By Keith Boyette
April 30, 2019
On Friday, April 26, the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church issued its much anticipated decision on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan (TP) adopted by the special General Conference in February. The plan’s opponents were confident the Judicial Council (JC) would rule the plan unconstitutional arguing that it was hateful, exclusionary, and contrary to fundamental values of Methodism. Instead, the JC held significant elements of the plan constitutional. The Council is essentially the church’s “Supreme Court.” Its decisions are final and not subject to additional review.
Despite the rhetoric of TP opponents, who continue to argue its adoption made the denomination an anti-gay church, key teachings did not change with its passage. Key church teachings were not under review in the JC decision and they remain the position of the denomination. Nothing has changed concerning the UM Church’s principles that:
o All persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.
o We seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.
o We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
o Sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
Persons who self-identify as LGBTQ continue to be welcome and are present every week in UM churches, regardless of the theological perspective (traditional or liberal) of those churches. Same-sex attracted individuals who are chaste in singleness serve as pastors in UM churches.
o Expanding the definition of self-avowed, practicing homosexual to include persons living in same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union, or who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals (Petition 90032).
o A pastor who has been found after trial to have conducted a same-sex marriage now must receive, as a minimum penalty, a one-year suspension without pay for a first offense, and termination of their clergy status for a second offense (Petition 90042).
o Boards of Ordained Ministry must make a full examination of candidates for licensing, commissioning or ordination, and shall not recommend anyone who does not meet the qualifications for ministry. The bishop must rule the recommendation of any such person out of order (Petition 90043). Bishops cannot consecrate a “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” as a bishop, or commission or ordain a self-avowed, practicing homosexual (Petition 90036).
o Where a complaint is filed against a pastor for violating the Discipline, the person filing the complaint is to be a participant in any efforts to reach a just resolution of the complaint and every effort is to be made to have the person filing the complaint agree to any resolution before it takes effect (Petition 90046). A bishop cannot dismiss a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or in fact (Petition 90044, ADCA at 191). If a just resolution is reached, it must state all identified harms and how each harm will be addressed (Petition 90046)
o The church may now appeal the outcome of a trial based on egregious errors of church law or administration (Petition 90047).
These provisions are effective on January 1, 2020, in annual conferences in the United States, and in May of 2021, in those annual conferences located outside the United States. These provisions were enacted to address ongoing acts of defiance and resistance that have undermined the church’s good order.
In Friday’s decision, the JC declared other TP provisions to be unconstitutional. These provisions had previously been held unconstitutional in rulings before and during the special General Conference session. Parliamentary maneuvers by those opposed to the plan prevented good faith efforts to make them constitutionally compliant. Furthermore, opponents argued that if some of the TP provisions were held unconstitutional, then the JC must declare the entire plan unconstitutional. The Council rejected this argument.
The General Conference, the only body that can speak for the UM Church, has once again spoken on matters raised, in one way or another, at every General Conference since 1972. When they were ordained, pastors affirmed they had studied the church’s doctrine and polity, and would abide by them. The persistence of those desiring to change its doctrine and polity underscores the irreconcilable nature of the conflict that continues to cause great harm to the church and its mission.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is grateful for the decisions made by both the General Conference and the Judicial Council. However, we are not naïve; we believe the time has come for those who love the church to have good faith conversations about its future. Our serious differences do not just involve our definition of marriage, ordination standards, and sexual ethics, but point to deeper differences around our understanding of the authority and interpretation of Scripture, and the nature of the Church.
We are fully prepared to continue to work for the restoration of the good order and missional effectiveness of the UM church. At the same time, we are willing to engage others in conversations with a goal of multiplying Methodist expressions as a means of blessing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and emerging from the cycle of conflict that keeps all of us distracted from our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our next article will address the Judicial Council’s decision on the constitutionality of legislation adopted by the 2019 General Conference to permit churches to exit the UM Church with their property.
Rev. Keith Boyette is the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an elder in the Virginia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.