There was much rejoicing in parts of The United Methodist Church this week when the Judicial Council rendered its verdict:
A review of possible plans for the future direction of The United Methodist Church found the One Church Plan to be largely constitutional, said a decision released Oct. 26 by the denomination’s top court.
In Decision 1366 , which was unanimous, the United Methodist Judicial Council found more problems in the Traditional Plan petitions that would need to be addressed before that plan could pass a constitutional test…
The top court’s 87-page decision did point to issues with a number of the 17 petitions in the Traditional Plan and a few of the petitions in the One Church Plan.
But even declared unconstitutional, United Methodists should not let up from their active opposition to the Traditionalist Plan. Because like a hydra, it won’t go away until the last head is struck down.
Decision: Judicial Council
In Decision 1366, the Judicial Council said the following about the Traditionalist Plan:
- Too Adversarial: “The Council of Bishops was not designed to function as an inquisitional court responsible for enforcing doctrinal purity among its members.“ So the JC struck down many provisions that made the Episcopacy more adversarial than constitutionally conceived.
- Too Fixated on The Gay instead of Overall Upholding of Discipline: “The General Conference…cannot reduce the scope of the board [of Ordained Ministry’s] examination to one aspect only and unfairly single out one particular group of candidates (self-avowed practicing homosexuals) for disqualification.” Many of the doctrinal assent requirements and due process violations were singling out LGBTQ issues, so they were overreaching the JC’s interpretation of fairness (as fair as it can be, I guess, when it comes to discrimination against LGBTQ persons).
- The Heart Is Heartless: The biggest question was how the JC would handle Petition #10, the “heart of the Traditionalist Plan,” that provides a way for churches and annual conferences to leave the denomination that they find too intolerant of LGBTQ persons. The decision is a lot to wade through, but essentially the only thing left in this section is that annual conferences can choose to leave the denomination, but individual clergy and churches cannot in the same way. Which reduces the likelihood of it working (see below).
All in all, of the 17 petitions that constitute the Traditionalist Plan, 8 were constitutional and 9 were not (7 were outright unconstitutional, and 2 had sections declared unconstitutional).
For comparison, there were only three sentences which were declared unconstitutional in the One Church Plan’s petitions, but those were irrelevant to the overall novelty of the “unity in diversity” approach of the OCP.
Response: Carrots and Sticks
When it comes to persuasion, people sometimes use the image of encouraging a horse-drawn buggy with carrots and sticks: carrots hung in front of the horse encourage them to move a particular way, whereas pointy sticks can compel behavior.
The purpose of the Traditionalist Plan, as noted before, is to make the UMC so unbearable to LGBTQ inclusion that progressives will leave. The Plan has many sticks to poke at inclusion advocates, as well as a really big carrot dangling out there to encourage groups of churches to form their own Methodist conferences beyond the reach of the sticks (but also without representation or ownership of Methodism going forward). The sticks and the carrots work together.
In this Judicial Council decision, many “sticks” were taken away from the TP (though some remain, see below). And the carrot has gotten a lot smaller—it seems the JC would only allow entire Annual Conferences to secede, which reduces the likelihood of it being embraced. The end result is that there are some really bad stuff left in the Traditionalist Plan, for sure, but the biggest sticks and carrots have been nullified.
So without sticks or carrots, will the Traditionalist Plan still be supportable?
Constitutionality = Irrelevant?
Sadly, facts like “unconstitutionality” won’t stop forces opposed to LGBTQ inclusion from pursuing this final solution anyway.
We live in the era of Trump, so it is valid to assume that many Traditionalists (who often align with Trumpian doctrine and practices) won’t be dissuaded by this verdict. Their vision of a church without progressives and moderates is within reach and they won’t let our own court (even their hand-picked one) stand in the way.
Sadly, the structure of GC2019 emboldens their efforts. The General Conference schedule allows the Traditionalist supporters to continue to support the TP:
- The schedule is to vote on the direction of the UMC on Day 2 (which Plan to perfect?), and then refinements/amendments on Day 3.
- So all supporters have to claim is “we can fix it later” and they can offer full-throated support for it. All that matters is that the progressives leave, not that the plan is actually legal.
Supporting broken ideas worked for Republicans in Congress on tax reform, it worked for our “I Alone Can Fix” President, and given The UMC reflects secular politics in many ways, it will probably work for the Traditionalists too.
Model Legislation for Further Abuse
Finally, and most troubling going forward, is that the way how Judicial Council rendered verdicts on the petitions essentially wrote future legislation that could be used against LGBTQ persons. Even if the TP fails, petitions to General Conference 2020 could quote the TP petitions word-for-word and claim they are constitutional and should be given more weight than other petitions.
The laundry list of dangerous legislation is rather intimidating. The JC upheld the TP’s denial of LGBTQ persons to be eligible to be bishops, despite being duly elected, closing the opening that Bishop Oliveto was elected in. It upheld mandatory minimum trial penalties for LGBTQ-inclusive actions, and limited the ability of Bishops to dismiss complaints. It would allow the refusal of voting on LGBTQ candidates for ministry (that Baltimore Washington conference Bishop recently practiced), and require complaining laity to give consent to just resolutions involving clergy (really? Wow, JC!).
A frustrating outcome by a JC that has many times in the past 30 years overtepped its bounds into writing anti-LGBTQ legislation that did not exist (such as defining homosexuality despite GC’s reluctance in 1996). And now opponents to LGBTQ inclusion have word for word model legislation to submit. (Yes, they know this without me telling them—I was clued into it by their rejoicing on a private Facebook forum).
It’s a dream come true to have several of their most retributive proposals green-lit by the JC, which they otherwise would never have gotten.
This is not a time of sitting back and assuming reason or hospitality will win the day. With everything hanging on one vote, on the last Sunday in February 2019, legal legislation is a distant second to a Traditionalist victory within grasp.
Vigilance must be maintained against the Traditionalist Plan, and conversations must be maintained across the aisles to solidify the narrow margin of support for whatever other Plan you are supporting.
I believe it is still very strong and will be very difficult to beat. Don’t let up.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.