What happened at General Conference? From constitutionality questions to ineligible voters and more
Compiled by Jessica Brodie
The called special session of General Conference might be over, but much of what happened is still uncertain more than a month later.
Here, with help from United Methodist News Service articles, as well as resources offered by the general church on UMC.org, the Advocate explores what did happen, what has happened since and what’s coming next.
Traditional Plan passes, but needs court review
United Methodists from around the world gathered in St. Louis Feb. 23-26 to consider plans developed by the church’s Commission on a Way Forward and designed to help the denomination move ahead in unity despite theological differences regarding human sexuality.
General Conference 2019 delegates passed the Traditional Plan 438 to 384 on Day 4, Feb. 26. This means current statements about homosexuality in The United Methodist Church’s 2016 Book of Discipline have essentially not changed. The Traditional Plan retains restrictions against “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” clergy and against officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage ceremonies. It also requires stricter enforcement for violations of church law.
However, delegates requested that the UMC’s top court, the Judicial Council, review the constitutionality, meaning, application and effect of the Traditional Plan. The court agreed to review this at its next scheduled meeting April 23-25 in Evanston, Illinois. It has ruled twice earlier that parts of the Traditional Plan were unconstitutional: In October, the court unanimously ruled seven of 17 petitions unconstitutional and identified unconstitutional portions in two others; and in February, the court ruled seven of the petitions unconstitutional and identified an unconstitutional sentence in another. Much of the unconstitutionality has to do with matters of due process, as well as elevating requirements about homosexuality above other matters.
Up in the air is how much of the legislation will take effect or what happens when people or conferences defy the rules.
If the court allows, the Traditional Plan legislation would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, in the United States and 12 months after the 2020 General Conference for the rest of the world.
Exit plan passes, but also needs court review
General Conference also approved an exit plan, called a “disaffiliation plan,” for any churches that want to leave the denomination with their property. However, that plan, too, is awaiting Judicial Council review when the court meets in late April.
The exit plan specifies that churches that elect to leave must pay unpaid apportionments and pension liabilities.
The exit plan was to take effect at the close of the 2019 General Conference, but is awaiting Judicial Council review.
Pension and benefits petitions pass
General Conference passed petitions requiring churches that leave to pay their share of unfunded pension liability for their annual conference. Clergy members who end their relationship with a conference will be treated as “terminated vested” participants; their benefits would be safe and converted to an individual account balance.
The pension legislation took effect immediately.
What about the One Church Plan?
General Conference did not pass the One Church Plan, which was the plan supported by the Council of Bishops and which would have left questions of marriage up to churches and clergy and ordination requirements up to conferences.
Possible GC2019 voting irregularities under investigation
General Conference organizers have named a 12-member task force to investigate after GC2019 Secretary the Rev. Gary W. Graves revealed March 14 that there were potential voting irregularities at the special session. Specifically, Graves said a limited number of people who were correctly denied delegate credentials later were able to procure them.
In question are South Congo Bishop Kasap Owan and his son, Philippe Kasap Kachez. The bishop said his son was a duly elected reserve delegate, and Kachez reportedly was there and voted, but Kachez is not listed on General Conference delegate attendance records.
Task force members are Duncan McMillan, General Conference commission chair; the Rev. Mujinga Kashala, General Conference commission vice chair; Kim Simpson, secretary; Stephanie Henry, Rules Committee chair; the Rev. Juliet Spencer, Education and Innovation Committee chair; the Rev. Lynn Hill, Program Committee chair; Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the New York Conference; Bishop Rodolfo Juan of the Davao Area in the Philippines; the Rev. Gary George; the Rev. Joseph Ndala Mulongo; Christine Flick; and Marie Kuch-Stanovsky.
Graves said General Conference organizers do not know if the possible ineligible voters supported a particular outcome, as voting is by secret ballot so all delegates can vote their own conscience.
South Carolina Bishop L. Jonathan Holston released a statement March 15 calling for a time for calm and patience instead of reacting immediately to this sort of news.
“Until we know the outcome of the Commission on the General Conference’s review of the voting credentialing process, I would ask that you remain in prayer for our church and stay focused on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” Holston said.
Who got to vote at General Conference?
