Note: My apologies are extended to those blowing up my phone today. My local church is the middle of a major campaign and I was booked solid all day with meetings. This was frustrating as the Judicial Council decisions dropped. I reserve the right to retract any statement in the following response, but I thought it might be helpful to at least give some cursory first impressions. I hope to offer further thoughts after I have more time to read and reflect.
by Chris Ritter
I appreciate the Judicial Council ruling on the Way Forward plans. Their decision opens an important window into the courts’ thinking on issues never before explored. We now have a foundation for the further legislative work that will doubtless be necessary. My quick, first read leads me to believe that the One Church Plan will come to General Conference requiring only modest revisions. While certain language was found unconstitutional, its basic framework was upheld. This was always going to be more or less the case. We’ve known for some time that the liberalizing measures are constitutional. What was questionable were the assurances given to traditionalists that their point of view will be protected.
For example, the provision that invited a bishop to seek the non-binding advice of the full annual conference session with regards to clergy standards was ruled unconstitutional. This strips the plan of a feature meant to convince us that laity would get some sort of say in what happens in their annual conference with regards to practicing gay clergy. It was a modest “window-dressing” sort of provision to begin with and it was taken away. Also, a measure stating that a pastor with unresolved disagreements with their congregation over same-sex marriage “shall” be reassigned has been struck down as an infringement on the appointive power of bishops. No surprise here, but this underscores the question of what happens when pastors and congregations are in irreconcilable places on the subject of same-sex weddings.
The One Church Plan fought off claims that it is not in harmony with our doctrinal standards. Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, which include comments on the passages commonly understood as rejecting sex between persons of the same gender, were relegated by the court to secondary status below the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. This move deserves more thorough examination later.
The Judicial Council declined to rule on the Connectional Conference Plan. Because the plan is based on multiple constitutional amendments, our top court decided that they did not have proper jurisdiction to rule.
Vetting the Traditional Plan
The Traditional Plan faced a more substantive critique. It would be an overstatement to say that the Traditional Plan was “gutted,” but I believe it will be necessary to think in terms of Traditional Plan 2.0 moving forward, as opposed to Traditional Plan 1.1. The plan seemed to have had a target on its back before it was even written. A sketch version was stifled by the bishops last November and last-minute reconsideration brought it hurriedly to its full legislative form. An effort before Judicial Council to rule the Traditional Plan “off the table” outright (as not in keeping with the call of General Conference) was dismissed by the court. They left this decision to General Conference itself through its designated committees, officers, and presiders.
As you may know, the Traditional Plan includes a whole raft of measures aimed at accountability. Some of these survived and some did not. Those provisions that passed muster:
- The new, broadened definition of “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” that includes those in a same-sex marriage was upheld. This is in keeping with an earlier Judicial Council ruling and is helpful clearing the muddy waters we find ourselves in over definition of terms.
- The provision barring bishops from participating in the consecration of a elected bishop who is a self-avowed, practicing homosexual was upheld as constitutional.
- The imposition of minimum sentences for conducting same-sex marriages was upheld. This is significant. This would prevent “slap on the wrist” punishments for conducting same-sex weddings. But the reality is that sympathetic bishops can prevent these cases from going to trial in most cases anyway.
- The court upheld a provision that prevents district committees on ministry from approving or recommending candidates that do not meet the ordination requirements of the church.
- A provision that limits a bishop’s power to dismiss complaints was upheld. Bishops, under the Traditional Plan, must produce a statement of rationale when dismissing complaints and this rationale must be made available to the cabinet and the one(s) who filed the complaint.
- The court upheld a provision that calls for the one making the complaint against a clergy to be included in the just resolution agreement, wherever possible.
- The Judicial Council provisionally upheld a measure that makes it possible for the Church to appeal the decision of a jury where there were found to be egregious errors in the administration of the law (jury nullification). This is meant to resolve the problems of clergy being unwilling to find their colleagues guilty because they themselves also disagree with church teaching.
The following legislative items in the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional:
- The mechanism that empowered the Council of Bishops to hold their own members accountable was struck down as not meeting the burden of due process and right to an impartial and independent determination. This is significant.
- A measure stipulating that bishops certify that those they nominate for boards of ordained ministry are willing to enforce the BOD was struck down.
- A measure requiring particular certification by the Board of Ordained ministry that candidates are in line with the Church’s human sexuality standards was struck down because they elevated these concerns above all other standards. Full, complete, and “even” examination must be made by the BOOM on all relevant standards.
- There was a provision requiring annual conferences to certify that those nominated to the board of ordained ministry are willing to uphold and enforce the Discipline on matters of human sexuality. This was struck down because, again, it elevated one part of the covenant above others. The sanctions for non-compliance were not struck down on principle, but based on the unconstitutionality of the certification provision.
- A measure requiring clergy under complaint to agree to follow the Discipline in the future was struck down because the language presupposed a determination of guilt reserved for the trial court. I was disappointed this common-sense measure was not allowed.
The Heart of the Traditional Plan: Still Beating?
I was very interested in what our top court would say about Paragraph 2801. This is the declared “heart of the Traditional Plan.” It allows annual conferences to leave the United Methodist Church and came close to insisting that some should. The Judicial Council did uphold the ability of annual conferences to leave The United Methodist Church should the General Conference make that possible through enabling legislation. It struck down, however, the provision that required each annual conference to indicate their willingness or unwillingness to follow the Book of Discipline in the future. This key sorting mechanism was an important part of charting a decisive way forward. Likewise, the court struck down a mechanism that would have sorted out bishops based on those who were willing/unwilling to uphold the Discipline. Those unwilling would have been referred to the new relations committee of the Council of Bishops, but that entire mechanism was also stripped.
The provision that would allow groups of churches to form their own self-governing church was struck down because the Judicial Council (surprisingly, to me) imposed upon this provision the requirements of Par. 41 (a constitutional provision governing the transfer of local churches from one annual conference to another within the UMC where conference lines overlap, such as with a missionary conference). Frankly, I don’t see the relevance of Par. 41 to this measure… at all. This section of the Traditional Plan could presumably be repaired, but the ability of a congregation to leave the UMC for a self-governing conference would require the consent of the annual conference. This means that churches that disagree with their conference (as many do) could be held against their will.
What we are left with in Par. 2801 seems to be the confirmed right of an annual conference in the United States to leave the United Methodist Church should General Conference make that possible through legislative action. This seems to be the basis for a possible “exit ramp,” but it does little to answer the question of the thousands of churches and clergy who will find themselves under a Discipline with which they cannot live… either under the Traditional Plan or the One Church Plan.
It is relatively easy under our current Discipline for a church to transfer to another “evangelical denomination” (Par. 2548). Property can be deeded over with “only” the consent of the bishop and cabinet. If one conference left the UMC voluntarily, they could form the basis for a new denomination and widen their borders to accept the transfers described in Par. 2548. (I presume) But many churches would find themselves captive to bishops loathe to see their congregations slip away.
The Judicial Council made it more difficult for a slim Traditional majority to conclusively and decisively set the direction for the UMC. But those supporting the Traditional Plan will undoubtedly arrive at General Conference with a new and improved version that can be introduced as updates. The One Church Plan will require updates, too. The decisions released today raise the spectre that General Conference might uphold our current views of human sexuality without meaningful new enforcement. If a toothless traditional plan is passed, it remains to be seen whether the exodus that has already begun would accelerate or whether the stage would merely be set for the long battle to continue at GC2020 in Minneapolis.