I am exceedingly grateful to the men and women who serve on the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. This group of nine laity and clergy persons who are elected by the General Conference is charged with the responsibility of determining if the actions of General, Jurisdictional, Central and Annual Conferences are constitutional. It also rules on whether the actions of other official bodies of the denomination are consistent with the Book of Discipline.
I am sure that when the current council members accepted their nominations, many of them did not realize the intensity of the legal, emotional, and spiritual work that would be before them as we United Methodists expressed our differences in perspective on the role practicing homosexuals should play in the life of our beloved denomination. Regardless of your particular opinions about their rulings, I urge you in your personal and collective prayer time to thank God for them. For obvious reasons, their personal contact information is not shared widely, so I’m not encouraging you to email them, but if you ever encounter members of the council in person, please thank them for their service.
On Friday, April 26, the Judicial Council released their rulings on the legislation passed by the Special Called Session of General Conference. Because of the diversity of perspectives in Western Pennsylvania, the rulings have been received with joy by some and with great pain by others. Some have mixed feelings. It is my prayer that we will continue striving for perfection in love and continue to grow in our understanding of and compassion for the feelings of all of the members of our Western Pennsylvania Conference family.
The following is a brief summary of the findings of the council.
While about half of the petitions that made up the Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional, the Judicial Council ruled that because each petition could each stand independently of the overall plan, the constitutional petitions in the plan would go forward. However, the seven unconstitutional petitions (90033, 90034, 90035, 90037, 90038, 90039, and 90040) and the second sentence of one other petition (90045) were ruled null and void. The eight constitutional petitions (90032, 90036, 90042, 90043, 90044, 90046, 90047, and all except the second sentence of 90045) will become effective in the United States on January 1, 2020 and one year after the end of the Special Called Session in late February 2020 in conferences outside the United States.
The petitions that will be implemented have added to or clarified the complaint process. A complaint is a written document filed with the bishop of an area stating that a clergy or layperson in the United Methodist Church has violated the Book of Discipline. A complaint triggers a formal process which now can only be dismissed if there is no basis of law or fact for the complaint and the reasons for dismissal are shared with the complainant.
If a complaint is filed, a bishop must first try to resolve the complaint through a just resolution. A just resolution identifies what harm was done by the violation of the Book of Discipline and what will be done to address that harm. Now just resolutions must identify all harms that have been done and how those harms will be addressed. In addition, now “every effort” must be made to have the complainant agree to the just resolution. If a just resolution cannot be agreed upon, complaints can be sent to a church trial. If a trial court finds a clergy person guilty of officiating at a same gender union, the penalty for the first offense is a one-year unpaid suspension. For a second offense, there is termination of credentials.
The approved petitions also added some clarity to the ordination process. One clarified that being “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” now includes living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership, or civil union. Another states that bishops cannot consecrate “self-avowed” homosexuals as bishops or ordain candidates that the Board of Ordained Ministry determines to be “self avowed”. Petition 90036 removes “practicing” from the prohibition, so any self-avowed homosexual, whether practicing or not, cannot be ordained or consecrated. In addition, the Board of Ordained Ministry must do a “full examination” of each candidate.
The Judicial Council also modified its prior ruling on the disaffiliation plan previously known as Petition 90059. (By action of the General Conference, Petition 90059 is now referred to as Petition 90066). In its new ruling, the council said, “We reluctantly declare amended Petition 90066 constitutional, but stress at the same time that the General Conference bears the responsibility to legislatively address the deficiency identified...”. The result is that now, if a local church, as a matter of conscience, disagrees with the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, it may disaffiliate from the denomination through a process that, among other things, requires the following three steps:
- The local church would have to, by a 2/3 margin, vote at a church conference to disaffiliate.
- Then, the Conference Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of annual conference entities and the bishop, shall establish a disaffiliation plan. The plan shall establish a date of disaffiliation and terms and conditions. The terms and conditions of the disaffiliation must be consistent with church and state laws and must be agreed upon by the local church. Church law now includes provisions from Wespath legislation which says, in part, that disaffiliating churches must compensate annual conferences for pension and apportionment liabilities.
- Finally, the Annual Conference would need to ratify the agreement by a majority vote at a session of the Annual Conference.
It is important to note that legislation passed by General Conference only provides for disaffiliation of a local church for reasons of conscience because they disagree with the provisions and requirements of the Book of Discipline regarding homosexuality.
As the Judicial Council alluded, the work of the General Conference with regard to the role of practicing homosexuals in the life of the church is not finished. And as many of you have been reading online or hearing from various caucus groups, we will still be debating homosexuality at General Conference in 2020. Groups on all sides began meeting almost immediately after the Special Called Session.
I continue to have hope that we will find more loving, compassionate, humble, creative, wise, and Spirit-filled ways to engage in conversation about our perspectives, hopes, dreams, and concerns related to the role of practicing homosexuals in the life of the church.
To facilitate this, we have developed a registration system to help groups come together for conversation to discern ways in which we in the Western Pennsylvania Conference might continue together in ministry with convicted humility in light of our various views. Please register to be part of these conversations if you want to grow in understanding others, you value relationship with those who disagree with you, and you want to vision and dream about our beloved denomination. Please do NOT register if you want to convince others you are right.
There will be an organizational meeting of all who register. Then those who have registered will be encouraged to, on their own, form small groups that will continue to meet for conversation. Each group will set its own parameters for meeting. The goal of the registration and the organizational meeting is merely to put people together who have a desire for conversation. If you are interested, click the button.