GC2019 had the same delegates as General Conference 2016 (unless annual conferences chose to elect new delegates). There were 864 delegates, but 31 were absent, mostly because they could not obtain visas. Of the total, 58 percent were from the United States, 30 percent were from Africa and the remainder from the Philippines, Europe and beyond.
How are people reacting to what happened?
Some are satisfied with the news that General Conference passed the Traditional Plan and maintained the denomination’s “incompatible” language regarding homosexuality. Others were upset with the news.
Bishop Kenneth Carter Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, said bishops will have to do much outreach in the aftermath of GC2019, especially to progressives who feel hurt by what happened.
“We are going to do a lot of outreach to progressives to say we see you,” he said during a press conference after General Conference adjourned.
The Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai, chief Connectional Ministries officer of the UMC’s Connectional Table, called for prayer and patience.
“It will take time for us to truly understand and process the impact of what has happened,” she said. “Many are dealing with deep emotions and deep pain. We must now care for one another, pray for our church and take the time to respond and not react. God loves all of us, no matter who we are and which positions we took. God loves us and is still calling us to be in mission and ministry in the world.”
One group, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which had previously raised the possibility of leaving the UMC because of differences concerning sexuality, has now said it has no immediate plans to do so.
In a statement released by the WCA Feb. 28, leaders said they are “thankful The United Methodist Church has reaffirmed its sexual ethics, teachings on marriage and its ordination standards for clergy at the historic special General Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.”
“We remain open to good faith conversations about the future of the church. We recognize irreconcilable differences exist, not just about human sexuality, but also around our understanding of the authority and interpretation of Scripture and the nature of the church. While we remain deeply committed to its historic teachings on these matters, we are open to true Christian conferencing in an attempt to resolve our impasse in fair and equitable ways. ... We are committed to working with other United Methodists to achieve that end at the next General Conference in 2020, including a gracious exit provision. And should circumstances warrant, we remain prepared to launch a new Methodist movement.”
Other groups, including conferences, expressed dismay.
The New York and Greater New Jersey conferences each had a special called meeting March 16 to reflect on and respond to the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Other conferences around the world are also having dialogues and conversations. The UMC in Germany has said it will not impose the stricter regulations (see sidebar, this page) stipulated in the Traditional Plan in spite of what was passed at GC2019.
“The stipulations of the Traditional Plan are not acceptable for our church in Germany … and will therefore not follow the chosen way of controlling people in their disposition and imposing stricter penalties,” the German church said in a statement released March 9.
Are there any dialogues in South Carolina?
The South Carolina Conference has not yet hosted a public dialogue about the outcome of the 2019 General Conference, though conversations are taking place in various ways in and around local churches across the conference.
Bishop Holston said clergy will gather for a General Conference debriefing in late April.
“After that meeting—and once we know the Judicial Council’s rulings—we will discern the appropriate context and format for any possible future conversations,” Holston said. “For the moment, we ask all South Carolina United Methodists to remain focused on the mission and ministry that unites us.”
What does the Traditional Plan as approved include?
- An expanded definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include people “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.”
- The creation of the council relations committee, as part of the Council of Bishops, to hold bishops accountable to restrictions related to homosexuality.
- Minimum penalties for clergy convicted at trial of performing a same-sex wedding. Those penalties include one year’s suspension without pay for the first offense and loss of credentials for the second.
- The requirement that Boards of Ordained Ministry examine and not recommend candidates who do not meet standards regarding sexuality. It also empowers bishops to rule a candidate out of order.
- The requirement that annual conferences certify only Board of Ordained Ministry nominees who will “uphold, enforce, and maintain the Book of Discipline related to ordination and marriage of practicing homosexuals.” The General Council on Finance and Administration will withhold funds and use of the cross and flame logo for conferences that fail to do so.
- Multiple changes to the complaint process under church law. These changes include requiring that bishops not dismiss complaints without reasons given; involving those making complaints in the just resolution process; allowing the church to appeal “errors of church law or administration” of church trials.
- (From “Ask The UMC: What happened at General Conference,” UMC.org)
For more on General Conference, including more in-depth articles on all of the above, visit www.umc.org and www.umnews.org.