By Thomas Lambrecht
The Judicial Council has rebuffed several challenges to the implementation of the Traditional Plan as adopted at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. These decisions mean that the provisions adopted can take effect January 1, 2020, as planned. The provisions will take effect in the central conferences outside the U.S. as of February 26, 2020.
In one request for a declaratory decision, the Council of Bishops challenged several provisions adopted by the special General Conference. Expanded Definition The General Conference expanded the definition of the term "self-avowed practicing homosexual" to include a person "living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual." This definition clarifies that someone who lives publicly as a practicing homosexual cannot evade accountability to the church's standards by simply refusing to state under oath in a trial that they are indeed engaging in same-sex practices. The bishops challenged this provision as being unfair to persons who had already entered into a same-sex marriage, union, or domestic partnership before the definition was expanded. However, this definition merely made explicit what was already implied in the previous requirement. At no time in the church's history have same-sex marriages, unions, or domestic partnerships been allowed for clergy. Persons in these relationships still have the right to rebut the charges by stating that they are not engaged in a sexual relationship. Bishops Not to Ordain The General Conference added language explicitly prohibiting a bishop from commissioning or ordaining persons as deacons or elders if the Board of Ordained Ministry determines the individual is a self-avowed practicing homosexual or if the board has failed to certify it has carried out the disciplinarily mandated examination of the candidates, even if the individual has been recommended by the board and approved by the clergy session. The bishops challenged this provision as requiring the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify that a requirement has been met, when the Discipline does not require them to certify it. But of course, the language of the new provision is itself a requirement to certify the full examination of candidates, so the bishops' argument is without merit. Mandatory Minimum Penalty The General Conference added a mandatory minimum penalty of a one-year suspension without pay for any clergy person found guilty in a trial of performing a same-sex wedding or union. The bishops challenged this provision by saying the penalty could not be applied equally to all clergy. Some clergy serve in appointments beyond the local church, and the church does not control their employment or their compensation. Some countries outside the U.S. do not allow employees to be suspended without pay. In both these instances, the bishops argued, a trial court could suspend the person without pay, but the penalty might not take effect. However, the trial court would know these circumstances before imposing a penalty, and could take the circumstances into account in tailoring a penalty to fit the circumstances. Without a specific case that has facts upon which the Judicial Council can base judgment, these questions are premature. The Judicial Council agreed. In Memorandum 1390, the Council declared that it did not have enough votes to declare any of the provisions unconstitutional. Instead, the provisions will go into effect. The Council stated, "Our rulings on the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of the various provisions will await the specific facts of applications of these provisions in cases to come before the Council after January 1, 2020." Disaffiliation Provisions The General Conference added a new ¶ 2553, which contains a process whereby local churches may withdraw from The United Methodist Church and keep their property. In a different request for a declaratory decision, the Council of Bishops questioned the effective date of the new process, stating that there were different interpretations of what the General Conference enacted. The Judicial Council ruled that the General Conference adopted the new paragraph to be effective immediately upon the adjournment of the General Conference. Thus, the new process is now in effect and has been since February. The Council of Bishops also raised the question of whether the possibility of alleged improper voting in St. Louis had nullified this paragraph. The Commission on the General Conference carried out an investigation that reportedly identified four person who voted at General Conference when they were not entitled to vote. Since the initial vote for ¶ 2553 only passed by two votes, the Commission ruled the vote null and void. They then referred the matter to the Council of Bishops to present to Judicial Council for a ruling. In a somewhat passionate oral hearing, the Judicial Council questioned why the Commission did not bring the case to Judicial Council itself and why members of the Commission were not present to answer questions about the allegations of vote fraud. Under questioning, it came out that only two bishops had seen the report of the results of the Commission's investigation. One wonders how the whole Council of Bishops could refer the matter to Judicial Council without even seeing the facts behind the matter. Questions arose about whether the Commission even had the authority to investigate or to declare the vote null and void. The Judicial Council postponed consideration of this matter until its spring meeting. This means that ¶ 2553 as adopted by General Conference is still in effect. Only the Judicial Council can nullify an act of General Conference, and it has not done so. In a related case, an action by the New England Annual Conference to add requirements to the process in ¶ 2553 remains in limbo. Judicial Council has postponed consideration of that question until it decides whether the paragraph was legally adopted. Annual Conference Resolutions A number of annual conferences adopted resolutions responding to the 2019 General Conference actions. Most of the resolutions disagreed with the decision by General Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. In three annual conferences, the bishops ruled the resolutions (in part or in whole) to be an illegal contravention of the Book of Discipline. Such resolutions attempted to limit the annual conference from spending funds on complaints, trials, and other disciplinary procedures. They also committed the annual conference to disobey the standards of the Discipline when it comes to the ordination of gay clergy. The annual conferences where resolutions were ruled null and void by bishops and affirmed as such by the Judicial Council were:
Mountain Sky (Bishop Oliveto)
California-Pacific (Bishop Hagiya)
Upper New York (Bishop Webb)
In the past, the Judicial Council has ruled that resolutions that simply disagree with a General Conference action and "aspire" to a different outcome are acceptable because they do not bind the annual conference to take any specific action and they are merely an expression of opinion. The annual conferences where resolutions were challenged but validated as acceptable by the bishop and Judicial Council were:
Central Texas (Bishop Lowry, two resolutions)
North Texas (Bishop McKee)
On all of the decisions analyzed above, the Judicial Council acted as we expected and hoped that they would. The Traditional Plan is firmly in place and set to go into effect in January. The disaffiliation process for local churches desiring to leave The United Methodist Church is still in place. Possible actions by the 2020 General Conference could dramatically change the landscape in our church. New, less expensive disaffiliation processes are proposed for local churches and annual conferences. Changes in the way pension liabilities are handled would make the process of disaffiliation much less onerous. A plan of separation would create new denominations that would function under different rules than our current Book of Discipline. Annual conferences and local churches will have decisions to make in the coming few years. The Judicial Council will play an important role in ensuring that the actions of General Conference fall within the parameters of the Discipline. Stay tuned, as we try to illuminate the process, the talking points, and the decisions that the Council makes.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.