By Jessica Brodie
The denomination’s top court has ruled on two of the three plans developed by the Way Forward Commission.
In its unanimous decision handed down Oct. 26 in advance of February’s called special session of General Conference, the Judicial Council ruled the One Church Plan is largely constitutional.
The court noted that while there are constitutional issues with three of the 17 petitions to the One Church Plan, the plan mainly passes muster. The plan proposes a flexible, contextual path for church unity amid polarizing differences over sexuality.
“As a primary principle in any organizational structure of (the UMC), connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships … that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage and human sexuality,” read the ruling. “Full legislative power of the General Conference includes the authority to adopt a uniform, standardized, or a non-uniform, differentiated theological statement.”
The court also issued a decision on the accountability-focused Traditional Plan, ruling it finds constitutional issues with nine of the 17 petitions that must be fixed before it can pass muster.
“Impartiality and independence of decision-making bodies are the hallmarks of due process and bedrock principles of procedural justice in our constitutional polity. No process can be fair and equitable if the body bringing the complaint is also empowered to determine its merits.”
The Judicial Council said it does not have jurisdiction to rule on the third plan crafted by the Way Forward Commission, the Connectional Conference Plan, because that plan contains proposed constitutional changes.
Now, the work is in the hands of the delegates to General Conference 2019.
In a statement also released Oct. 26, the Council of Bishops thanked the Judicial Council for its work.
“We continue to be guided by two core convictions: We want to help the delegates to do their best work at the Called General Conference, and we are seeking a way forward for the church that ‘maximizes the presence of the United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and with a desire for as much unity as possible,’” said Bishop Ken Carter, president of the Council of Bishops.
Carter, along with Bishop Cynthia Harvey, president-designate, and Bill Waddell, counsel for the bishops, presented at the Judicial Council’s oral hearing Oct. 23.
South Carolina Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, in his statement on the ruling Oct. 26, urged United Methodists to remain in prayer as we approach the special session of General Conference.
“The Judicial Council has done its work, and now the General Conference will do its work. Only the General Conference can change the Book of Discipline,” Holston said. “At the Council of Bishops meeting in May, I made a covenant with other bishops to promote the unity of the church over any one particular plan. I am not going to break that covenant. We are stronger together than we ever could be apart.
“Between now and the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference in February, I encourage South Carolina United Methodists to continue to pray for God’s guidance and direction for the Commission on the General Conference, the Council of Bishops, the delegates to the 2019 Special General Conference, and for the people called United Methodist.”
The Way Forward Commission also released a statement after the ruling Oct. 26, noting that using the General Conference legislative process, individual commission members will work alongside delegates to think through how all three plans might be amended based on the analysis of the Judicial Council.
“Our prayer remains the same, that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will use the work of the commission to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places of the world as possible,” said Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball and Bishop David Yemba, commission moderators. “We invite the church to continue to pray for our church as we seek to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world.”
The full 58-page Judicial Council decision can be read at http://www.umc.org/decisions/78141.
Also, the United Methodist News Service has a more extensive article detailing the decision at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/court-one-church-plan-largely-constitutional.