Is the Traditional Plan Unconstitutional?

Minnesota Conference clergy and laity gathered at Normandale Hylands United Methodist Church hold table talk discussions about the three plans set to be considered by the special General Conference. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Anxious church commentators are wondering if the latest development in the lead-up to the special called General Conference in February 2019 means the Traditional Plan is fatally flawed.

In a comprehensive 58-page ruling released October 26, the Judicial Council has rendered its opinion on whether the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan are constitutional and in conformity with other parts of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The short answer is that the Traditional Plan is alive and, while a bit broken, can be fixed. (The Traditional Plan would retain the current position of the church on marriage and human sexuality, enhance accountability, and provide a gracious exit for those who cannot live within the church’s expectations.) The One Church Plan, also described as the “local option,” survived scrutiny with a few minor provisions ruled unconstitutional. The Judicial Council declined to evaluate the Connectional Conference Plan, since the  Book of Discipline does not allow the Council to evaluate proposed constitutional amendments, which are an integral part of the plan.

It is important to note that the Judicial Council was ruling on the legality of various parts of the plans, not on the wisdom of enacting any of them. The decision states, “The task of the Judicial Council is to pass upon the constitutionality of the legislative petitions without expressing an opinion as to their merits or expediency. It is up to the General Conference to determine the wisdom of each plan” (p. 1).

The big picture is that the situation is unchanged following the Judicial Council decision. The General Conference will still be able to consider all three plans. Aspects of the two plans evaluated will need to be modified or dropped from the plans in order to address the concerns raised by the Judicial Council. Delegates can put forward such modifications as amendments during the February General Conference.

Evaluating the Traditional Plan

It is not surprising that the Judicial Council found a greater number of problems with the Traditional Plan (TP) petitions. Because the Council of Bishops instructed the Commission on a Way Forward not to develop the details of the TP, it did not receive the same amount of attention and vetting that the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan received. The Judicial Council’s work, therefore, is a blessing to help refine and perfect the TP.

The Judicial Council found constitutional problems with 7 of the 17 Traditional Plan (TP) petitions, as well as with parts of two others. Most of these problems can be fixed with relatively straightforward changes in the wording, without changing the content of the petitions or what they are trying to accomplish.

The idea that the Council of Bishops could hold its members accountable to the Discipline (Petitions 2-4) is no longer viable after the Judicial Council ruled it unconstitutional. The Council ruled that the same bishops who filed a complaint against another bishop for disobedience could not then sit in judgment on that bishop. The decision states, “The COB was not designed to function like an inquisitional court tasked with enforcing doctrinal purity within its ranks. This arrangement poses significant dangers to a person’s right to a fair and unbiased determination of her or his case. There are no safeguards put in place to guarantee an impartial process carried out by an independent body” (p. 32).

Renewal and Reform Coalition leaders have long been skeptical that the Council of Bishops would be able to hold its members accountable in any meaningful way. That is why we proposed an alternative disciplinary process for bishops administered by a new Global Episcopacy Committee. Maxie Dunnam submitted this idea in a petition to the special General Conference. Because it was not part of the original TP, this idea was not part of the Judicial Council evaluation. Based on their ruling, however, I believe it is a viable process that could provide meaningful accountability for bishops.

Several petitions require members of the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify that they will “uphold, enforce and maintain The Book of Discipline related to commissioning, ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” They would require the bishop to certify that all the members he or she appoints to the board have agreed to do so. And they would require that the annual conference certify that all members appointed to the board have agreed to do so.

The Judicial Council’s problem with these petitions was that the requirement focused on certain provisions of the Discipline to the exclusion of others. “The certification is incomplete and selective because it relates to some but not all applicable standards of The Discipline and targets one particular group of candidates for disqualification” (p. 35). This problem can be corrected with a simple language change clarifying that upholding of the whole Discipline is required, not just certain parts to the exclusion of others.

The same problem of “selective certification” was cited as the Judicial Council nullified the provisions requiring annual conferences and bishops to declare their willingness to “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the standards of the church regarding ordination and marriage. Again, this can be corrected by a simple language change.

