The specially called February 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will consider several proposals to address our denomination’s ongoing internal conflicts related to sexual morality and accountability. One proposal promoted by a faction of liberal U.S. bishops would liberalize the denominations official teachings and standards on homosexuality to a much greater degree to even the policy changes that split apart the Episcopal Church. For some reason, proponents have labeled this divisive proposal “the One Church Plan.”
Next week, the UMC Judicial Council will meet in Switzerland to examine whether any parts of this plan, or of the other two main plains submitted from the “Way Forward” process, are incompatible with the UMC’s constitution, the most foundational part of our church law.
I submitted a “friend of the court” brief outlining several constitutional problems I saw with this liberalizing plan. Back in August, Lonnie Brooks, a United Methodist layman in Alaska, posted online every brief submitted on various sides for this closely watched case.
Since Brooks has already made my opening brief publicly available over two months ago, I see no problem with my sharing its main contents on this site. I hope that this can help readers understand some of the legal issues at stake. Here is a link to where I have separately posted my second-round “reply brief,” which more directly responds to arguments others made against the Traditional Plan and in defense of the One Church Plan.
As a fair warning, this delves deep into the weeds of our church law. The use of the paragraph symbol (¶) refers to sections within the UMC’s Book of Discipline, our book of church law. The UMC constitution consists of ¶¶1-61 of the Discipline. At several points, I reference previous Judicial Council decisions, which are binding church law and are all available here. My brief also extensively references the official docket listing for this case, which is available online, includes the seventeen petition of the One Church Plan as Exhibit A on pages 7-33, and helpfully assigns a handy reference number to each of these petitions.
Amicus Curiae Brief of John Lomperis on Docket #1018-12 in Response to the One Church Plan
I. Statement of Facts
Each of the three proposed plans before the Judicial Council includes multiple petitions submitted to the 2019 General Conference. In this brief, I will cite the numbers assigned to each of the 17 petitions of the One Church Plan in Exhibit A of the docket information for this case.
No single petition for any of these plans can be understood in isolation, as each individual petition forms a key, integrated part of a wider whole of all other petitions for the same plan, together with the narrative summary included with each plan. Therefore, reviewing this “bigger picture” for each plan is essential for understanding any particular petition.
I am interested in this matter as a lay delegate who has been elected to represent the Indiana Conference at the 2019 General Conference.
It would be of great service to the 2019 General Conference for the Council to issue substantial rulings on this case at its October 2018 meeting, as this will give us delegates advance time to make careful, informed decisions in response to any constitutional problems found with any plan. And rather than intruding in legislative processes on behalf of any “side” of any debate, this request even-handedly asks the same questions of all three of the main plans that will be before delegates: the more liberal plan (“the One Church Plan”), the more centrist plan (“the Connectional Conference Plan”), and the more conservative plan (“the Traditional Plan”).
III. Argument and Analysis
The context of the full One Church Plan and the plain-sense meaning of the words makes clear, for Petition #3, that replacing affirmation of sexual relations only within “the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage” with “the covenant of monogamous marriage between two adults” amounts to saying that we no longer limit our understanding of marriage to only being heterosexual, but that we now affirm sexual relations within same-sex marriages, provided only that these relationships are between two adults. Similarly, the plain-sense meaning of Petition #14’s replacement in ¶2702.1(a) of being “not faithful in a heterosexual marriage” with being “not faithful in a monogamous marriage” as a chargeable offense, combined with this petition’s removal of “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” from the list of chargeable offenses, indicates that our church’s moral standards for clergy would shift to allow clergy to be in non-heterosexual marriages, as long as they were faithful within such relationships.
A. The One-Church Plan Violates the First Restrictive Rule (¶17).
The Judicial Council has been appropriately hesitant to judge if particular enactments conflict with the Doctrinal Standards, in cases in which there was no direct conflict clearly identified, or where the theological questions were so highly ambiguous and debatable as to be beyond the Council’s proper domain. But at times, the Council has properly assumed authority to make substantial judgments about the congruence of particular policies with the Doctrinal Standards (Decisions #142, 176, 1109; Cf. Decision #468 and Reyes opinion on 1297).
