferences equally, so central conferences had to also ordain women. In the same way, the General Conference needs to set one standard regarding the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and cannot allow different annual conferences to set conflicting standards.

If the One Church Plan simply declared that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are eligible for ordination in all annual conferences, the plan would be constitutional. (This is what the so-called Simple Plan does.) But by allowing annual conferences to set conflicting standards, the plan unconstitutionally delegates legislative authority to annual conferences on an area that is distinctively connectional and reserved to the General Conference.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s changing of the definition of marriage to “two adults” clearly contradicts United Methodist doctrinal standards.There is no question that every reference to the practice of homosexuality in Scripture is negative and that Jesus and Paul both define marriage as between one man and one woman. Article IV of our Confession of Faithstates, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Since the One Church Plan changes the definition of marriage contrary to Scripture, it violates our doctrinal standards.

In addition, John Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament is another one of our doctrinal standards. It helps us interpret Scripture. Wesley’s Notes are uniformly negative toward the practice of homosexuality and affirm the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. So the One Church Plan’s changing the definition of marriage also violates Wesley’s Notes as a contradiction of our doctrinal standards.

Any change in our doctrinal standards (such as to accommodate a new definition of marriage) would require a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths vote of all the annual conference members around the world. Such a change would be nearly impossible.

In addition, the One Church Plan, while defining marriage as between “two adults” at the theological level, allows for different definitions of marriage across the church, depending upon where churches are located. In countries that do not permit same-sex marriage, the church would have to abide by the traditional definition of one man – one woman marriage.

Yet this geographic variety has been ruled out by Judicial Council Decision 1185, which says, “The Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.” The church needs a clear and consistent definition of something so foundational to human existence as marriage. For the One Church Plan to offer a smorgasbord approach to defining marriage (depending upon one’s geographic location) is to unconstitutionally contradict our foundational principle of connectionalism.

  1. The One Church Plan allows clergy to perform same-sex weddings, but has not provided an endorsed rite or ritual for such a service.According to the Constitution, the General Conference has authority “to provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship . . . .” Right now, the approved services of Christian marriage are specifically written for the marriage of one man to one woman. There is no authorization in the service of marriage for a same-sex couple to be married. The church has no authorized ritual for such a marriage. It would be unconstitutional for the General Conference to allow a type of marriage for which there is no approved ritual.

Furthermore, our doctrinal standards require that rites or orders of worship must be “consistent with the Holy Scriptures to the edification of all” (Confession of Faith, XIII), “so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (Articles of Religion, XXII). Since same-sex marriage is plainly not consistent with Scripture, such a worship rite would be contrary to our doctrinal standards and therefore unconstitutional. (The same holds true of ordination rituals.)

  1. The One Church Plan is unconstitutional when it says, “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, shallbe reassigned” (Petition 8, emphasis added).The Constitution gives sole right to set the appointment of clergy to the bishop. So the General Conference cannot mandate that the bishop change a clergy person’s appointment.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s provision that same-sex weddings cannot be performed in a local church unless such is approved by a vote of the local church conference conflicts with another provision in the Disciplinethat says, “the board of trustees shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services or other proper meetings” (¶ 2533.1).

 

  1. One of the provisions of the One Church Plan says that the General Council on Finance and Administration will develop an apportionment formula that ensures that each episcopal area pays for its own bishop.However, there is no legislation to that effect, and it is questionable whether GCFA can enact such a policy without General Conference direction. Additionally, the Judicial Council has already ruled in Decision 1208 that jurisdictions may not be required to fully fund their own bishops. They ruled that such a plan “creates a funding mechanism that is dependent upon raising funds from jurisdictions and that invades and undermines the ‘unified’ nature of the episcopacy.” So if this provision were to be followed by GCFA, it runs the risk of being found doubly illegal. (This means that delegates should not count on this provision going into effect when they consider voting for the One Church Plan.)

The Judicial Council has yet to rule whether any of the above arguments are valid. I believe they are strong arguments. Some of the above issues can be fixed by amending the legislation. However, it appears that items #1 and #2 are so essential to the One Church Plan that to rule them out would pretty much rule out the whole plan. Such a ruling by the Judicial Council would substantially change the options that the General Conference will consider in February.

Of course, the Traditional Plan must also survive an analysis by the Judicial Council that may find aspects of that plan unconstitutional. We will keep you informed about what the Judicial Council decides in October.

 

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