Report by commission, not bishops, to serve as purpose of sexuality-focused gathering in February
By Jessica Brodie
A footnote in a recent Judicial Council decision has prompted the United Methodist Council of Bishops to amend its call for the human sexuality-focused 2019 Special Session of General Conference.
The new call by the COB specifies that the purpose of the special session shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon COB recommendations—not the report of the COB itself, which had been the thrust of the previous call.
COB President Kenneth H. Carter, who issued the amended call in a letter July 9, said the focus must be what is best for The United Methodist Church, and the amended call is made “out of a great sense of caution and the desire to help delegates to the Special Session of General Conference 2019 do their best work.”
This means the delegates to General Conference will receive legislation on the three plans the commission developed (the One Church Plan, Traditionalist Plan and Connectional Conference Plan) rather than just the one the COB recommended.
The bishops, however, are also asking the Judicial Council for declaratory decisions on the constitutionality of the commission’s three plans.
“We are asking for this so that we can gain greater clarity about constitutional issues within the three plans, and in service to and support of the delegations, who will do extremely important work in a very limited amount of time,” Carter said.
The Special Session of the General Conference will be held Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, Missouri. The fall meeting of the Judicial Council is set for Oct. 23-26.
What are the plans?
Authorized by General Conference 2016, the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward was appointed to help the UMC explore ways to move the church beyond its impasse around ministry and human sexuality. Currently, many in the church have vastly differing views about the current language of the Book of Discipline, which says that while all people are of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained as clergy or united in marriage ceremonies in UMC churches.
The commission met nine times over 17 months and concluded its final meeting in Nashville May 16, ultimately proposing three plans to lead the UMC forward:
- The One Church Plan (recommended by the COB): This allows for contextualization of language about sexuality in support of the mission and allows for central conferences, especially those in Africa, to retain their disciplinary authority to adapt the Book of Discipline and continue to include traditional language and values while fulfilling the vision of a global and multicultural church. In recommending this plan, the COB said 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 and 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 “incompatible” language in the Discipline.
- 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 U.S. jurisdictions would be abolished.
Other petitions in harmony with the call (beyond these three plans) may also be submitted for consideration at the GC2019.
Why did the call change?
Originally when it issued the call last year, the COB said the purpose of GC2019 would be “limited to receiving and acting on a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.”
The commission released its report earlier this year. After the COB reviewed the commissions’ report, it decided May 4 that only the One Church Plan would be placed before GC2019 for legislative action, as it is “the best way forward for our future as a denomination,” they said, though all three plans would be shared as background.
However, the COB asked the UMC’s top court, the Judicial Council, to rule on whether other petitions beyond the COB’s that are in harmony with the stated call for the 2019 special session can be submitted for consideration. On May 25, in decision 1360, the Judicial Council ruled yes—other petitions can be submitted.
Now, the COB has decided to amend its call in response to that, citing a footnote (6) in the decision that notes the commission, not the COB, is to submit the legislation.
“The Council of Bishops encourages the entire church in this season to hear the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:3, that we ‘make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,’” Carter said.
The final report of the Commission on a Way Forward to GC2019 will become available once it has been translated from English into the other three official languages of the UMC (French, Portuguese and Kiswahili), anticipated by July 30 per the organizers of General Conference.
South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston said as United Methodists wait for the translation, we should continue to pray for God’s guidance and direction; engage in discussions, conversations and debates in ways that bring honor to God; and practice our Three Simple Rules: to do all the good we can, to do no harm, and to stay in love with God.
“As we pray, we continue to be in mission from anywhere to everywhere as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Holston said. “To borrow from Paul’s good counsel in 1 Corinthians 15:58, let us stay focused always on giving ourselves fully to the work of the Lord in our communities and beyond, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
What is the footnote prompting the amended call?
The undertaking of a “complete examination” of the subject of human sexuality presupposes that there will be some kind of report, document or study which supports the “possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality,” which, in turn, presupposes that the Commission (not the Council of Bishops) will put forth legislation to fix the problem. The special called General Conference is to consider “their work,” i.e., whatever the Commission desires to put before General Conference in terms of its “complete examination.”
However, in passing, we note that the question here is whether a special commission created by the General Conference can report to a body other than the General Conference. Specifically, is the Commission on a Way Forward amenable to the General Conference or the Council of Bishops, and can it present its findings and report to the General Conference through the Council? See JCD 424.
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.
The language of An Offering strongly suggests that “the work” of the Commission on a Way Forward, and only this body, is the rationale for calling a special session of the General Conference.
—Footnote 6 of Judicial Council Decision 1360
Prayers sought for S.C. delegation
Prayer is being lifted for South Carolina’s delegates to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference. These are the same delegates elected to serve South Carolina at General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon:
- 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