Some may argue that the Judicial Council should just assume that if General Conference passes something by a majority vote, then this always means that General Conference has judged this enactment to be harmonious with ¶104, and that no one else at that point has authority to over-rule this judgment. But the clear language of the Restrictive Rules is to limit General Conference from doing whatever it wants to do by simple-majority vote. If the Judicial Council could never strike down a General Conference action as violating the First Restrictive Rule, this would effectively completely nullify this Rule, and promote a logic that would ultimately negate the whole point of having part of Church law set apart as the Constitution.
No one seriously questions that the One Church Plan would make very significant changes. And yet while it would change many things, it would also leave in place the historic questions asked of all ordination candidates (¶336), notably numbers 12 (“Do you approve of our Church government and polity?”) and 13 (“Will you support and maintain them?”). As a result, many candidates who could not, in good conscience, approve of and commit to supporting our government and polity, as the One Church Plan would have rewritten it, would decide that they could not give affirmative answers to these questions and so discontinue their pursuit of UMC ordination. Thus the changes of the One Church Plan would effectively constitute “new standards” (in the language of ¶17), as they would serve the basic function of any standard, of drawing lines between who or what is in and who or what is out. Furthermore, the whole of the One Church Plan, with its narrative summary, makes clear that it flows out of a particular theological (i.e., doctrinal) perspective, and is therefore relevant to doctrine.
This merits examination of if and how any of the new standards of the One Church Plan are “contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.” ¶104, along with pages 58-60 and the bottom of page 64, of the 2016 Discipline makes clear that our “standards of doctrine” (or “Doctrinal Standards”) consist of four documents: the Methodist Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. The fact that Wesley’s Notes and Standards Sermons are included among our “established standards of doctrine” covered by the First Restrictive Rule is further seen by considering how the second half of ¶17 (beginning with “or establish any new standards…”) would be a bit redundant of the first half of ¶17 if this second half only protected the Methodist Articles of Religion.
In the debates about homosexuality, a few points are not in serious dispute: Every time homosexual practice is mentioned in Scripture (like Leviticus 18:22; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:8-11), it is condemned. The Bible includes no clear, undisputed approval of any homosexual relationship. Every biblical mention of marriage treats it as only between men and women. Some argue for acceptance of homosexuality by saying Old Testament moral commandments no longer bind Christians, but this cannot be reconciled with Methodist Article of Religion VI. Others argue for change by more broadly denying Scriptural authority, but this is plainly contrary to Methodist Articles of Religion V and VI, Article IV of the EUB Confession of Faith, and to the high view of Scripture affirmed in Wesley’s canonical Standard Sermons[i] (see I.7 of “The Circumcision of the Heart”; I.2 of “The Marks of the New Birth”; and I.5 of “The Law Established Through Faith: Discourse II”[ii]).
Furthermore, part of our Doctrinal Standards, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament,[iii] contain no hint of revisionist arguments that seek to restrict or negate the traditionally understood meaning of homosexuality-related verses. On the contrary, his Notes on Romans 1:26-27 describes homosexual desires of men and women as “that unnatural lust, which was as horrible a dishonour to the body, as their idolatry was to God,”[iv] while the Notes call the final group of sinners in 1 Corinthians 6:9 “sodomites” in a clearly disapproving way.[v] Similarly, in Section I.11 of “A Caution against Bigotry” (one of the Standard Sermons), Wesley expresses strong moral disapproval of “sodomites.” I admit feeling personally uncomfortable with the archaic word, “sodomites.” But whatever else the term may include, it is not seriously disputed that it would at least include men who engage in some homosexual practices with other men. And since the term “homosexuality,” with all of the meanings attached to it today, was not in use before 1892,[vi] Wesley can be understood as using the language of his own day to refer to individuals we may now refer to as “practicing homosexuals.”
