In an overwhelming, 8-1 decision issued this morning, the United Methodist Church’s “supreme court,” the Judicial Council ruled that “[p]etitions to the special session of the General Conference 2019 may be filed by any organization, clergy member and lay member of the United Methodist Church as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition” is within the boundaries of the restricted focus of the 2019 General Conference.
This ruling represents a defeat for liberal bishops who had sought to severely limit, or even altogether prevent, anyone from outside the Council of Bishops from submitting proposals that, in response to our denomination’s tensions over sexual morality and accountability, would represent an alternative “way forward” to the extreme liberalization plan favored by a majority faction within the Council of Bishops.
Some context is worth noting.
Earlier this month, the global UMC Council of Bishops concluded its meeting by deciding that their report to the special 2019 General Conference would “recommend” a plan that would liberalize our church standards on marriage and homosexual practice to better conform to current Western secular culture, but that this report would also “include” two alternative approaches, a “Traditionalist Plan” and a “Connectional Conference Plan.” Our bishops have left many questions unanswered, such as what exactly would be in what they include about the “Traditionalist Plan.”
Within days, our bishops were publicly disagreeing about what exactly this meant. Liberal American bishops energetically spun this as meaning that the Liberalization Plan would be the only plan submitted to a vote for delegates, while some more orthodox bishops indicated that it meant that all three plans would be potential options on the table.
In a May 12 webinar, Bishop Scott Jones of Texas shared that an initial vote showed that a simple majority of active bishops favored the Liberalization Plan, but that this majority was less than two-thirds, and that there was significant support among the remaining bishops for the other two plans. Bishop Jones reported that then the later motion to pass the final version of the report, “recommending” the Liberalization Plan, while “including” the other two, passed by over 80 percent. Jones explained that this strong super-majority support for the final proposal came from how a number of bishops “perceived it as a compromise that would then send all three plans but recommend the One Church model.” Bishop Gary Mueller of Arkansas made similar comments to the United Methodist News Service.
The Council of Bishops also requested that the Judicial Council to make a declaratory decision about whether or not anyone else could submit petitions to the special 2019 General Conference. The Judicial Council agreed to do this, and met in special session this week to decide this question.
Given the uncertainties of what exactly will be in the Council of Bishops final report to the 2019 General Conference, this case attracted much interest. I filed “friend of the court” briefs arguing for why the Judicial Council should allow other United Methodists to submit alternative proposals. Six others filed briefs on different sides. Mr. Lonnie Brooks of Alaska unofficially posted all of the briefs online here.
I was privileged to participate in oral arguments before the Judicial Council, which were held on Tuesday of this week.
Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area (who until this last Council of Bishops meeting was the Council’s President) and others argued that no petitions beyond the Council of Bishops report should be allowed to be submitted for consideration at the 2019 General Conference. A coalition of annual conference chancellors represented by attorney Thomas Starnes, himself chancellor for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, appeared to argue that any legislative proposal would be out of order for the 2019 General Conference if it would move the UMC in a different direction than the one pushed in the Liberalization Plan. Another key argument of those on the restrictive side was that the right granted by Paragraph 507 of our Book of Discipline to “[a]ny organization, clergy member, or lay member of The United Methodist Church” to petition General Conference is suspended for the 2019 General Conference.
In this ruling the Judicial Council refused to accept any of these arguments. Instead, on the core question, the Council ruled that people outside of a faction of liberal Western bishops can submit alternative proposals to the 2019 General Conference.
This ruling did not go as far as I had asked when I requested some specific outlines of exactly what sorts of petitions would count as being “in harmony with the purpose” of acting upon the Council of Bishops report. But I realize that this part of my argument was always a bit of a long shot, for the context of what the Judicial Council might rule. Instead, the Judicial Council deferred to the General Conference itself to make such determinations, “through its committees, officers and presiders, acting in accordance with The Discipline and the rules and procedures of the General Conference.”
This ruling was essential for moving us towards the “fair, open, and transparent process” for which I pleaded this week.
It is true that even in the worst-case scenario of the Judicial Council ruling against allowing anyone other than the Council of Bishops to petition the 2019 General Conference, delegates with other ideas (such as myself) still could have proposed amendments and substitute motions to introduce alternative proposals at the last minute. But this would have not given all delegates adequate time to carefully read and consider the implications of such alternatives. And given the increasingly international nature of General Conference, it is worth remembering how experience has shown that translations have not always been adequate for ensuring that non-English-speaking delegates understand such last-minute amendments.
This ruling paves the way for allowing alternative proposals to be submitted months ahead of the February 2019 General Conference, and then duly printed and translated to give delegates around the world plenty of time to carefully read and consider them in advance.
Regardless of one’s position on particular issues, this ruling is a clear win for promoting a fair, open, transparent, non-manipulative, and globally inclusive process for the very important 2019 General Conference.