Is the One Church Plan Unconstitutional?

By Thomas Lambrecht –

The process of formulating and releasing the report of the Commission on a Way Forward has been a long and winding road with unpredictable turns and unexpected surprises. Now that the report has been released in four translations, one foreseeable wild card in the process remains. This October, the Judicial Council has been asked to determine the constitutionality and legality of the three plans submitted by the Commission.

The Constitution is the document that sets forth the governing principles of our church. No legislation may be passed or implemented that goes contrary to our Constitution. Proposals (like the Connectional Conference Plan) that want to enact structures or processes that go against the Constitution must pass amendments to the Constitution in order to be legal. That is why the Connectional Conference Plan has nine constitutional amendments. That is the only way that plan could be enacted, since it makes some rather dramatic changes to the church’s structure and governing processes.

Both the One Church Plan and the Traditional Plan claim to not need any constitutional amendments in order to pass. In other words, both claim to be congruent with the requirements of our Constitution. That is a selling point because, rather than needing a two-thirds vote to pass, these plans would only need a simple majority. And neither would need to be ratified by the annual conferences in order to be implemented.

Over the past two weeks, as many as twenty different people – plus two larger groups – have weighed in with legal arguments over the constitutionality and legality of the three plans. As the designated defender of the Traditional Plan before the Judicial Council at its upcoming meeting in October, I submitted a regular brief and a reply brief to the Council.

There were a number of persons who argued that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional, despite the claims of the plan’s authors that no constitutional amendments would be required. What are the important issues they have raised?

  1. The One Church Plan unlawfully delegates authority to set standards for ministry to the annual conferences.The authority to set standards for ordained ministry is reserved by the Constitution to the General Conference. But the One Church Plan removes the restriction that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not qualified to serve as ordained clergy. At the same time, it allows any annual conference (including those outside the United States) to continue disqualifying self-avowed practicing homosexuals from serving as ordained clergy.

The One Church Plan therefore sets up the probability of conflicting standards for ministry in different annual conferences. Some will ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, while others will not. This would be unlawfully allowing annual conferences to set standards for ministry, something that the Judicial Council has previously ruled is “distinctively connectional” and not something that can be delegated to the annual conferences.

In the words of the Judicial Council, “It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject” (JC Decision 7). “The requirements for admission into the ministry are distinctively connectional because, as observed in Decision 544, ‘[o]rdination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide'” (Brief by Keith Boyette).

When full clergy rights were extended to women in the (former) Methodist Church, the question was asked whether central conferences outside the United States could decline to ordain women. The Judicial Council ruled that this was a “distinctively connectional” matter that governed all annual conferences equally, so central conferences had to also ordain women. In the same way, the General Conference needs to set one standard regarding the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and cannot allow different annual conferences to set conflicting standards.

If the One Church Plan simply declared that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are eligible for ordination in all annual conferences, the plan would be constitutional. (This is what the so-called Simple Plan does.) But by allowing annual conferences to set conflicting standards, the plan unconstitutionally delegates legislative authority to annual conferences on an area that is distinctively connectional and reserved to the General Conference.

  1. The One Church Plan’s changing of the definition of marriage to “two adults” clearly contradicts United Methodist doctrinal standards.There is no question that every reference to the practice of homosexuality in Scripture is negative and that Jesus and Paul both define marriage as between one man and one woman. Article IV of our Confession of Faithstates, “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.” Since the One Church Plan changes the definition of marriage contrary to Scripture, it violates our doctrinal standards.

In addition, John Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament is another one of our doctrinal standards. It helps us interpret Scripture. Wesley’s Notes are uniformly negative toward the practice of homosexuality and affirm the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. So the One Church Plan’s changing the definition of marriage also violates Wesley’s Notes as a contradiction of our doctrinal standards.

Any change in our doctrinal standards (such as to accommodate a new definition of marriage) would require a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths vote of all the annual conference members around the world. Such a change would be nearly impossible.

In addition, the One Church Plan, while defining marriage as between “two adults” at the theological level, allows for different definitions of marriage across the church, depending upon where churches are located. In countries that do not permit same-sex marriage, the church would have to abide by the traditional definition of one man – one woman marriage.

Yet this geographic variety has been ruled out by Judicial Council Decision 1185, which says, “The Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.” The church needs a clear and consistent definition of something so foundational to human existence as marriage. For the One Church Plan to offer a smorgasbord approach to defining marriage (depending upon one’s geographic location) is to unconstitutionally contradict our foundational principle of connectionalism.

  1. The One Church Plan allows clergy to perform same-sex weddings, but has not provided an endorsed rite or ritual for such a service.According to the Constitution, the General Conference has authority “to provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church and to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship . . . .” Right now, the approved services of Christian marriage are specifically written for the marriage of one man to one woman. There is no authorization in the service of marriage for a same-sex couple to be married. The church has no authorized ritual for such a marriage. It would be unconstitutional for the General Conference to allow a type of marriage for which there is no approved ritual.