Therefore, any legislation to “affirm” homosexuality as something that may be practiced by our clergy and blessed in at least some of our churches—as the One Church Plan would do (with the only clear exceptions of Petitions #15-17 and perhaps 10)—would be contrary to important moral teachings embedded within our Doctrinal Standards.
B. Many of the problems with the One Church Plan share a common theme of treating our denomination as if we had a “diocesan” or “congregationalist” polity, with much autonomy extended to each region and congregation, in contrast to the much more connectional polity the UMC has long had, in which our pastors and even bishops routinely itinerate, for what was historically the express purpose of ensuring and maintaining a unity of doctrine and discipline.
- The One Church Plan unconstitutionally and illegally delegates to annual conferences the authority for setting basic standards for who may be certified, ordained, or appointed as clergy.
The Judicial Council has previously held that the legislative functions constitutionally assigned to General Conference may not be delegated to any other body, not even by the will of a strong majority of General Conference itself (e.g., Decisions #1210, 1310).
¶16 of the UMC Constitution gives General Conference alone “full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional” (emphases added), while ¶16.2 gives General Conference alone the authority to “define and fix the powers and duties of” clergy and ¶16.3 gives General Conference sole authority to “define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences.” The intense debates and widespread interest expressed from all parts of our global denomination over ¶304’s sexual-morality standards demonstrates that these matters are of distinctly connectional interest and importance. The Judicial Council has been recognized this. Decision #544 declared, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide,” and further said that “[w]hile each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot” either reduce ordination standards set by General Conference nor add any additional standards that would be contrary to those set by General Conference. Decision #542 affirmed that “establish[ing] standards, conditions and qualifications for admission to the ministry” was among General Conference’s constitutional powers, and that each annual conference’s role is “decid[ing] whether those standards have been met” – NOT deciding what those standards are (Cf. Decisions #318 and 513).
But Petitions # 4 (amending ¶304) and 13 (amending ¶605), as linked with Petitions #10 (amending ¶415) and 14 (amending ¶2702), would violate these constitutional limits, by delegating the essentially legislative responsibility of setting ordination standards related to sexuality, with each annual conference clergy session deciding for itself if it has the “power and duty” to ordain and appoint self-avowed practicing homosexuals (in contrast to ¶16.3).
Another way of looking at this is that this plan would remove any direct Disciplinary restriction on the licensing, ordination, or appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy. But then, Petitions # 4 and 13 would permit annual conferences, to later adopt standards that would contradict and be more restrictive than the new standards of the Book of Discipline.
Since Petitions #4, 13, and 14 (and to a lesser extent, #5 and 10) would repeal our prohibition on certifying, ordaining, or appointing “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy, then this would make the lack of any such restriction the default standard of every annual conference around the world. Clergy sessions could adopt explicit LGBTQ-welcoming policies, but it is not clear that these would accomplish much more than doing nothing.
One key precedent is Judicial Council Decision #318. The Southern Illinois Conference had asked if it had the right to impose an additional ordination requirement of pledging to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, when General Conference had neither required nor forbidden the ordination of drinkers and smokers. The Judicial Council ruled strongly, without recorded dissent, that only General Conference had the constitutional authority to insert this sort of moral judgment into ordination standards. So if it is unconstitutional to allow different annual conferences to set conflicting ordination standards related to moral concerns about alcohol and tobacco, it would logically be just as unconstitutional to allow different annual conferences to set conflicting ordination standards related to moral concerns about sexual behavior.
