Last week, the United Methodist Church’s top court, the Judicial Council, completed its review of the three plans submitted to the special 2019 General Conference as part of the final report of the Commission on a Way Forward—the liberal “One Church” Plan, the creative-compromise Connectional Conference Plan, and the orthodox Traditional Plan.
Since then, there has been a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and exaggerations about the significance of this unanimous ruling.
It is crucial to understand the Judicial Council did not vote “in favor of” any plan or proposal. A particular proposal may be a wonderful or terrible idea, but that alone is irrelevant to whether or not the Judicial Council rules it poses any direct conflict with the few specific pages that make up the UMC Constitution. As Decision #1366 says at the beginning, “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,” as General Conference is the body charged with making judgments on such matters of opinion.
Like most people across the spectrum who have read the full decision, I am happier about some parts of it than others. The portions of this decision addressing doctrine and key legal questions about the First Restrictive Rule (a constitutional provision forbidding even General Conference from “establish[ing] any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine”) leave much to be desired. And it was a truly dramatic step for the Judicial Council to redefine the “connectionalism” of our global denomination to go much further than allowing for a diversity of worship styles, administrative approaches, and cultural sensitivities, into also making room for the church in different localities to have directly contradictory, mutually exclusive core values on “moral-ethical standards” and fundamentally contradictory effective theologies and doctrines underlying such values. Both of these could have major implications beyond 2019.
But regardless of debates over the legal merits of various details of this case, now that the Judicial Council has issued its decision, we delegates are left with needing to understand what is now coming before us.
In short this ruling, along with the process around it, changes nothing about the Connectional Conference Plan (since the Judicial Council declined to review it), points to further refinements for the Traditional Plan, and clarifies some key matters about the so-called “One Church” Plan (OCP).
The main problems I previously outlined with the OCP remain, and in some ways have been made even worse. And the OCP is still dramatically more liberal than the policies that so disastrously split apart the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and Presbyterian Church (USA) denominations.
But first, some misunderstandings about what this ruling means for the Traditional Plan need to be cleared up.
First of all, the chancellor of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the leader of the new “Mainstream UMC” caucus, and others had effectively urged the Judicial Council to intervene in a heavy-handed way to prevent us delegates from even voting on any of the Traditional Plan’s petitions, by ruling them “not in harmony” with the call for the 2019 conference. The Judicial Council pointedly declined to accept these arguments, thankfully protecting the rights of us delegates to have a genuine range of choices before us.
Then, contrary to the suggestions of some careless rhetoric I have seen online, it is NOT accurate to say that the Traditional Plan “is dead,” was “devastated,” was broadly ruled unconstitutional, or that 40 percent of it has been taken off of the table. We General Conference delegates will still have an option to pass some version of the Traditional Plan. The Judicial Council really provided a helpful service by providing an extra level of “vetting” to the Traditional Plan which people across the spectrum had felt was needed to put this plan on par with the preparation that went into the other two plans. This ruling provides helpful guidance to further refinements that will be made to the Traditional Plan. The other two plans also went through multiple versions and refinements, and the One Church Plan may also need to be further refined in the aftermath of the Judicial Council’s ruling.
Such refinements are a very natural part of our legislative process. Indeed, what various evangelical renewal groups came to support months ago already had some key revisions, offered in two petitions submitted by the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam, to the version submitted in the “Way Forward” report.
Before this Judicial Council ruling, I wrote about how contrary to some of the harsh rhetoric against it, the Traditional Plan, especially with the Dunnam amendments, would NOT create any fundamentally new moral standards, would NOT be excessively punitive, and would NOT “kick out” anyone out simply for having liberal beliefs on sexuality. Instead, I detailed how this version of the Traditional Plan would confirm values and expectations that had already been widely in place for some time, would protect traditionalists against some of the ways they have been marginalized in some regions, and would show a level of generosity towards dissenters never seen in any other major denomination of which I am aware.
I also observed that we can think of the Traditional Plan as having five basic elements:
- Screening for new clergy.
- Accountability for clergy.
- Accountability for bishops.
- Accountability for annual conferences.
- Gracious exits for congregations
After this Judicial Council ruling, these basic outlines of the Traditional Plan remain intact. While opposing arguments had particularly focused on arguing that some of the accountability for clergy provisions (#2 in the list above) were unconstitutional, Decision #1366 ended up upholding the constitutionality of every significant provision in this area, with the exception of a single sentence in one petition, that this Decision suggested could become constitutional with an amendment. The Judicial Council also upheld several of the Plan’s petitions on screening standards for new clergy (#1 above) and also upheld, despite energetic arguments from opponents, the constitutionality of the core ideas behind its plan for bringing accountability to annual conferences who have publicly declared their refusal to honor the standards our global General Conference has set in our Book of Discipline (#4 above). While the Judicial Council did rule that some specific provisions in these two areas would be unconstitutional in their present wording, a close reading of this ruling points to how at the 2019 General Conference, delegates could make changes to the wording in a few places that would satisfy the Judicial Council’s concerns.
The petitions for accountability for bishops (#3 above) do appear to be pretty gutted by this ruling. But this simply serves to redirect attention towards the alternative system the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam has submitted for accountability for bishops. Even before the Judicial Council issued this ruling expressing distaste for using the global Council of Bishops as an accountability-enforcement body, I was personally skeptical that the Council was the best body for such important work. But in the votes on constitutional amendments last year, some 80 percent of clergy and lay members of annual conferences around the world sent the strong message that we overwhelmingly want more accountability for our bishops, and we want this accountability to be able to occur on a global, rather than strictly region-by-region, basis. The Dunnam petition provides a pathway to advance these basic values so recently affirmed by the overwhelming majority of our church.
The ruling on gracious exits for congregations is a bit more challenging. But I see nothing in the ruling to prevent offering a gracious exit option to a congregation who wished to leave the UMC, as long as such provisions avoided using the word “transfer.”
In short, while there are some further refinements that will need to be made to the Traditional Plan, as part of our natural process of give and take, the general framework remains very much alive, and no constitutional amendments are needed to rescue any core part of it.
If you are interested in digging deeper into the details of what this ruling means for the Traditional Plan, I encourage you to read a longer piece I wrote on this last week.
And my extended explanation for the rationale and limits of the Traditional Plan as revised, which I wrote before this ruling, remains mostly relevant, and so I encourage you to read it here.
In the coming days, I will have more to say about what this ruling and process has clarified about the One Church Plan.