What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part 2)

By Thomas Lambrecht –

In the last Perspective, there was a report on what actually passed the special called General Conference in St. Louis, including what the Judicial Council will probably rule as constitutional and therefore able to be implemented. This Perspective offers a behind the scenes look at how some of the proponents of the One Church Plan attempted to obstruct and prevent the Traditional Plan from being adopted. This includes ways they tried to prevent corrective revisions to the Traditional Plan so that the Judicial Council would declare it unconstitutional. You will find here a more detailed account of the General Conference legislative process.

In order to prevail in St. Louis, traditionalists and evangelicals had to fight against some very significant headwinds. From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against any plan for amicable separation or a traditionalist plan. Separation was taken off the table by the Council of Bishops at the 2016 General Conference, when they declined to accept a request to form a commission on separation. Instead, they formed a commission to formulate other alternative plans for the denomination to move forward.

The Traditional Plan was taken off the table in November 2017 when the Council of Bishops asked the Commission on a Way Forward to work on only the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. The only reason there was a Traditional Plan at all is that a small group of bishops insisted that one be included at their May 2018 meeting. Since the decision to include a Traditional Plan came only two weeks before the Commission’s final meeting, the Commission was unable to develop the plan. It was left to a few individual members of the Commission and several bishops to flesh out the Traditional Plan.

At that same May 2018 meeting, the Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan by a vote of nearly 60 percent. The Council argued before the Judicial Council that only the One Church Plan should be considered by the General Conference, with the Connectional Conference Plan and Traditional Plan included only for historical context. The Judicial Council rebuffed the bishops’ request, determining that all three plans should be considered by General Conference, along with any other petitions that were in harmony with the call for the special session.

Undeterred, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality and legality of all three plans in advance of General Conference, some of them perhaps hoping that their preferred plan would gain the endorsement of the Judicial Council. In what appears in retrospect to be an ideological ruling, the Judicial Council ruled that the Constitution did not require uniform standards for clergy, thus validating the One Church Plan. It also ruled about a dozen provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, meaning that they would need significant amendments in order to become legal. Since the time for submitting legislation to General Conference had passed, those amendments would have to be proposed and passed on the floor of General Conference — a daunting task.

Proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan were written to make it constitutional. The revisions were sent to many delegates via email. However, the conference secretary refused to allow the revisions to be distributed to the delegates in written form. That meant that the delegates would not have a printed copy of the proposed revisions to examine ahead of time or to consult during the debate. The daunting task got harder.

In the days before General Conference, the Committee on Reference referred petitions that affected central conferences outside the U.S. to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM). The referrals included the main petitions for the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan, but not some other petitions from the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan that arguably also affected central conferences. This last minute referral took delegates by surprise. Normally, the SCCCM meets a day or two before General Conference to consider legislation that affects the central conferences. If the referral had been made weeks earlier, the SCCCM could have had adequate time to consider the referred petitions and possible revisions. As it was, the committee had only an hour after the day’s plenary session to discuss, amend, and vote on petitions — not nearly enough time. As a result, the petitions implementing accountability for annual conferences, providing the Traditional Plan’s exit path, and the Modified Traditional Plan’s enhancements were all voted down in committee, essentially killing them.

At the same time, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the remaining petition of the Modified Traditional Plan, which instituted a global process for administering complaints against bishops. The Judicial Council ruled that petition unconstitutional. The ruling stated that it is only the jurisdictional conference that can hold bishops accountable. Thus, by the end of the first day, the Modified Traditional Plan petitions were both dead.

In order to succeed, any plan to be passed at General Conference had to receive three votes in its favor. The first vote was a prioritization vote taken on the first day. In that vote, over 55 percent of the delegates gave the Traditional Plan a high priority. By contrast, the One Church Plan received only a 48 percent high priority vote. This set the stage for the Traditional Plan to be the first plan that the conference would work on.

The second vote any plan needed was to be approved by the legislative committee portion of the General Conference on the second day. In a moment of confusion, the conference passed a motion to end debate after only a few of the corrective amendments had been made, so that no further amendments could be made that day. However, the Traditional Plan received its second vote in favor, with over 56 percent voting yes.

In another attempt to head off the Traditional Plan, supporters of the OCP proposed asking the Judicial Council for yet another ruling on the provisions of the plan. Although little had changed in the plan, some OCP delegates were hoping to further discredit it by having it ruled unconstitutional again. That proposal easily received the required 20 percent of the vote to call for a Judicial Council decision. However, rather than announce during the public session that they would be acting on the request for a decision, the Judicial Council did not respond until after the session was adjourned. Advocates had less than two hours to prepare legal briefs for the Judicial Council to consider. And the decision itself was rendered after less than an hour of deliberations. Such a hasty process did not engender trust in the outcome of the decision, which was to reaffirm the unconstitutionality of eight of the sixteen Traditional Plan petitions and both of the exit path petitions.