Central conferences have some authority to make regionally limited policies, which may seem like “delegation” (¶31.5). However, this authority is much more limited than it is sometimes portrayed. In Decision #155, the Judicial Council ruled that after General Conference had essentially removed restrictions on ordination for women, taking action that made women eligible for every level of clergy leadership in our denomination, then no central conference had any right to regionally re-impose such ordination restrictions. The historical record noted in the Dissenting Opinion in this case by R.F. Curl indicates that by that time, the Methodist Episcopal Church had already adopted a constitutional amendment intended to grant a significant degree of “self-determination” to central conferences. But the Judicial Council majority decided that the question of women’s ordination was of too great connectional importance to allow the central conferences to exercise their power to make regional adaptations on this matter. If even central conferences have no right to regionally re-impose an ordination restriction after General Conference has removed this restriction, how can U.S. annual conferences (who have no constitutional adaptation authority similar to ¶31.5) have such a right?
The One Church Plan’s narrative summary explicitly likens efforts to extend ordination to self-avowed practicing homosexuals to earlier efforts to extend ordination to women (page 15 of Exhibit D). Arguments used by supporters of the former have consistently morally equated this cause with that of the latter. If General Conference repeals restrictions on ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals, then this Plan offers no logical argument for how annual OR central conferences would not become just as legally barred from re-imposing such restrictions, as Decision #155 already bars regions from locally re-imposing ordination restrictions.
For these reasons, Petitions #4 and 13 are impermissibly unconstitutional and illegal, without amendments being made to the Constitution to enable such legislation.
- The One Church Plan’s Petitions # 4 (amending ¶304) and 13 (amending ¶605), which are linked with Petitions #10 (amending ¶415) and 14 (amending ¶2702), would unconstitutionally and illegally violate the prohibition by the [Third] Restrictive Rule (¶19) of General Conference actions to effectively “change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to … destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency” (emphasis added).
These petitions would replace our connectional polity with a new system of regional autonomy that may be unprecedented in UMC history. If this plan is implemented along the outlines of its summary, then United Methodist annual conferences will officially have wildly differing, mutually contradictory values on sexual morality, conflicting underlying theologies, and contrasting standards for certification, licensing, ordination, and appointment of clergy.
However, annual conferences do not elect their own bishops. Rather, we elect bishops and have them itinerate within larger regions (jurisdictions and central conferences). Therefore, the bishops who would normally be available for assignment to particular episcopal area are, with some exceptions, normally elected by a larger regional body that may encompass the annual conference(s) of this episcopal area but which also includes other annual conferences. Since the One Church Plan would delegate ordination standards to the annual-conference level, rather than to the jurisdictional or central-conference level, this would soon result in annual conferences within one jurisdiction or central conference having directly contradictory ordination policies.
But in Decision #1341, the Judicial Council recognized that “A clergy person who does not qualify for certification, ordination, and appointment on account of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual, is not qualified for consecration [as bishop] either.” This Decision further recognized that “our bishops are all the more expected” to “meet the minimum standards for certification, licensing, and ordination,” given the Disciplinary role of bishops “to faithfully practice, model and lead the spiritual disciplines of our faith…” (¶403.1[a]). If bishops are subject to the same moral standards as other clergy and if the One Church Plans succeeds in making moral standards for clergy something that is to be determined at the annual-conference level (at least on some questions), then it is only logical that a bishop be subject to the same moral standards as the annual conference to which s/he is assigned. It would obviously be legally and morally incoherent for a bishop to be officially subject to a dramatically different or lower set of moral standards than those required of the clergy s/he oversees.
But the One Church Plan sets the stage for inevitable conflicts, by authorizing inconsistent clergy standards among the annual conferences in one jurisdiction or central conference from which bishops are elected. If one conference has a policy explicitly welcoming homosexually active ordination candidates, then self-avowed practicing homosexuals will be ordained as elders there, and will become legally eligible for election as bishop, even if other annual conferences in the region have explicit policies forbidding “certification, ordination, and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals” (as authorized by Petition #13).
