Is the Traditional Plan Unconstitutional?

Minnesota Conference clergy and laity gathered at Normandale Hylands United Methodist Church hold table talk discussions about the three plans set to be considered by the special General Conference. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

Anxious church commentators are wondering if the latest development in the lead-up to the special called General Conference in February 2019 means the Traditional Plan is fatally flawed.

In a comprehensive 58-page ruling released October 26, the Judicial Council has rendered its opinion on whether the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan are constitutional and in conformity with other parts of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The short answer is that the Traditional Plan is alive and, while a bit broken, can be fixed. (The Traditional Plan would retain the current position of the church on marriage and human sexuality, enhance accountability, and provide a gracious exit for those who cannot live within the church’s expectations.) The One Church Plan, also described as the “local option,” survived scrutiny with a few minor provisions ruled unconstitutional. The Judicial Council declined to evaluate the Connectional Conference Plan, since the  Book of Discipline does not allow the Council to evaluate proposed constitutional amendments, which are an integral part of the plan.

It is important to note that the Judicial Council was ruling on the legality of various parts of the plans, not on the wisdom of enacting any of them. The decision states, “The task of the Judicial Council is to pass upon the constitutionality of the legislative petitions without expressing an opinion as to their merits or expediency. It is up to the General Conference to determine the wisdom of each plan” (p. 1).

The big picture is that the situation is unchanged following the Judicial Council decision. The General Conference will still be able to consider all three plans. Aspects of the two plans evaluated will need to be modified or dropped from the plans in order to address the concerns raised by the Judicial Council. Delegates can put forward such modifications as amendments during the February General Conference.

Evaluating the Traditional Plan

It is not surprising that the Judicial Council found a greater number of problems with the Traditional Plan (TP) petitions. Because the Council of Bishops instructed the Commission on a Way Forward not to develop the details of the TP, it did not receive the same amount of attention and vetting that the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan received. The Judicial Council’s work, therefore, is a blessing to help refine and perfect the TP.

The Judicial Council found constitutional problems with 7 of the 17 Traditional Plan (TP) petitions, as well as with parts of two others. Most of these problems can be fixed with relatively straightforward changes in the wording, without changing the content of the petitions or what they are trying to accomplish.

The idea that the Council of Bishops could hold its members accountable to the Discipline (Petitions 2-4) is no longer viable after the Judicial Council ruled it unconstitutional. The Council ruled that the same bishops who filed a complaint against another bishop for disobedience could not then sit in judgment on that bishop. The decision states, “The COB was not designed to function like an inquisitional court tasked with enforcing doctrinal purity within its ranks. This arrangement poses significant dangers to a person’s right to a fair and unbiased determination of her or his case. There are no safeguards put in place to guarantee an impartial process carried out by an independent body” (p. 32).

Renewal and Reform Coalition leaders have long been skeptical that the Council of Bishops would be able to hold its members accountable in any meaningful way. That is why we proposed an alternative disciplinary process for bishops administered by a new Global Episcopacy Committee. Maxie Dunnam submitted this idea in a petition to the special General Conference. Because it was not part of the original TP, this idea was not part of the Judicial Council evaluation. Based on their ruling, however, I believe it is a viable process that could provide meaningful accountability for bishops.

Several petitions require members of the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify that they will “uphold, enforce and maintain The Book of Discipline related to commissioning, ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” They would require the bishop to certify that all the members he or she appoints to the board have agreed to do so. And they would require that the annual conference certify that all members appointed to the board have agreed to do so.

The Judicial Council’s problem with these petitions was that the requirement focused on certain provisions of the Discipline to the exclusion of others. “The certification is incomplete and selective because it relates to some but not all applicable standards of The Discipline and targets one particular group of candidates for disqualification” (p. 35). This problem can be corrected with a simple language change clarifying that upholding of the whole Discipline is required, not just certain parts to the exclusion of others.

The same problem of “selective certification” was cited as the Judicial Council nullified the provisions requiring annual conferences and bishops to declare their willingness to “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the standards of the church regarding ordination and marriage. Again, this can be corrected by a simple language change.