Furthermore, our doctrinal standards require that rites or orders of worship must be “consistent with the Holy Scriptures to the edification of all” (Confession of Faith, XIII), “so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (Articles of Religion, XXII). Since same-sex marriage is plainly not consistent with Scripture, such a worship rite would be contrary to our doctrinal standards and therefore unconstitutional. (The same holds true of ordination rituals.)

  1. The One Church Plan is unconstitutional when it says, “clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shallbe reassigned” (Petition 8, emphasis added).The Constitution gives sole right to set the appointment of clergy to the bishop. So the General Conference cannot mandate that the bishop change a clergy person’s appointment.

 

  1. The One Church Plan’s provision that same-sex weddings cannot be performed in a local church unless such is approved by a vote of the local church conference conflicts with another provision in the Disciplinethat says, “the board of trustees shall not prevent or interfere with the pastor in the use of any of the said property for religious services or other proper meetings” (¶ 2533.1).

 

  1. One of the provisions of the One Church Plan says that the General Council on Finance and Administration will develop an apportionment formula that ensures that each episcopal area pays for its own bishop.However, there is no legislation to that effect, and it is questionable whether GCFA can enact such a policy without General Conference direction. Additionally, the Judicial Council has already ruled in Decision 1208 that jurisdictions may not be required to fully fund their own bishops. They ruled that such a plan “creates a funding mechanism that is dependent upon raising funds from jurisdictions and that invades and undermines the ‘unified’ nature of the episcopacy.” So if this provision were to be followed by GCFA, it runs the risk of being found doubly illegal. (This means that delegates should not count on this provision going into effect when they consider voting for the One Church Plan.)

The Judicial Council has yet to rule whether any of the above arguments are valid. I believe they are strong arguments. Some of the above issues can be fixed by amending the legislation. However, it appears that items #1 and #2 are so essential to the One Church Plan that to rule them out would pretty much rule out the whole plan. Such a ruling by the Judicial Council would substantially change the options that the General Conference will consider in February.

Of course, the Traditional Plan must also survive an analysis by the Judicial Council that may find aspects of that plan unconstitutional. We will keep you informed about what the Judicial Council decides in October.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He also served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward. 

 

 

Comments

  1. Pastor Tom,
    These various points may indeed be salient to those of an objective mind; however, to zealots, desperate to retain power, authority and financial resources, no roadblock is unable to be breached. After half a century of seeing the gates of traditional Methodism called into questions by “those with itching ears”, I can’t believe dismissal by unconstitutionality will win the day. I continue constant in prayer that the power of the Holy Spirit will preserve the church, not in some legalist’s interpretation of the UM constitution.

  2. Gary Bebop says:

    Tom clearly understands the nature of the battle to be fought. This one will be won on the battle lines (with the Holy Spirit supervening in the strife). Traditionalists must not assume there is no battle to fight, no hardship to endure, and no adversary to face. If the Apostle Paul was willing to confront the foolishness at Corinth, we should be willing to expose the chicanery of the One Church Plan before the Judicial Council.

  3. Tom, you are a true servant of God and a blessing for the UMC. You speak the truth and will certainly do so before the Judicial Council. God bless. However, the wolves in sheep’s clothing are going to use every deceitful tactic available to them. Have they posted anywhere the argument(s) they will use defending the constitutionally of the plan? Since they have no Scriptural basis, what will they rely on?

    Answer to question — YES, absolutely unconstitutional.

  4. Tom makes a powerful argument that the “one church” plan is unconstitutional. Without it the liberals will go nuts at the GC. My guess is they will all shift to the “simple plan”. The only solution that ends in peace is for both sides to sit down together and negotiate a split. We can both share Wespath as an independent agency, and each side can create their own boards. Anything else will promise to continue the chaos. Think what Christ could do with the half a billion we waste on our boards and agencies!

  5. If the JC rules that the One Church Plan is unconstitutional the progressives will scream out about the trickery involved. Best to let the delegates vote it one way or another.

    • But it is precisely the opposite! No “trickery” involved with pointing toward the labor of works of the faithful Methodists who came before us. The entire purpose of the Constitution is to preserve and make clear the fundamental declarations and observations of a truly united UMC. It isn’t non-negotiable, but safeguards have been put in place precisely to prevent cultural factions from going rougue and forcing change that is antithetical to the purposes of the church. The trickery is in the circumvention of these safeguards with the One Church Plan, not in rightly challenging its legality.

  6. “Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation”. (Article IV Confession of Faith)

    1. Where is same-sex marriage revealed or established by the Holy Scriptures?
    2. Where is the practice of homosexuality revealed or established by the Holy Scriptures as not a sexually immoral sin?

  7. Gary Bebop says:

    Nothing is “incidental” to our times. In our progressive conference, our bishop is talking up “CrossOver Year” Advent studies. Multiple inferences may be drawn from this.

