Others get their fifteen minutes of fame. But I was happy to have the six minutes I was allotted.
On Tuesday, May 22 in suburban Chicago, the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council heard oral arguments for Docket #0518-1. From February 23-26, 2019, a special session of our denomination’s governing General Conference will convene to seek a “way forward” from our current divisions over sexual morality and disobedience to related church rules. This week’s Judicial Council case focused on the question of whether or not United Methodists other than the Council of Bishops can submit relevant proposals in advance, in the form of petitions, to this 2019 General Conference. I along with the Rev. Keith Boyette (President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association), Mr. Lonnie Brooks (former lay leader of the Alaska Conference), and Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Conference submitted briefs arguing for a “YES” answer to this question. Ms. Stephanie Henry (who serves as chair of the Rules Committee of the Commission on the General Conference but who was only speaking for herself as an individual), Bishop Bruce Ough of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area (and the immediate past president of the UMC Council of Bishops), and Mr. Thomas Starnes (chancellor of the Baltimore-Washington Conference who was representing a coalition of chancellors largely employed by bishops favoring liberalizing our sexuality standards) submitted briefs arguing for a “NO” answer. The Commission on the General Conference submitted a brief taking a neutral position. All eight of us were then invited to participate in the oral arguments earlier this week.
At different points, Bishop Ough and Mr. Starnes claimed that forbidding alternative petitions by United Methodists outside of the Council of Bishops was demanded by what they said was “the intent” of 2016 General Conference delegates in passing the “Way Forward” motion (also called “the Howard motion” because it was proposed by general agency staffer George Howard), even though nothing in that motion said anything about forbidding alternative petitions at a special General Conference session.
What follows are the remarks I delivered for my portion of the oral arguments. At times, I referenced the written briefs submitted earlier, which have been unofficially posted online here.
Thank you for the privilege of speaking today. I speak to respectfully ask the Judicial Council to ensure a just, open, and transparent process, in which United Methodists other than bishops will not lose their right, even temporarily, to petition General Conference with their deep concerns and constructive proposals.
We have a clear precedent for this, in the special 1966 Methodist General Conference. As I noted, that conference’s restricted business included receiving and acting upon a commission’s report. Thanks to Decision #227, this “acting upon” included considering various amendments and petitions proposed on the same subject matter. That 1966 Conference handled a wider range of complex issues. And they were able to manage it, in just 4 days. And so can we.
We see that the 1964 Methodist Discipline, on which Decision 227 was based, has the same essential language that is key for this case. I’m referring to that key sentence that was quoted by Ms. [Stephanie] Henry. [“The purpose of such special session shall be stated in the call, and only such business shall be transacted as is in harmony with the purpose stated in such call”] Essentially identical to what we have now. If the Council is interested, I have copies of the 1964 text.
Mr. Starnes and some other annual conference chancellors appear to argue that we delegates cannot make major amendments or substitute motions to the Council of Bishops report. They talk about how we can vote yes or no, and if want to do anything else, we can wait until 2020.
I am sorry, but that is just not logical. Are there other parts of our Rules of Order that become invalid in 2019? And why would both the 2016 General Conference and the Council of Bishops say that we wanted to schedule this special Conference across multiple days, if the ONLY business was just to hear a couple speeches for or against, vote yes or no, and then go home by lunch?
But if any proposal would be in order as a last-minute amendment, then it would, by definition, be within the area of business for the Conference. And therefore, the content of such proposals would be in order to submit in advance, as petitions.
Mr. Starnes correctly notes that the provision for special conferences was moved into the Constitution in 1968. But then in 1972 came Judicial Council Decision #350. At one point Decision 350 invoked Decision 227, and said nothing about the key precedent of 227 being at all lessened just because some provisions about General Conferences were moved.
To say that no one other than a majority faction of bishops may petition the 2019 Conference would defy our long history of democratic governance. In Decision #929, the Judicial Council ruled that defining WHO may petition any General Conference “is a distinctly connectional issue,” and therefore, NO ONE besides General Conference can limit it. 929 said that in the absence of any clear DISCIPLINARY restriction, Paragraph 507 should basically be interpreted broadly.
Four days in 2019 gives us 40% of the time of the 2016 Conference, to handle probably much fewer than even 15% of the petitions. Given our short timeframe now, I would not expect that many petitions to actually be submitted. I certainly would not expect that EVERY petition deferred in 2016 would be brought back. But it’s only fair to allow at least a few to finally be considered.
I keep hearing about the supposed “intent” of delegates. But I have heard recently from several delegates who voted for the Howard motion, who assure me that they did not intend to restrict alternative proposals as has been argued.
All of us speaking today are part of official United Methodist bodies. None of us is authorized to take a position on behalf of the councils, commissions, or delegations that we come from.
But speaking as one young adult, lay delegate to the 2019 General Conference, I would like to let you know that for me to be able to do my job well on behalf of the church we love, it is essential that my fellow delegates and I will be able to see as many of the different proposals out there as possible, printed and translated into our own languages, well ahead of time, so that we can carefully read and consider the possibilities. It is essential that we be able to actually do our jobs of legislating, by having a genuine range of choices. It is essential that whether or not we can even consider a particular petition is something that gets decided according to some clear, reasonable boundaries, along the lines of the reliefs I requested in my briefs. I affirm Bishop Ough’s point that some clarification of the scope of permissible petitions is very important.
We delegates do not need decisions on what we can or cannot vote on to be decided in rushed, last-minute, arbitrary, and non-transparent ways. We delegates do not need to have our only avenue for considering alternative proposals to be limited to complex, last-minute, quickly written, hastily read, and inadequately translated floor motions. We delegates do not need to have timelines and legislative processes manipulated to steer us to certain pre-determined decisions, before we have had any chance to make our own decisions.
We need a fair, open, and transparent process. I am regularly in contact with fellow delegates, and I know I speak for many of us around the world by asking the Council to please allow us to do the job we were elected to do, by allowing us to review different petitions ahead of time, and by offering clear guidance on the boundaries of acceptable business.