Importantly, the Judicial Council declared that the Constitution does permit an annual conference to withdraw from The United Methodist Church under conditions established by the General Conference. However, the Council ruled that local churches cannot withdraw under the process set forth in the TP. It ruled that the process must comply with ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by the congregation and also by the annual conference to approve withdrawal. However, this is a misreading of ¶ 41, which deals with congregations transferring from one UM annual conference to another. It has no bearing on the conditions for a congregation withdrawing from the church. I am requesting that the Judicial Council reconsider its ruling on this aspect of the plan.

The other aspects of the Traditional Plan were upheld.

Evaluating the One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) was largely held to be constitutional. Several provisions meant to give greater protection to a traditionalist viewpoint were struck down for various reasons. Some could probably be salvaged by changes in wording.

More significantly, the Judicial Council ruled that the idea of “connectionalism” under which our church operates “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” (p. 1). The idea that the church could establish moral or ethical standards that are different from one place to another strikes me as unbiblical. Standards for right and wrong should not vary from one country or culture to another.

Think about that. Do not moral and ethical standards by their very nature apply across “geographical, social, and cultural variations?” Should lying be permitted for some social classes, but not others? Should bribery be acceptable in some cultures, but not others? Should same-sex marriage be permissible for Christians in some countries, but not in others? That makes no sense. If something is a moral or ethical matter, by definition it should apply in all similar situations.

It seems to me the Judicial Council is discounting the uniform basis for the “vital web of interactive relationships” that form our connection (see ¶ 132 in the Book of Discipline). Our connection with each other is based on “a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 104); by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things” (¶ 132). Where the common foundation is missing, the “web of interactive relationships” cannot develop or sustain itself. And that is what we see happening in our denomination, as the common foundation of beliefs and practices is eroded by the many issues that divide us.

The One Church Plan creates a “a diversity of beliefs” and non-uniform standards of ordination. A person who could be ordained as clergy in one annual conference would not be acceptable for ordination in a different annual conference. This undermines the understanding of ordained ministry as a connectional matter. As Judicial Council Decision 544 puts it, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide.” It understands each annual conference as a “door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church.” But someone entering that door in one annual conference would no longer be acceptable to other annual conferences, which means that we would no longer have one connected “ministry of the entire church.”

I believe the Judicial Council is mistaken in their understanding of connectionalism.

The Judicial Council also made a clear ruling that narrowed the scope of what is legally considered our doctrinal standards. They ruled that only changes to the wording of the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith can be legally reviewed by the Judicial Council. This ignores the fact that the 2016 Book of Disciplineconsiders Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament as doctrinal standards. “[The Plan of Union 1968] stated that although the language of the first Restrictive Rule never has been formally defined, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 104).

Judicial Council ruled, “Only the General Conference is competent to determine whether its enactment establishes a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (p. 13, citing Decisions 1027 and 243). However, that means there is no independent review of a General Conference action. By a majority vote, the General Conference can declare that its action does not “establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 17) and therefore does not require a constitutional amendment process.

So even though Wesley’s Notes define marriage as between “one man and one woman only” (Notes on Genesis 16 and 30, also see notes on Matthew 19 and Mark 10), the General Conference can change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and there is no independent body to review such a decision. This greatly narrows the enforceability of our doctrinal standards, particularly in the face of principled determination to maneuver around them.

Fortunately, the Judicial Council was only ruling on what is legal, not on what the church ought to do. The General Conference can and should still defeat the One Church Plan, adopt a revised Traditional Plan, and preserve a more robust sense of connectionalism founded on our common relationship with Jesus Christ, our adherence to biblical teaching, and our shared understanding of doctrine. Anything less will lead to a splintering of the church.

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. In his role as a Commission member, he was also tasked to present the case for the Traditional Plan before the Judicial Council in Switzerland. 

Comments

  1. OMMER B EVERSON says:

    I truly think the One Church Plan is the most evil deceptive thing I’ve seen. It is nothing more than a UMC Deep State (COB, Clergy, Admin Boards and Jud. Council) wanting to maintain power and money. The liberal plan is way better than this mush they are trying to push down everyone’s throat for the sake of “unity.”

  2. Thomas, you are most restrained in your critique of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the “one church/local option plan”. They obviously veered way off course, must have gotten swept up in the progressives’ talking points, and ended up outright rejecting the Bible, the current Book of Discipline, and John Wesley himself — who spins in his grave. A civil court, even one made up of atheists, might very well have done a better job of reviewing this plan.

