By Joe Whittemore, Special Contributor…
A few hours before the adjournment of the 2012 General Conference, the highly controversial Decision No. 1210 issued by the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church addressed and overturned restructure Plan UMC, which had been approved by a 59.62 percent vote of the General Conference. This hasty council decision seemed more interested in protecting segments of the institution than finding ways to support the work of the legislative body of the United Methodist Church.
On Oct. 28, the Judicial Council issued Decision No. 1226 declaring another 2012 General Conference action—that of ending guaranteed appointments for ordained elders—to be unconstitutional. This legislation was overwhelmingly approved by General Conference on the consent calendar.
Then on Nov. 10, Decision No. 1230 was issued which overturned the actions of the South Central Jurisdiction committee on episcopacy and the entire jurisdictional conference to involuntarily retire a bishop. Those actions were supported by votes of over 80 percent of the two bodies. There is little question the Judicial Council could have legitimately supported the actions of the jurisdiction, but again individual members chose to legislate over the representatives of church membership.
In contrast, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts got it right in his recent decision when he wrote, “. . . precedent is that ‘every reasonable construction’ of a law passed by Congress must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church declared in a broad and sweeping decision that Plan UMC was unsalvageable and unconstitutional. Included were portions of the legislation that had absolutely no constitutional issues. The council ruled “. . . the Plan [is] . . . constitutionally unsalvageable,” but many find it difficult to believe that assertion. Some knowledgeable United Methodists hold that Plan UMC in its entirety is constitutional.
Several years ago, the council helped clear up similar matters when the General Council on Ministries was legislated. In the case of Plan UMC the council talked a good game about trying to save the legislation but the final decision was in fact inappropriate judicial activism.
Some very brief background may be helpful. After spending several hundred thousand dollars for outside consultants to provide a report titled “A Call to Action,” which outlined changes needed for our church, the Council of Bishops (COB) seized the findings, helped tweak them and pressured the Connectional Table to present to General Conference hastily drawn restructure legislation that would have placed the COB in charge of just about everything. This Interim Operations Team (IOT) plan gave the bishops power to change budgets authorized and approved by General Conference, virtual control of a small group that was to take the place of ALL general agencies (including the General Council on Finance and Administration), and the ability to determine not only the programs of the church but how those programs would be implemented. Forty years of General Conference actions (mandates) would have been deleted in their entirety from the Book of Discipline and the COB would have been in position to dominate the general church operations. Many familiar with the workings of the general church saw serious flaws in the IOT plan and it was virtually dead on arrival when General Conference convened. Please understand that when the term COB is used, there were minority voices of opposition in that body.
Some capable participants in the Call to Action work prepared alternative restructure legislation, including Plan UMC, which was ultimately approved by a 60 percent vote of General Conference. This action represented comprehensive legislation that was a year in the making and contained significant compromise provisions from more than one plan. Some of the IOT plan provisions were likely unconstitutional but Plan UMC revised those provisions. There is no question that Plan UMC contained several major revisions (i.e., significant improvements) to the way our church has been operating over the past decades.
The key Judicial Council ruling was that “oversight,” all oversight of any kind, was reserved by our constitution as the sole domain of the bishops. Factually, that’s about it. No one and no group can ever be given authority of oversight other than our episcopal leaders. One bishop recently wrote “Like it or not, our constitution gives bishops the duty of oversight.” If such absolute power is in the hands of the bishops, our constitution runs counter to the best leadership principles of this day. For it to be claimed that our bishops are given the exclusive right to oversight of the whole church has the ring of paranoid protectionism and permanent privilege.
In addition to being unhealthy, this notion is incomprehensible for operations as vast as our church. It is not to be overlooked that multiple provisions of the Book of Discipline authorize oversight to leaders and entities other than the bishops.
The authority to make final decisions grants significant power to the decision maker(s). As in personal interpretation of Scriptures a final decision of the Judicial Council does not have to be right in order to be “final.” Judge Roberts could have very easily succumbed to the practice of imposition but he rose above his power and looked for ways to draw from and support the legislative process. This type of leadership is even more critical in our denomination. In the UMC the population (membership) has no vote in establishing leadership and authority. This makes the legislative process extremely critical in the assigning of responsibility.
Protecting the past
The opening premise of Judicial Council thinking in its recent unconstitutionality ruling of General Conference action to eliminate guaranteed appointments was that, “Security of appointment has long been a part of the tradition of The United Methodist Church.” In other words, the Judicial Council is not going to allow General Conference to change the way we have been doing things. That kind of culture within our judicial system must change.
Our Judicial Council has become the protectionist body for episcopal power and holding on to the past in our church. How out of step with the prevailing thought of our membership! Our denomination is in serious danger. We are dying in the U.S., where our financial base is located. Although all of us bear some responsibility, we arrived at this point under the control and authority of a system which is dominated by the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council. The legislative bodies that represent the membership of our church have become secondary and in some cases irrelevant, subject to the influence and whims of the bishops undergirded by decisions of the judicial system. It is very important to remember that the COB presents nominees for the nine-member Judicial Council. To win a nomination or re-nomination to the Judicial Council, a person must be in good standing with the COB. While the Judicial Council is elected by vote of the General Conference, there remains at least the appearance of a serious conflict of interest in the nominations process. Whether there’s a conflict of interest or not, the worldview of the Judicial Council is for blocking change rather than, to paraphrase Judge Roberts, taking every reasonable construction of provisions passed by the General Conference to save the legislation from unconstitutionality.
The conciliatory tone of Judge Roberts’ work is far from the judgmental and unnecessary rhetoric of Decision 1210 illustrated in their “tortured course” of legislation tirade and the proclamations of “unsalvageable.” We need a council that will invest time and energy in looking to the future and finding ways to listen to the voice of our constituency. Our court of last resort has no right or authority to object to tough decisions being made through compromise of the majority against the will of the minority.
General Conference of 2012 made tough decisions after withstanding all kinds of maneuvering, groaning, amendments and alternatives. That process cannot be the basis of overturning legislation. The Judicial Council must always consider serious deviations from the constitution, but it cannot be the place of last resort to overcome the majority or squelch new ideas. Rather, it must objectively look for ways to support change. If we are to survive and have a measure of vitality, the prophetic worldview of our church, including that of the Judicial Council, must move to allowing the majority permission to govern rather than holding fast to protectionism.
Mr. Whittemore was a North Georgia Conference lay delegate to the last six General Conferences. He has been a conference lay leader and has served as a member of the Connectional Table and board member of the General Board of Global Ministries.