What Is the Role of the Council of Bishops in finding A Way Forward?

By February 15, 2019

At the 2016 General Conference, the Council of Bishops recommended that a commission be appointed to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. This recommendation was approved by the General Conference, and they appointed The Commission on a Way Forward (See last week’s news story, “The Commission on a Way Forward: What did they accomplish — and how?” for a detailed account of the Commission on a Way Forward and its work process.)

The Council of Bishops then provided the Commission on a Way Forward with their Mission, Vision and Scope. The Commission then worked together to form its own Covenant for their work together.

The Council received the Commission’s interim report in a November 2017 meeting at Lake Junaluska. This interim report offered three sketches of models that would help the denomination move beyond the impasse.

The Commission did not express any preference for any model; the Council then began to engage deeply with each model and its implications for their church and their leadership. After a period of prayerful discerning, the Council offered substantial feedback to the Commission, but did not take any vote on any of the sketches.

Here is a quick summary of the sketches of the initial models presented to the Council of Bishops:

  • One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another sketch removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A third sketch is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
  • Each sketch represents values that are within the Council of Bishops and across the church.
  • Each sketch includes a gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

At this meeting The Commission also provided a handbook, Finding a Way Forward: Resources for Witness, Contextual Leadership and Unity to the Council to help define terms, recap agreements, understandings, and procedures, and to offer context for their discussions.

In its February 2018  meeting in Dallas, the Council of Bishops received an updated report from the Commission on a Way Forward that contained two sketches that carried forward many of the values and principles of the three sketches presented to the bishops in November. “The sketches of these two models represent the values, concerns and feedback we have received since we reported to the Council in November. The two sketches provide avenues for unity, contextualization and mission,” said Bishop Ken Carter, one of the moderators of the Commission.

Summary of the two sketches in process:

ONE CHURCH MODEL gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.

MULTI-BRANCH MODEL (Now known as the Connectional Conference Plan) is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. After offering feedback on the two sketches, the Council of Bishops asked the Commission to continue working toward its final report to be presented at their April/May meeting in Chicago.

In its May 2018 meeting in Chicago, the Council of Bishops strongly approved the following motion and rationale:

Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commission on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 that includes:

  • All three plans (The Traditionalist Plan, The One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan) for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council.
  • The Council’s recommendation of the One Church Plan.
  • A historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.

Rationale:  In order to invite the church to go deeper into the journey the Council and Commission have been on, the Council will make all the information considered by the Commission and the Council of Bishops available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges there is support for each of the three plans within the Council.  The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans.  The majority of the Council recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for The United Methodist Church.

Following this motion, the Council of Bishops voted by an overwhelming two-thirds majority to share the work done by the Commission on a Way Forward on the three plans and to recommend the One Church Plan.

The One Church Plan:
  • Provides conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context while retaining the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church
  • Allows for contextualization of language about human sexuality in support of the mission
  • Allows for central conferences, especially those in Africa, to retain their disciplinary authority to adapt the Book of Discipline and continue to include traditional language and values while fulfilling the vision of a global and multicultural church
  • Encourages a generous unity by giving United Methodists the ability to address different missional contexts in ways that reflect their theological convictions
  • Removes the restrictive language of the Book of Discipline
  • Adds assurances to pastors and Conferences who due to their theological convictions cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals

“With convicted humility, bishops want to be pastors and shepherds of the whole church in order to maximize the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible and with as much contextual differentiation as possible,” said newly installed Council of Bishops President Ken Carter.

The Bishops then expressed deep appreciation for the diligent work that the 32-member Commission on a Way Forward did in formulating the three plans. While the Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, they affirmed that the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditionalist Plan also held values that are important to the life and work of the church and will be included in the final report to the Special Session of General Conference that the Bishops have called for February 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri.

In October 2018, the Council of Bishops asked for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council, the highest judicial body in the church, regarding the constitutionality of the three plans — that is, to determine if there are any aspects of the plans that violate the constitution of The United Methodist Church.  The purpose of a declaratory decision is to enable the General Conference to know, in advance of the session, if there are unconstitutional provisions in the plans so that those can be addressed in the legislative process.

After raising questions regarding petitions in all three plans, the Judicial Council’s unanimous decision found the One Church Plan, the plan supported by the Council of Bishops, to be most in compliance with the Constitution of The United Methodist Church and the Traditional Plan to have significant constitutional problems. The Judicial Council said that they did not have jurisdiction over the Connectional Conference Plan. (In our next article in this series, we’ll explore the One Church Plan in more detail — along with what makes it a much better fit for our First Church faith community.) Click here to view a detailed comparison of the three plans, including the strikethroughs of items the Judicial Council deemed unconstitutional in the United Methodist Church.