    Bottom line —- no matter what this Judicial Council ruled, if the “one church/local option plan” passes, THE CHURCH WILL SPLIT.

  3. As I posted on Facebook October 26th: ” I spent the long five hours listening to the “Stacked Deck” hearings. What A total sham to force the LGBTQ agenda on the church with the blessings of the Methodist Judicial Court. Guess it’s time to start preparing to leave the denomination.. Sad Day, Indeed.” I appreciate your efforts Thomas Lambrecht; but it may be too late to save the Traditional plan, and our Beloved Church.

  4. Linda Branch says:

    God Bless and strengthen you Mr. Lambretch for such a well written reply. My small prayer group continues to lift up you and other leaders who are standing up for biblical TRUTH. I feel this crisis is good in that it is a sifting that will help purify the Bride of Christ. God is doing a new thing although it is so upsetting see Methodist leaders be so deceived and unfaithful to the scriptures. The god of this world has blinded them. May God have His way.

  5. The second largest church in South Carolina, Christ United has sent a letter to the Bishop signaling their intent to withdraw from the UMC. Several of the others have been reported to have said that if the one church plan goes through they will also leave. If the Bishops have their way the large evangelical churches will pull out of the denomination and the apportionment will crash. We will have to eliminate at least half of the overhead of the denomination and close most of the committees. At a clergy meeting the other day it became clear to me that those on the progressive side just don’t believe it will happen. Sadly it will and the UMC will join the same death spiral that the other churches who adopted similar plans are in.

    • Is this the beginning of a new Methodist denomination under the umbrella of the Wesleyan Covenant Association? The WCA is holding a global gathering this weekend at Mt Bethel UMC, a mega UMC in Marietta, Ga. It is rapidly approaching crunch time that will be followed closely by decision time.

      • Eric Pone says:

        This is totally the beginning of the WCA as a separate denomination. They website and their activities and the push for leaving pretty much says it all. It feels disingenuous that on the one hand they want hold the denomination hostage and the on the other they have prepared their out if they don’t get their way. Its like saying lets got to marital counseling while hiring a divorce attorney. It does bring to mind Abraham and Lot parting ways.

        • Who is holding the denomination hostage? The congregations joining the WCA ARE the denomination. The folks who want to change the denomination’s theology to suit themselves are the ones doing the hostage holding. The hostages are planning an escape.

        • Hold the denomination hostage? Absolutely, that is what the liberals have been doing for the past 45+ years, and now have pushed the denomination to the brink of destruction. The WCA is but a reaction and a fallback option to this assault should the liberals prevail in destroying the denomination.

  6. Gary Bebop says:

    As C. S. Lewis speaks of in That Hideous Strength, this is one of those moments when the universe seems to narrow around a point of decision. United Methodism is contracting around its decision point, a fateful one indeed. The church will cling to the old rugged cross and declare itself in union with Scripture or it will embrace novelty. Don’t underestimate the exertions of the Enemy to capture the church for itself. The campaign is richly financed and fronted by progressive luminaries who claim the future is their dominion. Is this really a “principled maneuver” on their part?

  7. Thomas Kyle says:

    I do believe that it is increasingly very likely that the WCA will be the forerunner of a new, biblically orthodox, Methodist denomination, perhaps within six months to one year.

    • The headline is predictably misleading following the usual pattern of most liberal headlines. The missing word in this headline —- IF. Bottom line, IF the liberals succeed in dividing the church, then OF COURSE this would be the direction of the WCA. What do these people expect, that traditionalists will not REACT to an attack on their faith, to an attack on the Bible, to an attack on John Wesley, to an attack on God??

      https://www.umnews.org/en/news/wca-plans-new-methodist-movement

  8. Thomas Teate says:

    If there is a new break away denomination, please consider term limits for Bishops or doing away with them all together. Bishops who are selected by man are too often men pleasers instead of God pleasers! And they are subject to the will of man and not the will of God.

  9. We are being distracted by minutia. For hopefully some clarity on this subject (that utimately leads to the matter of homosexuality in the UMC – and the universal church) I highly recommend people see these two professional, short, concise and enlightening testimony videos. These get to the point of what the mission of the body of Christ should be about!

    The first one by Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04Q8mXOcqTk

    The second by Jackie Hill-Perry:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgyJB28ugFA

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