  8. William, you ask legitimate questions, but I fail to understand why you quote Article IV, since I know of no legislation, groups or individuals who are attempting to make same sex marriage or homosexuality “an article of faith” or “essential to salvation”. Are you trying to point out that homosexuality is not an “essential” issue, and that United Methodist can disagree on this issue?

  9. David, please see #2 above in Tom’s article. “That homosexuality is not an essential issue”??? The practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are obviously the essential issues — but the core issue is Scriptural authority.

    Just answer my two questions with Scripture that reveals or establishes same-sex marriage and removes as a sexually immoral sin the practice of homosexuality.

  10. A Retired U.M. Pastor says:

    Gary (Aug. 28 at 7 P.M.), Anyone who joins in a study of emergent church theology, as Brian McLarin presents in the study recommended for reading in the Pacific Northwest, on a weekly basis for an entire YEAR, is certainly going to stray from Orthodox Christian thinking. Yes, I would say that “inferences” can be made from such an action, Gary, but it only fits in with actions already coming from that area. The sad truth of it all is that this radical direction is being financed by laity who are overwhelmed by the changes at work upon their beloved churches, and by the conservative leadership who are prevented from speaking up. Of utmost importance in the special 2019 General Conference is the burning need for legislation to be passed that allows for “a gracious exit” by any church congregation alert enough to see the writing on the wall: their church will ultimately close if they cannot find relief from the leadership that is currently taking them down a pathway of destruction. It makes no sense to me why individual congregations, who are supposed to be protected by an organizational constitution (such as the U.M.C. Discipline), must continue to be subject to leadership who have no desire to abide by their Constitution. In these United States we refer to this kind of behavior as treason. So, United Methodist Church, WHY are we punishing the law-abiding citizen who simply wants to worship their God in peace, according to the laws established?

    • Gary Bebop says:

      You have stated the matter exactly as it is being experienced at this hour. It “makes no sense” that congregations be governed by leaders who flout the church constitution.

  11. Will just one progressive or anyone please answer the two most important questions with relation to this conflict — a repeated over and over request:

    1. Where is same-sex marriage revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures?

    2. Where is the practice of homosexuality revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures as NOT a sexually immoral sin?

    • William,
      If you will take this with the charity it is offered, I’ll give it a shot. The answer to both questions is simply; nowhere. There are many things we believe that are not established in scripture. There are many things that scripture does not establish as NOT a sin. Please forgive the double negative, it was necessary to answer your question. Scripture does not establish the ordination of women, nor does it not say that it is not a sin. The same is true of the abolition of slavery, and the prohibition of alcohol and many other things that United Methodist have added to the Discipline. This is far from the first time that we have attempted to come to a new understanding of how scripture shapes our ecclesiology.

      Now I would like to ask a question. Exactly which doctrinal standard does same-sex marriage contradict? Please say something other than Article V, because no one is trying to change an article of faith or something essential to salvation. Unless of course you believe that there is only one possible way to understand every scripture and that understanding is essential to salvation.

      BTW I am not speaking for progressive UM’s, just trying to answer the question.

      • David, all same-sex sexual behavior is a clear violation of Article VI: “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”

        The Mosaic Laws concerning sexual morality are all part of the moral law; Wesley was crystal clear and consistent on this point. The Law refers to same-sex behavior as an abomination. Even honest progressives admit that ALL Scripture references to same-sex behavior refer to it as sin.

      • David,
        Arguing which article of the constitution homosexuality violates is a distraction to the real issue. The Bible clearly declares homosexuality a sin. The word Paul uses was carefully crafted to mimic the wording of Leviticus and it can be translated faithfully no other way. It is not the normal greek term for homosexuality. Secondly homosexuality is a life style sin. It is not an occasional sin which one commits and then asks for forgiveness for. As long as one is acting as a homosexual (celibate homosexuals are to be commended for submitting their desires to the will of God) then asking for forgiveness is a sham, no more and no less than a heterosexual having sex outside of marriage and asking forgiveness after every sex encounter is a sham. Therefore since it is a sin, and one when continued that makes a mockery out of asking for forgiveness, what is being asked is for the church to endorse a sin. This is the real issue, not whether we are trying to make it an article of faith. However since if it is legalized then we have to make gay marriage a sacrament which again violates the Bible and that sacrament is an article of faith, since the only way a person can have sex and not sin is within a marriage. That would put the church in the position of endorsing a marriage which puts two people into a lifestyle of sin, and prevents them from heaven. Therefore not being in a gay marriage is necessary for salvation, and endorsing it would cause the church to lead people away from salvation. A clear violation of article iv.

  12. Are leaders in our denomination, controlled mostly by liberal Americans, working to see that Africans and others have equal proportional representation on our boards and agencies, a long standing American liberal position?

    https://www.umnews.org/en/news/african-leaders-support-traditional-plan

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