By Jessica Brodie
In less than three months, 864 United Methodists from across the world who are delegates from each annual conference in the denomination will gather in one place with one purpose: helping the global church move beyond its debilitating disagreement over human sexuality.
Set for Feb. 23-26, 2019, at The Dome in St. Louis, the delegates will gather for a called Special Session of General Conference designed to make these sexuality- and unity-focused decisions. The idea is that if the decisions are addressed in 2019, then the next main General Conference, set for 2020 in Minneapolis, will be able to focus on the full mission of the church and not one issue.
The express purpose of this 2019 Special Session of General Conference, as stated in the call, is “limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of Bishops.” The Way Forward commission was created at the will of the last General Conference, in 2016, and charged to examine paragraphs in the United Methodist Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and help the full church explore ways to move beyond its impasse around ministry and human sexuality.
The Way Forward commission developed three plans that will go before General Conference 2019: The One Church Plan, the Traditionalist Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. Delegates can amend the petitions submitted by the commission and may also consider other petitions deemed by the Committee on Reference to be in harmony with the bishops’ call.
Business at the 2019 Special Session is limited to the purpose stated in the call unless the delegates vote by a two-thirds majority to address other matters.
In October, the Judicial Council, which is the top court for The United Methodist Church, ruled on the constitutionality of two of the three plans. It ruled the One Church Plan is largely constitutional, noting that while there are constitutional issues with three of the 17 petitions in that plan, the plan mainly passes muster. It also ruled on Traditional Plan, noting it finds constitutional issues with nine of the 17 petitions that must be fixed before it can pass muster.
It said it does not have jurisdiction to rule on the Connectional Conference Plan, because that plan contains proposed constitutional changes.
South Carolina aspect
Eight South Carolina clergy and eight South Carolina laity are among the 864 total who will serve as delegates to the 2019 Special Session. The 16 from South Carolina were elected in 2015 by Annual Conference
Over the past year and more, South Carolina’s Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston has consistently called for prayer throughout the way forward process and as the 2019 General Conference approaches, both for God’s hand and for the delegates themselves.
After the October Judicial Council ruling, Holston stated, “Between now and the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in February, I encourage South Carolina United Methodists to continue to pray for God’s guidance and direction for the Commission on the General Conference, the Council of Bishops, the delegates to the 2019 Special General Conference and for the people called United Methodist.”
What are the plans?
The three official plans developed by the Commission on a Way Forward that will go before GC2019 are as follows, though other plans can be brought forward at the session:
The One Church Plan: This plan allows for contextualization of language about sexuality and allows for central conferences, especially in Africa, to retain disciplinary authority to adapt the Book of Discipline and continue to include traditional language and values. It gives United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions. It removes the restrictive language of the Discipline but adds assurances to pastors and conferences who, because of their theological convictions, cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
The Traditionalist Plan: This affirms the current language in the Discipline, which states “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” (Para. 304.3).
The Connectional Conference Plan: This creates three connectional conferences based on theology or perspective, each having clearly defined values (accountability, contextualization and justice). The three conferences would function throughout the worldwide church; the five existing United States jurisdictions would be abolished.
Council of Bishops: ‘Trust’
Bishops across the UMC have neither vote nor voice at General Conference, though a majority of the Council of Bishops recommends the One Church Plan for adoption.
At their Nov. 4-7 Council of Bishops meeting, held at Epworth by the Sea in Georgia, the bishops committed themselves to “trust this General Conference, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to discern God’s best way for our future.”
In a Narrative of our Leadership the bishops released from that meeting, they declared they can best serve the delegates by “presiding fairly and creating a holy atmosphere in which they can do their best work; trusting that the General Conference will invoke the Holy Spirit; being a prayerful, hopeful and pastoral presence; giving them confidence that we are acting transparently and not orchestrating or manipulating the process toward a desired end, and acting as midwives as they birth something new.”
South Carolina’s delegates to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference (the same delegates elected to serve South Carolina at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon) are as follows:
- Barbara Ware
- James Salley
- Dr. Joseph Heyward
- Herman Lightsey
- Jackie Jenkins
- Michael Cheatham
- Martha Thompson
- Dr. David Braddon
- Alternates: Lollie Haselden and Emily Rogers Evans
- Dr. Tim McClendon
- Rev. Ken Nelson
- Rev. Tim Rogers
- Dr. Robin Dease
- Rev. Tiffany Knowlin
- Rev. Narcie Jeter
- Rev. Mel Arant Jr.
- Rev. Susan Leonard
- Alternates: Rev. Telley Gadson and Rev. Michael Turner