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?

One thought on “Why I Appealed the Judicial Council Decision on Exit

  1. I agree with your comments regarding withdrawal from the church. I hate to seem paranoid but it would seem that the episcopal body as well as the judicial and part of the legislative body wants to cram down any of the non traditionalist models as do some rules and laws of the secular world..

    I am also wondering about the rather enigmatic premise laid down by the council on page 1 of Decision Number 1366 that says that

    Full legislative power of the General Conference includes the authority to adopt a uniform, standardized, or a non-uniform, differentiated theological statement. Our Constitution commands not that all church policies enacted by the General Conference be uniform but that all uniform church policies be enacted by the General Conference.

    I am concerned that the traditionalist standpoint is being shunted aside as a mere afterthought. I hope I am wrong.

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