Delaying tactics

This brought us to the third day and the third crucial vote on the plans. Delegates again attempted to make amendments to the Traditional Plan to correct the issues identified by the Judicial Council. Opponents of the Traditional Plan went into full stall mode, trying to run out the clock to prevent any amendments from being made. Presiding bishops appeared to cooperate with this strategy by failing to call on evangelicals who were trying to get the floor to make an amendment. Instead, it appeared that preference was given to people wanting to make speeches ahead of those wanting to make amendments.

The parliamentary process was used (and abused) to try to thwart the Traditional Plan. Some OCP supporters asked irrelevant questions and put forward multiple points of order. Most egregiously, some OCP supporters gained the floor claiming to make a speech in favor of the Traditional Plan, but then spoke against it. Such manipulative lying has no place in the church, but it demonstrates the desperation felt by some OCP supporters. In addition, some used the parliamentary trick of employing a point of order to “correct a misrepresentation.” But instead of correcting a factual error, they proceeded to launch into a speech against the Traditional Plan. The presiding bishops unfortunately allowed these kind of underhanded tactics without challenging them.

Equally disheartening were the troubling statements made by OCP supporters that betrayed their antipathy toward traditionalists. One prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of bringing a virus into the church, the virus of conflict, which would make the church sick. (As if the conflict had not already been provoked by those intentionally disobeying the church’s standards.) Another speaker decried “the spirit of hatred, judgment, and discrimination which creates division instead of unity.” Another delegate alleged that the Traditional Plan was born out of “a story of control or power or dominance.” A prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of being Pharisees and elevating the Book of Discipline above the Bible, calling the Traditional Plan “hateful” and promising to “amend until the monster trucks roll in at 6:30.” (This alluded to the conference’s need to adjourn by 6:30 in order to make way for a monster truck rally scheduled to start the next day.)

In the middle of the debate, an unsubstantiated allegation surfaced that delegates were being bribed for their votes. While this allegation was referred to the ethics committee, it was never substantiated. The political strategy appeared to be to float the baseless allegation with the knowledge that it could never be addressed or refuted during the time left in the session. The ethics committee released a two paragraph statement after the General Conference stating that its investigation found no substance to the allegations.

Amidst all this turmoil and delay, only a few of the needed amendments could be made to correct the Traditional Plan. More time was taken debating points of order, suspension of the rules, and other parliamentary matters than working on the content of the plan. As the deadline for adjournment approached, the presiding bishop called for a vote on the Traditional Plan, which passed for the third time. For the remaining hour of the plenary session, people in the gallery continued to shout, sing, and try to (unsuccessfully) disrupt the proceedings.

It truly was a miracle that any plan passed General Conference, much less that it was the Traditional Plan. It was a miracle that as much of the Traditional Plan passed as did, and that parts of the plan can actually be implemented.

In a final act of desperation, the OCP supporters again passed a motion to ask the Judicial Council to review the Traditional Plan that was passed for its constitutionality. Again trying to sow doubt about the outcome of the conference, some are claiming that the Judicial Council could throw out the entire plan. As noted in last week’s Perspective, at least eight parts of the Traditional Plan were already found to be constitutional, and they will be implemented.

This level of conflict, the hateful language toward those holding a traditional position, and the determination to prevent the General Conference from accomplishing what the majority wanted to accomplish, tell us that our church is hopelessly divided and unable to continue living together. Why, then, are some progressives and moderates continuing to insist on forcing some type of unity — only on their terms? The 2020 General Conference is unlikely to change the direction of the church or reverse the accountability put in place by the Traditional Plan. Can the church’s leaders not work toward a different way to resolve our conflict that honors and respects the deep differences of conscience and theology?

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

Comments

  1. Robert A Combes says:

    the next Sunday after the conference, visiting a different UMC the pastor asked for prayers for those suffering the outcome of the conference, and I ask why? we must ask again, what is the true nature of the faction that sees a need to incorporate the worldly practice of marrying of same sex couples and the ordination of homosexuals when there are many other venues that another tradition will accommodate them

  2. Gifford Tompkins says:

    If I was an avowed adulterer, I would hope the church would counsel and accept me ( not in any leadership position ). I would not, however lobby for changing the constitution, Discipline and Bible, to accommodate my sin.
    As Robert attests to above, there are many churches (although failing in growth) that will accomodate the wishes of those who favor the failed OCP. Why don’t they pack their bags and leave the UMC?
    I understand the Southwestern and Western jurisdictions are still trying to push the OCP on our churches and ministers. God help us!

