By Jessica Brodie
South Carolina’s bishop is calling for dialogue and a commitment to shared unity and mission after The United Methodist Church’s top court handed down a much-anticipated ruling on the denomination’s newly approved Traditional Plan.
The UMC’s Judicial Council ruled that while seven of the provisions of the Traditional Plan are unconstitutional and invalid, the rest of the plan passed muster and is therefore valid as church law. It also ruled the disaffiliation petition, permitting the “gracious exit” of a local church, is constitutional. The decisions, 1378 and 1379, came at the end of the court’s April 23-26 meeting, held in Evanston, Illinois (read them in full at www.umc.org/decisions).
The Traditional Plan passed by a vote of 438 to 384 at a special called session of the UMC’s General Conference, held in St. Louis in February to help the denomination move ahead in unity despite differences regarding sexuality. This means current statements about and retained restrictions against “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy and officiating same-sex marriages. General Conference also passed an exit plan, called a “disaffiliation plan,” for any churches that want to leave the denomination with their property.
However, delegates requested the Judicial Council review the constitutionality of both of these matters; the court ruled twice prior that parts of the Traditional Plan were unconstitutional on grounds of due process, as well as elevating requirements about homosexuality above other matters.
In this, its third decision regarding the Traditional Plan, the top court used what it called “a severability test” to determine if the unconstitutional parts of the plan could be severed from the rest.
They can, the court said, noting, “Unless it is evident that the General Conference would not have enacted those provisions that are within its legislative powers without those that are not, the invalid parts can be separated if what is left is not inextricably linked and can function independently.”
The new church laws are to take effect Jan. 1, 2020 (except in Central Conferences, which get a longer window).
Now, South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston has released a statement calling for United Methodists to cling to an opportunity for hope and healing amid any hurt.
“I humbly ask all South Carolina United Methodists—whatever our differences—to stay in conversation, to focus on those things that unite us, and to remain steadfast in our mission as we walk together toward a future with hope,” Holston said (see the full statement here).
“There is tremendous pain throughout The United Methodist Church because of the decisions of the General Conference,” Holston said. “Those who hold convictions that the church’s stance on human sexuality must change are deeply disappointed, hurt, frustrated and angry. Those who support the General Conference’s decisions because of their own convictions are struggling with being labeled as judgmental and hateful. What’s happening in our church is painful to me, as well.”
However, Holston said, God is creating the great possibility for healing within that pain.
His fellow bishops in the UMC have collectively released a statement through the Council of Bishops thanking the Judicial Council for its careful review of the actions of the 2019 General Conference.
“The Judicial Council’s decisions are clear and sound, and they give helpful guidance to the church,” said Bishop Ken Carter, president of the Council of Bishops. “While additional questions may arise as the new church laws take effect … today’s decisions provide a path for local churches and annual conferences to move forward. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we pray that we will fulfill the law through our love for one another (Galatians 5:14).”
The Council of Bishops lifted up key aspects of the April court rulings, namely:
- The question of local churches exiting from the denomination is one that is determined by votes in the local church and at the annual conference.
- The practice of certifying Board of Ordained Ministry members on whether they would follow the Discipline in its entirety, including on matters of sexuality, was found unconstitutional.
- Accountability for bishops continues to be lodged in the jurisdictional college or central conference.
- Exiting churches must pay their fair share of pension liability.
- Exiting clergy retain their pension but it is converted to limit further liability to the conference.