Rebuffing appeals by the Council of Bishops and church dissidents, the United Methodist Judicial Council on April 25 reaffirmed that key parts of the Traditional Plan approved at the February 2019 Special General Conference are constitutional. It also reversed its earlier ruling, and declared that congregations who disagree with the church’s teaching on sexuality may leave the denomination with a two thirds congregational vote. This reversal could facilitate creation of new liberal Methodist denominations by congregations that cannot abide the Traditional Plan’s stricter enforcement of the church’s affirmation of sex only between husband and wife.
The Traditional Plan adds mandatory penalties for pastors who violate church teachings on sexuality, including the ban on same-sex rites. These new policies will go into effect in 2020. Permission for local churches to quit the denomination begins immediately. United Methodist properties are owned by the denomination through their local conferences. Under this new policy, congregations could leave with their property, with approval from their local conference (Methodist version of diocese or presbytery).
Reaffirmation of most of the Traditional Plan was not surprising, since the Judicial Council has already reviewed it in October 2018 and during General Conference in February. But bishops and church dissidents hoped they had one more chance to kill the Traditional Plan, whose passage ignited shock and outrage by many church liberals in the U.S., while supported by traditionalists in America and around the world. It was so startling that many liberals since General Conference have publicly discussed possibly leaving United Methodism in favor of creating new denominations with more permissive sexual standards.
The biggest news from the Judicial Council meeting was the affirmation of exits for dissenting congregations. Many liberals had initially assumed that traditionalists backed this legislation to facilitate their own departure. Only later did many realize it was actually aimed at dissident congregations. Almost certainly this ruling will enhance liberal calls for quitting United Methodism as the growing global denomination becomes increasingly conservative mostly thanks to its fast expanding churches in Africa.
IRD’s United Methodist director John Lomperis, who was a General Conference delegate, submitted extensive briefs to this meeting of the Judicial Council that were cited in the rulings.