Importantly, the Judicial Council declared that the Constitution does permit an annual conference to withdraw from The United Methodist Church under conditions established by the General Conference. However, the Council ruled that local churches cannot withdraw under the process set forth in the TP. It ruled that the process must comply with ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by the congregation and also by the annual conference to approve withdrawal. However, this is a misreading of ¶ 41, which deals with congregations transferring from one UM annual conference to another. It has no bearing on the conditions for a congregation withdrawing from the church. I am requesting that the Judicial Council reconsider its ruling on this aspect of the plan.

The other aspects of the Traditional Plan were upheld.

Evaluating the One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) was largely held to be constitutional. Several provisions meant to give greater protection to a traditionalist viewpoint were struck down for various reasons. Some could probably be salvaged by changes in wording.

More significantly, the Judicial Council ruled that the idea of “connectionalism” under which our church operates “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality” (p. 1). The idea that the church could establish moral or ethical standards that are different from one place to another strikes me as unbiblical. Standards for right and wrong should not vary from one country or culture to another.

Think about that. Do not moral and ethical standards by their very nature apply across “geographical, social, and cultural variations?” Should lying be permitted for some social classes, but not others? Should bribery be acceptable in some cultures, but not others? Should same-sex marriage be permissible for Christians in some countries, but not in others? That makes no sense. If something is a moral or ethical matter, by definition it should apply in all similar situations.

It seems to me the Judicial Council is discounting the uniform basis for the “vital web of interactive relationships” that form our connection (see ¶ 132 in the Book of Discipline). Our connection with each other is based on “a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 104); by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things” (¶ 132). Where the common foundation is missing, the “web of interactive relationships” cannot develop or sustain itself. And that is what we see happening in our denomination, as the common foundation of beliefs and practices is eroded by the many issues that divide us.

The One Church Plan creates a “a diversity of beliefs” and non-uniform standards of ordination. A person who could be ordained as clergy in one annual conference would not be acceptable for ordination in a different annual conference. This undermines the understanding of ordained ministry as a connectional matter. As Judicial Council Decision 544 puts it, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide.” It understands each annual conference as a “door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church.” But someone entering that door in one annual conference would no longer be acceptable to other annual conferences, which means that we would no longer have one connected “ministry of the entire church.”

I believe the Judicial Council is mistaken in their understanding of connectionalism.

The Judicial Council also made a clear ruling that narrowed the scope of what is legally considered our doctrinal standards. They ruled that only changes to the wording of the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith can be legally reviewed by the Judicial Council. This ignores the fact that the 2016 Book of Disciplineconsiders Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament as doctrinal standards. “[The Plan of Union 1968] stated that although the language of the first Restrictive Rule never has been formally defined, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 104).

Judicial Council ruled, “Only the General Conference is competent to determine whether its enactment establishes a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (p. 13, citing Decisions 1027 and 243). However, that means there is no independent review of a General Conference action. By a majority vote, the General Conference can declare that its action does not “establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 17) and therefore does not require a constitutional amendment process.

So even though Wesley’s Notes define marriage as between “one man and one woman only” (Notes on Genesis 16 and 30, also see notes on Matthew 19 and Mark 10), the General Conference can change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and there is no independent body to review such a decision. This greatly narrows the enforceability of our doctrinal standards, particularly in the face of principled determination to maneuver around them.

Fortunately, the Judicial Council was only ruling on what is legal, not on what the church ought to do. The General Conference can and should still defeat the One Church Plan, adopt a revised Traditional Plan, and preserve a more robust sense of connectionalism founded on our common relationship with Jesus Christ, our adherence to biblical teaching, and our shared understanding of doctrine. Anything less will lead to a splintering of the church.

Comments

  1. I really do not understand the issue with the bishops policing each other: Elders and Deacons do it all the time through the Board of Ordained Ministry. The idea that a peer should not police a peer is strikes are the heart of Christian accountability.

    • Thanks for your comment, Alan. I think the objection was that the same people could not bring a complaint against a bishop, hear a “trial” and then also vote whether or not to “convict” the bishop of wrongdoing, then sentence the bishop. In the judicial process for elders and deacons, it is different people fulfilling those functions, not the same people doing all of them.

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