The work is now squarely in the hands of the delegates as they prepare for the limited three-day General Conference. The Council of Bishops wishes to thank the Judicial Council for their work, understanding that it was complicated and complex yet sought to fulfill the mission of the church.

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Terms

Organization: The Church as Connection (from umc.org)

Terms: General Conference, Jurisdictional Conferences, Central Conferences, Annual Conferences, Districts, Charge Conferences and Local Churches

United Methodist leaders often speak of the denomination as “the connection.” This concept has been central to Methodism from its beginning.

The United Methodist structure and organization began as a means of accomplishing the mission of spreading scriptural holiness. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, recognized the need for an organized system of communication and accountability and developed what he called the “connexion,” a network of classes, societies, and annual conferences.

Today, our denomination continues to be organized in a “connectional” system, which “enables us to carry out our mission in unity and strength” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 701). Every local church is linked to an interconnected network of organizations that join together in mission and ministry, allowing us to accomplish far more than any one local church or person could alone.

Within the connectional structure of The United Methodist Church, conferences provide the primary groupings of people and churches for discernment and decision-making. Wesley described Christian conferencing as a spiritual discipline through which God’s grace may be revealed. At every level of the connection, church leaders and members come together in conversation, or conferencing, to discuss important issues and discover God’s will for the church. The word, conference, thus refers to both the assembly and organization of people as well as the process of discerning God’s call together.

General Conference

As the primary legislative body, General Conference is the only entity with the authority to speak on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. The General Conference meets every four years to consider the business and mission of the church. An equal number of lay and clergy delegates are elected from United Methodist conferences around the world to decide matters of policy and procedure for the denomination. Learn more.

Jurisdictional Conferences

There are five geographic jurisdictions, or regions, in the United States, which are comprised of eight to 15 annual conferences each. Learn more.

Central Conferences

In Africa, Europe and the Philippines, there are seven geographical regions, called central conferences, each of which is comprised of annual conferences and divided into several episcopal areas. Learn more.

Annual Conferences

The annual conference is a geographical entity, an organizational body (made up of elected lay and clergy members), and a yearly meeting. It is the fundamental body of the church (Book of Discipline, ¶ 11). Learn more.

Districts

Each local church is part of a district, which is an administrative grouping of churches in a geographic area. Learn more.

Charge Conferences and Local Churches

As the visible presence of the body of Christ, the local church is the place where members grow in faith and discipleship, putting their faith into action through ministry in the world. Learn more.

Read on UMC.org

Constitutional Structure (from umc.org)

Terms: General Conference, Council of Bishops, Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church does not have a central headquarters or a single executive leader. Duties are divided among bodies that include the General Conference, the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council. Each of these entities is required by our Constitution, a foundational document, to be part of our structure, and plays a significant role in the life of the church.

General Conference

The General Conference, the primary legislative body of The United Methodist Church, is the only body that speaks officially for the church. Meeting once every four years to determine legislation affecting connectional matters, it is composed of no fewer than 600 and no more than 1,000 delegates.

Working within the boundaries of the Church Constitution and General Rules, the General Conference defines and fixes the conditions, privileges and duties of church membership; the powers and duties of elders, deacons, diaconal ministers and local pastors; and the powers and duties of annual conferences, missionary conferences, charge conferences and congregational meetings. It authorizes the organization, promotion and administrative work of the church. The General Conference also defines the powers and duties of the episcopacy, authorizes the official hymnal and book of worship, provides a judicial system and procedures, initiates and directs all connectional enterprises of the church and enacts other legislation for the operation of the church. Learn more.

Council of Bishops

The Council of Bishops gives general oversight of the ministry and mission of the church and spiritual leadership to the entire church connection. Composed of all active and retired bishops, the council meets as a group at least once a year.

Bishops are elected by Jurisdictional Conferences and assigned to a particular area, made up of one or more annual conferences. Each bishop provides oversight of the ministry and mission of annual conferences in his or her area and appoints all clergy to their places of service.

Through its Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, the council builds and maintains ties with other Christian denominations as well as other faith groups. Learn more.

Judicial Council

As the denomination’s highest judicial body or “court,” the Judicial Council’s nine members, made up of laity and clergy, are elected by the General Conference and normally meet twice a year to consider whether actions of the various church bodies adhere to the constitution and follow the rules outlined in the Book of Discipline.

Their cases are generally referred to them by action of the Council of Bishops, the annual conferences or the General Conference. According to the Constitution, decisions of the Judicial Council are final (Paragraph 57, Article III). Learn more.

Read on UMC.org
UMC.org Glossary
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