In light of the speed of recent developments that will determine the future of the United Methodist Church, here is a quick summary of where we started, where we are now, and where we might be going before the special General Conference convenes in February 2019.
Within The United Methodist Church, there is deep disagreement about human sexuality, among other issues.
This disagreement reached a boiling point during the 2016 General Conference in Portland, where a motion was passed to form a special commission to deal with our disagreement on human sexuality, and all legislation related to this topic was thereby tabled. A thirty-two member commission, consisting of people from a wide variety of theological and ethical positions, formed and met over the past two years.
They have brought three models forward:
- One is a “Traditionalist” model meant to hold ordained clergy accountable to our current denominational standards.
- A second is a variation of the local option, now called the “One Church Model.” It would remove our current language around human sexuality from the Book of Discipline and would move the authority for ethical decision making on these matters to the local church and the annual conference.
- A third model would divide the UMC into at least two large branches with distinct ethical standards regarding human sexuality.
The bishops’ plan of action, then, was to receive the report and subsequently draft its own report for the 2019 special session of the General Conference. The General Conference delegates would then have the option of taking up the bishops’ report for legislative action. (This is an extraordinary way for our decision-making processes to proceed, since our practice is for bishops to preside over legislation, rather than to pursue a legislative agenda themselves.)
As part of their report, the Council of Bishops plans to recommend the “One Church Model”, but to include the traditionalist and multi-branch plans as part of the report’s “historical narrative.” There has been some confusion about what this means. Would the bishops make all three models available for legislative action, or only the “One Church Model”? Apparently there was disagreement even within the Council on this matter.
There was also the question of what legislation, besides the bishops’ report, could be submitted to the special session. According to the official announcement from the Council of Bishops, “The purpose of this special session of the General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.”
The Council of Bishops then asked the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding the kinds of legislation could be properly submitted. The purpose of this request was to restrict legislation and focus on the bishops’ recommended plan of action, the “One Church Model”.
The Judicial Council, however, has ruled that a wider array of petitions could be submitted than the bishops’ request would have allowed. In other words, the Judicial Council ruled that petitions to this special General Conference session “may be filed by any organization, clergy member, and lay member of the United Methodist Church, as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call.” The General Conference itself will have to decide whether a given petition is “in harmony” with the conference’s called purpose.
This ruling resulted in all manner of reactions ranging from elation to fury.
- United Methodists disagree over human sexuality.
- The General Conference mandated the formation of the Commission on a Way Forward to deal with our disagreement and avoid a division of the UMC.
- The Council of Bishops received a report from the Commission, and plans to submit its own report.
- The report of the Council of Bishops will be available for legislative action.
- The Council of Bishops is recommending the local option (“One Church Model”).
- The Judicial Council ruled that the General Conference will deal with a wider range of legislation than the Council of Bishops would have wished.
What seems to have been largely overlooked in the wake of this recent Judicial Council decision is footnote 6.
Specifically, the third paragraph of footnote 6 seems to indicate that the stated purpose of the called General Conference is out of order. As mentioned above, according to the stated call for the special session of the General Conference, its purpose “shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.”
According to the Judicial Council, however,
There is nothing in the proceedings of the 2016 General Conference suggesting that the Commission on a Way Forward was supposed to submit its recommendations to the Council of Bishops. Similarly, there is no evidence in the legislative debate prior to the vote on the motion indicating that the Council of Bishops would develop specific legislative proposals based on the recommendations of the Commission and present them to the called special session of the General Conference.
In other words, this footnote states that the 2016 General Conference did not mandate that the Commission submit a recommendation to the Council of Bishops, nor did it empower the Council of Bishops to bring a report for legislative consideration by the special session of the General Conference.
This changes things considerably, so we might now anticipate that the bishops will revise the call in keeping with the Judicial Council’s decision.