When a self-avowed practicing homosexual elder is elected bishop, then the differing clergy standards among the annual conferences of that jurisdiction or central conference could effectively prevent this new bishop from itinerating to certain annual conferences within the area. There are rather foreseeable scenarios in which enough annual conferences in a jurisdiction had restrictive standards, so that there may be only a single episcopal area in a jurisdiction to which such a bishop could be assigned, and this bishop would be unable itinerate, no matter how many years of service s/he had before retirement. This would greatly restrict the constitutionally protected principles of itinerant general superintendency (¶19; Cf. ¶406.1’s implied 12-year limit of jurisdictional bishops remaining one area) and of each College of Bishops having a broad right to “arrange the plan of episcopal supervision … within its respective territories” (¶48).
- The One Church Plan’s Petition #13 (amending ¶605), as packaged with Petitions # 4 (amending ¶304), 10 (amending ¶415), and 14 (amending ¶2702), would unconstitutionally and illegally transfer concentrated power to individual bishops and boards of ordained ministry.
While our denomination’s jurisprudence has long affirmed the principle of separation of powers, the One Church Plan would concentrate in the office of bishop (an executive and administrative role) a great degree of effective legislative influence in a couple of key ways.
¶33 of the UMC Constitution strongly declares that “The annual conference is the basic body in the church and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote … on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy….” Previous Judicial Council decisions have made clear that this basic constitutional right cannot extend to adopting standards that contradict those of General Conference on the matter of self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy, or to otherwise “negating, ignoring, or violating” standards of the Discipline. However, even if it could be constitutionally permissible to regionalize ordination standards, the ways in which the One Church Plan does this would unduly infringe on these constitutional rights of each annual conference.
If key determinations about the content of our ordination standards were to be transferred from the General-Conference to the annual-conference level, then the natural body to address such decisions would be “the annual conference” itself as outlined in ¶33. The broad right quoted above is extended to the entire annual conference, not just any small minority within it.
¶33 does explicitly restrict the right of lay members (with a few exceptions) from voting “on matters of ordination, character, and conference relations of clergy.” Therefore, the final proposed new sentence that Petition #4 would add to ¶304.3—making clear that any votes on ordination policies by the entire annual conference (which includes equal numbers of clergy and laity) would be merely “nonbinding advice”—is consistent with these constitutional restrictions. But ¶33 includes no such explicit restriction on the voting of clergy members of an annual conference. Therefore, if it was otherwise constitutional to determine ordination standards on a regional basis, then the entire clergy session would have the constitutional right and duty to make these decisions, not just the minority of clergy in the conference who happen to be members of the board of ordained ministry.
Yet a plain-sense reading of Petition #13 is that an annual conference clergy session could only adopt its own policy “regarding certification, ordination, and appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals” if, and only if, the board of ordained ministry first voted to tell its chair to present such a policy. And if the board declined to forward any such policy at all, or failed to recommend a policy that would be acceptable to the majority of that conference’s entire clergy session, then this would result in that annual conference having, by default, no restriction on the certification, ordination, or appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexual clergy. There is no mechanism in the One Church Plan for a clergy session to adopt a policy on such matters without a prior recommendation from the board of ordained ministry. Therefore, even if a strong majority of clergy in an annual conference favored re-instating any degree of restriction on self-avowed, practicing homosexual clergy, the board of ordained ministry would have the power to prevent such restrictions from being enacted, by declining to forward a motion to the clergy session, which would make the conference default to having less-restrictive standards. Alternatively, if a strong majority of the clergy in an annual conference wished to adopt an explicitly LGBTQ-welcoming ordination policy, Petition #13 would similarly give the board of ordained ministry power to block the adoption of such a policy. In either case, in many cases, the real, ultimate decision on such matters reserved to the clergy session by ¶33 would instead be effectively transferred to a much smaller, not necessarily representative group.