  3. Gary Bebop says:

    Documenting what happened at GC2019 (as Tom has adroitly done) helps us understand the nature of the rebellion and its ambitions. This reminds me of Absalom’s rebellion. Absalom was beautiful, cunning, but ferocious in his zeal to overthrow Israel’s rightful king.

  4. Jim Wolfgang says:

    Thomas: thank you for revealing the tactics of those opposed to the Traditional Model (the ALWAYS approved model of the Methodist/United Methodist Church). You are right to express that the opponents of traditional methodism are the source of the harm and disruption that has so damaged the “connection”, and I do not think they are finished in their effort to change the Social Prnciples, and the Discipline of our tradition. I believe their next tactic will be to elect general conference delegates that reflect their views and thus reverse the 2019 General Conference. They will do this by concentrating their votes in the 2019 VERY SOON TO COME ANNUAL CONFERENCES on one particular delegate, then one particular delegate to follow: in other words, they will not split their votes at the same time on multiple delegates and thus weaken their voting agenda. Traditional minded people must do the same to counter this threat- there is strength in unity. I personally know of one annual conference that was represented by “progressive” general conference delegates even though that conference is majority traditional. Upon analyzing how the “progressive” delegates became their representatives when they started so far behind in the initial delegate voting, it was observed the “progressives” were “getting the message” of who to concentrate their votes upon through text messages, I pads, etc. The tradional minded delegates simply kept receiving the same percentage of votes that were not enough for any one of them to become the clear winner. I strongly urge some plan of action be implemented by traditional minded local church delegates and clergy in our annual conferences to avoid being misrepresented in your 2019 annual conference selections for the 2020 General Conference delegates. Concentrate your votes on ONE particular delegate at a time- if you split your votes you may not only lose being rightly represented, we may lose our beliefs. BEWARE!

    T

    • Brandon Fulmer says:

      This is a little scary to think about but I can certainly see it happening. My goodness; what have we come to?

  5. Mary Byerman says:

    Were there not some ethic violations, especially on that last day? Are bishops allowed to obstruct/manipulate the General Conference with impunity? What about the General Secretary? I hope these issues could be referred to the ethics committee and corrected by GC2020. I was just an observer, but could clearly see the bias. The people observing around me were just shaking their heads too! There is certainly a loss of credibility in the leadership of GC.

    • Mary, yes there is a loss of credibility within the UM leadership, and that is most bothersome. It seems the Bishop and a majority of Pastors in the Western North Carolina Conference pray a lot about the results of GC, but lack specificity in what they believe. As you say, no leadership.

  6. And so, we continue to wrestle with conundrums of our own making:
    – in a spirit of love and brotherhood, we wish to offer the means of a graceful exit, but are thwarted by those more desirous of conflict than peaceful resolution
    – desiring to work within the confines of a corrupted system of church government, we will propose and petition the Judicial Council and COB, harboring little to no chance of attaining fair or equitable treatment
    – wishing to pursue our charge to spread Christ to the world, we are stymied by fellow Methodists and others, who label us as disingenuous and insincere, due to our scriptural position in reference to the nature and consequences of homosexuality
    – after a “bloody” and unholy special general conference 2019, we stare down the reality of meeting again next year and, again, wrestling and disagreeing over the same issues
    I do not waver from the righteous path on which we tread; I do, however, wonder if winning the church results in loosing our brothers/sisters. On the other hand, I fear that loosing the church, obliterates any possibility of a renewed Wesleyan witness to the world. For over 50 years, this conflict has grown, due in some part by people of unsound spiritual direction. This should not surprise us. However, too often, those of us who claim to hold fast to God’s Word and Wesleyan tradition, have deferred our witness and silenced our tongues to present a veneer of unity to a suspicious world. If God has chosen this time and this place to cleanse His temple, let it begin. No earthly fellowship is as precious as being included in Christ’s blood-bought church.

  7. Wow… I just finished reading Tom’s article… I am stunned, shocked, saddened, and speechless. As I was reading, this verese in Joshua kept coming to mind, “Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve…” There is a touch of anger within me towards those (Bishops, etc.) who are responsible for such ungodly behavior.

  8. Beth Burch says:

    Thank you, Tom, for providing a testimony to the CG2019 proceedings that acts as a counter-balance to what the New York Times reported yesterday. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/us/united-methodist-vote.html)

    Love the sinner, not the sin.

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