by Chris Ritter

The supreme court of United Methodism has ruled on the actions of General Conference 2019. A number of progressives had been holding out hope that the Traditional Plan would never been enacted due to Judicial Council action.  Those hopes are now gone.  Traditionalists will be very relieved and gratified that the legislative achievements at GC2019 are protected.   Surprisingly (to me) the United Methodist Church suddenly has a workable Gracious Exit as a result of the decisions released today.

Traditional Plan Significantly Upheld

In Decision 1378, the court rejected efforts by a group of progressive and centrist leaders to throw out the Traditional Plan in total (See Berlin et al opening brief).  Nullifying the entire plan was never a likely outcome, but it was strongly contended for and would have given progressives a basis from which to say that GC2019 passed nothing that was constitutional  and, therefore, was effectively a draw.  That did not happen.  The Traditional Plan is not the Traditional Plan anymore.  It is the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council rightly employed a concept called “severability”:  Actions made by General Conference should not be nullified unless they are inextricably tied to provisions that are unconstitutional.  The court rejected arguments that the Traditional Plan was a “package deal” rather than a laundry list of individual accountability measures that can each stand on their own.

As expected, parts of the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional.  Tactics of obstruction prevented the Traditional coalition from passing the corrections they desired to pass at GC2019.  Some of the “patches” that were successfully passed were found wanting in the decision.

But significant portions of the Traditional Plan were upheld:

  • A new church-wide definition of self-avowed, practicing homosexual that includes those in a same-sex marriage.  (90032)
  • Bishops are prohibited from consecrating self-avowed homosexual bishops even if they are elected. (90036)*
  • There are mandatory sentences for performing same-sex weddings: A one year suspension without pay for the first offense and loss of credentials for the second offense. (90042)
  • District committees on ordained ministry and boards of ordained ministry are forbidden from approving candidates who do not meet the requirements and bishops are instructed to rule approval of any such candidates out of order.  (90043)
  • Limits the complaints that can be dismissed by bishops to those having no basis in law or fact. (90044)
  • Every effort shall be made to include those making a complaint against a clergy in the just resolution process. (90046)
  • The prosecution may appeal a trial against a clergy where there was jury nullification or other egregious errors of church law or administration.  (90047)

The above seven measures, taken together, are enough to significantly change the landscape of the human sexuality debate by closing loopholes.  Other portions were left on the cutting room floor.  One key piece was never passed.  The heart of the Traditional Plan, Petition 90041, would have given a roadmap for conferences that cannot live with the 2019 Book of Discipline.  This was referred to a committee where it died and there was no opportunity to bring it back before the body.  Here are some other pieces of the Traditional Plan that were passed but will not be in effect for the 2019 Discipline:

  • The Council of Bishops may place one of its own members in retirement. (90033)
  • The Council of Bishops may place one of its own members on involuntary leave of absence. (90034)
  • A council relations committee allowing the Council of Bishops to police its own members. (90035)
  • Board of ordained ministry members must certify willingness to uphold the BOD.  A patch offered to make this constitutional was found wanting. (90037)
  • Specified the examination that board of ordained ministry are to make. (90038)
  • Assigned a financial implications for conferences not certifying their BOOM members will comply with the BOD. (9003990040)

We Have a Gracious Exit

The Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on a disaffiliation provision for local churches passed by General Conference in its closing minutes.  In Decision 1379 the court upheld the plan as meeting the three basic requirements: (1) A 2/3 vote of a charge conference and church conference, (2) Approval of terms and conditions by the conference board of trustees, and (3) Approval by the annual conference.

Although the legislation itself does not include the third element, it was successfully argued this piece is found elsewhere in the Discipline [¶ 2529.1(b)(3)] which makes the plan constitutional nonetheless.  We all left GC2019 assuming the plan was unconstitutional.  This creative “save” for the plan was only realized upon later analysis.

The Taylor Disaffiliation Petition as amended creates a process for exit that is immediately in effect.  (As opposed to the other matters passed at GC2019 which are effective on 1/1/2020).  We now have a Gracious Exit. The functionality of the Gracious Exit will depend, however, upon the good will of the annual conference.  This will mean that the functionality of the exit will not be universal.

The Judicial Council seems… thankfully and surprisingly… to have back-tracked on a previous ruling that applied the provisions of constitutional ¶41 to transfer and exit procedures (RE Decision 1377).  I will be watching for future analysis on this part concerning what it might mean for the future.  The prior interpretation made the movement of a local church from its annual conference very unwieldy.  After rejecting Tom Lambrecht’s request to reconsider their previous ruling, the court seems now to concede that the application of ¶41 are much narrower than they had earlier decided.

The new Gracious Exit requires payment of apportionments for the past twelve months and an additional twelve months.  The congregation must satisfy their share of the pension liability as calculated by Wespath.  With the approvals needed, congregations may leave with all their assets.  This exit path is temporary, expiring December 31, 2023.

The Effects

Prior to these Judicial Council decisions, two outstanding variables had the potential to shift the conversations leading up to General Conference 2020 in Minneapolis.  One was the question of whether the Judicial Council might throw out the Traditional Plan in its entirety.  That question is now resolved.  The other factor is a potential shift in GC2020 makeup created by annual conference delegation elections.  That will not be known for a few months.

Might we now have a third variable?  I for one did not expect a workable exit path prior to GC2020.  I imagine a number of churches will get the ball rolling very soon on using this new provision.  Will these moves be quick enough and one-sided enough to change the mood of GC2020?   A lop-sided rush of either progressives or traditionalists might signal an end to our impasse.

The judicial affirmation of the Traditional Plan may also change the flavor of the “UMC Next” Gathering at Church of the Resurrection next month.  Might that group, so far evenly divided between those who want to stay and fight and those that want to start something new, experience a shift toward exit?


*The word “practicing” was inadvertantly omitted from the submitted legislation.  As stated here the intention was to correct this on the floor of General Conference.  (See especially here, made available Feb. 1, 2019.)  Legislative obstruction prevented the word “practicing” from being added.    I am sure there will be wide support for adding this word at GC2020.

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