It must be stressed that the votes on such policies by the conference board of ordained ministry are in a completely different category than recommendations on whether or not particular candidates meet the minimum standards and would be good for the conference. Petition #10 authorizes each conference board of ordained ministry to vote on what United Methodist ordination standards related to sexual morality (previously decided at General Conference) will be within their region, for all candidates, rather than only particular cases.
It is also important to note that members of the board of ordained ministry are effectively appointed by the bishop, albeit with a sometimes-minimal degree of “consultation” that may occur only with individuals who would not be in certain positions if they were not first appointed there by the bishop (¶635.1[a]). Therefore, some observers may reasonably conclude that the board of ordained ministry is in many ways NOT a body that is fully separate from and independent of the power, wishes, and ideological preferences that come from the office of the bishop. Thus, under the One Church Plan, a bishop deciding the membership of the board of ordained ministry (with the potential of “stacking” the board’s membership with a majority known to favor moving in a particular direction), would be given great power by Petition #13 to effectively determine what essentially legislative policies on sexuality and ordination become effective within the annual conference.
Furthermore, the final sentence of Petition #13 gives each bishop a significant degree of unilateral authority in the timing and scheduling of clergy-session votes related to such policies. There may potentially be worthwhile political considerations for mandating significant gaps between such votes, if there were no exceptions allowed. But this policy would give a single individual in an annual conference, the bishop, the right to essentially veto any proposed ordination policy s/he may dislike, within a long period of two-and-a-half years. This unilateral power and long time period could easily be used by a bishop to delay a second vote on sexuality-related ordination standards until this bishop first had the opportunity to replace enough members of the board of ordained ministry to better ensure that the board would produce a (likely influential) recommendation more in line with the bishop’s preferred policy outcomes. Allowing bishops to effectively enjoy such power to influence and even determine legislative outcomes cannot be reconciled with the principle of separation of powers or with the broad authority ¶33 grants to annual conferences to exercise their rights without episcopal interference.
- Petitions # 6 (amending ¶329), 7 (amending ¶334), 8 (amending ¶340), 9 (amending ¶341), 11 (amending ¶416), and 12 (amending ¶419) of the One Church Plan, which are linked to Petition #14 (amending ¶2702), as well as perhaps Petitions # 5 (amending ¶304) and 13 (amending ¶605), unconstitutionally and illegally delegate authority for determining the meaning, definition, and boundaries of marriage.
For the context of our congregations and ministries, how should we United Methodists define the basic boundaries of the institution of marriage? Should it include same-sex couples, or not? Should it simply be limited to “two people,” or should the church accept the polygamous practices of some cultures in which there is a United Methodist presence? As with ordination standards, the intense debates and passionate views expressed on such questions by United Methodist leaders from every part of our global connection at and between General Conferences indicates that these questions are also of distinctively connectional interest and importance.
And here, too, the Judicial Council has already provided helpful guidance. Decision #1185 included several highly relevant determinations. First of all, this decision significantly used the language of describing defining marriage for use in the Church—with particular reference to whether or not the church can understand the word “marriage” to include same-sex couples and then apply this understanding to wedding and ordination practices—as a “legislative” matter. Secondly, this decision found that under the constitutional authority of ¶16, the General Conference “is the only body authorized to define legislatively” whether or not marriage, for purposes of Church use, includes same-sex couples. Thirdly, it found that in adopting what is now ¶161C of the Social Principles, General Conference has indeed legislatively defined marriage for the Church as limited to unions of one man and one woman, and that General Conference had acted properly within its authority to do so, as neither this standard nor the standards of ¶2702.1 which the One Church Plan would liberalize was found to conflict with our Doctrinal Standards. (Note that in that case, the Judicial Council was NOT asked to make any ruling about if, on the other hand, the Doctrinal Standards would be contradicted by any statement or policy affirming homosexual practices or relationships.)
Fourthly, other parts of Decision #1185 make clear how questions of the acceptability of same-sex marriages for our clergy’s ministry and personal lives are, in the words of ¶16, “distinctively connectional matters,” and so cannot be decided outside of General Conference. This decision highlighted how XXI of the Methodist Articles of Religion gives our clergy the right “to marry at their own discretion.” This decision also recognized how in such circumstances as that case, Church law should “treat the Articles of Religion as ‘constitutional’ in importance and application.” This places the issue of defining marriage at the doctrinal and legal heart of our church law for our entire global connection.
Thus, Decision #1185 made clear that what sorts of “marriages” our Church recognizes and allows our clergy to officiate or personally enter into, and whether or not these can include same-sex (or polygamous) unions, is of direct, practical interest to every part of our connection, and is to be defined by General Conference alone. However, the petitions listed above would illegitimately transfer this authority for defining marriage in at least three key ways.
First of all, Petitions #6, 7, and 8 would effectively delegate authority for defining United Methodist marriages, in the first instance, to civil governmental authorities outside of the church. Each of these petitions grants a legal right to United Methodist pastors to perform same-sex union ceremonies, and would explicitly attach the word “marriage” to such unions in the Discipline (thus newly recognizing such unions as “marriages” within our Church law), but would explicitly limit the application of this to geographic regions in which “civil law” has been changed to redefine the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples. All three petitions only apply this to “conferences where civil law permits a pastor to perform a same-sex marriage service.” This language indicates that these provisions are not merely concerned with purely private celebration ceremonies which pastors are free to do almost anywhere entirely apart from any matters of civil law (and had been free to do many years before any civil jurisdiction legally affirmed same-sex marriages), but rather concern matters related to “civil law,” namely the joining of two individuals of the same sex into a new legal relationship which civil authorities call a “marriage.” So whether or not our clergy have the right to perform such “marriages” would initially become determined by government authorities outside of any Church structure.
There are many principled philosophical concerns about letting Caesar dictate the Church’s internal morals in such a way. Here again, Decision #1185 is helpful. That decision noted how “the Church universal and The United Methodist Church in particular are neither circumscribed by nor set free for affirming activities that are considered ‘lawful’ in various civil jurisdictions.” It further declared, “The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority,” and “[t]he 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,” because “[t]o do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application” (emphasis added). The decision also recognized how most marriage ceremonies performed by clergy in the United States are also matters of civil law. Thus, these petitions would contradict Decision #1185.
Secondly, Petitions # 9, 11, 12 would essentially transfer the authority for defining “marriage,” and particularly for deciding whether or not the Church recognizes and affirms same-sex “marriages,” from the General Conference to each local church. These petitions authorize each United Methodist congregation church to define marriage in contradictory ways, with an extreme new degree of autonomy. But again, given the distinctively connectional importance of marriage and how questions of the boundaries of marriage are embedded at the heart of our church law, this cannot be delegated away from the General Conference.
Thirdly, Petitions # 6, 7, 8, 11, 12 would even further delegate the General Conference’s constitutional authority for defining the Church’s meaning of marriage down to each individual minister. These petitions give individual clergypersons completely unilateral, autonomous authority to determine if their pastoral definition of “marriage” includes same-sex couples, and to apply this to their ministry, without needing to consult the wisdom of others through holy conferencing. It would completely localize and atomize the Church’s approach to marriage so as to make our denominational witness fundamentally self-contradicting and incoherent. Such an individualistic, non-communal approach could hardly be more antithetical to the connectional, covenantal, and itinerant ethos that has defined Methodism from the beginning.
Furthermore, Petitions # 4 and 10 would also allow clergy in at least some areas to enter into same-sex marriages, by delegating General Conference’s authority to determine which sorts of “marriages” our clergy may enter “at their own discretion” (per Methodist Article of Religion XXI) to each conference clergy session and board of ordained ministry. Therefore, these two petitions conflict with Decision #1185, in addition to the other problems with them noted above.
C. There are several other constitutional and legal concerns with the One Church Plan. While none of these may be as significant as the problems outlined above, I will briefly note a few other areas that may also merit further review.
- Another case for the Judicial Council’s Fall 2018 session (#1018-2) raises questions of if some delays of the implementation of certain Church-law requirements until after a certain period after the end of General Conference are properly “harmonized with the period we have in other paragraphs that regulate the work, place and time of the central conferences,” and if one such Disciplinary paragraph may be changed without changing others. It is worth asking if Petition #15’s change to the timeline of ¶543 would cause similar concerns of legal or other conflicts with other relevant paragraphs governing timelines for central conferences.
- The full report for the One Church Plan, which is essential to understanding the whole plan, includes a section on the Episcopal Fund (Exhibit D, page 18). While this section’s proposals do not appear in petition format, this section uses strong, mandatory language, repeatedly saying what “WILL” happen rather than what merely “could” happen. Specifically, this section declares that under the One Church Plan, the General Commission on Finance and Administration (GCFA) “will work to determine a method to ensure that all Episcopal Areas in the United States will contribute at least the cost of their own bishop’s compensation package (salary, benefits, and housing allowance) along with its share of apportionments for the Episcopal Fund.” But is there any way that this could be a legally permissible mandate, without a constitutional amendment, in light of the issues raised by Judicial Council Decision #1208 about the impermissibility of delegating constitutional responsibilities and how regionalized funding for the Episcopal Fund threatens itinerant general superintendency? Can the GCFA make such a policy as this plan proposes, which could result in unequal apportionments to different annual conferences, even without the enactment of new Disciplinary language directing GCFA to do so?
- Decision #544 recognized that the current restriction on “appointment” in ¶304.3 “is related to the powers and duties of the episcopacy.” This raises questions of if Petitions # 13 infringes on bishops’ constitutional powers and duties, as it specifically says that appointments may be included in such regionalized policies.
- Since it purports to quote the Social Principles, Petition #5 (amending ¶3102[d]) would not seem to be legally in order, unless the Social Principles related to marriage were first changed by a separate petition along the lines quoted. But this petition’s new wording is inconsistent with both the present Social Principles and the specific language of Petition #2.
- Is it permissible to remove “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” from the list of chargeable offenses (Petition #14) while keeping it as a standard for ordination and appointment per ¶304, through either failing to also pass Petition #4 or establishing regional exceptions? If so, if already-ordained clergy “came out” as self-avowed practicing homosexuals in a conference that forbade ordaining or appointing self-avowed practicing homosexuals, on what grounds could they be disciplined and removed from appointment within the conference, if they refused to transfer elsewhere?
- The authors of the One Church Plan have rightly anticipated that localization of marriage standards will lead to conflicts based on mismatched values and practices of pastors and congregations. So the second-to-last sentence of Petition #8 (adding a new ¶340.3) somewhat vaguely authorizes a process whereby pastors could express that their consciences cannot let them continue in a particular appointment and staff-parish-relations committees could communicate with the district superintendent, and then the pastor “SHALL be re-assigned” (emphasis added). The plain-sense meaning of this use of the word “shall” is that that the bishop must agree to such demands in the appointment process. Can such a restriction of the bishop’s appointment power, even one limited to a particular case while maintaining the bishop’s role as appointment-maker, be reconciled with the broad constitutional mandate for bishops’ appointment power in ¶54?
IV. Relief Requested
For all of these reasons, the Judicial Council should rule each of the petitions of the One Church Plan noted above to be impermissible for General Conference adoption, in the absence of proper constitutional amendments to address the problems identified in this brief.
John Lomperis, M.Div.
[i] To see which sermons are “standard,” see this classic compilation, especially pages 9-11 and 13: https://archive.org/details/10305045.76.emory.edu; See also pages 5-8 of volume II of this compilation: https://archive.org/details/10305045.emory.edu
[ii] All available from http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons
[iii] Conveniently available online at http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/