Commission on General Conference added to confusion

The Rev. William B. Lawrence.  Photo by H. Jackson/Southern Methodist University.
The Rev. William B. Lawrence.
Photo by H. Jackson/Southern Methodist University.
For those United Methodists who think our denomination was not confused enough, we can thank the Commission on the General Conference for confounding us a little further. 

In an Aug. 10 news release and a report by United Methodist News, we learned that the commission conducted much of  its recent meeting behind closed doors in Lexington, Kentucky, and in that meeting concluded that the voting process by General Conference on legislative matters has been corrupted.

The commission considered data gathered by an independent auditing firm and evidence collected by lawyers hired to investigate, reaching a few conclusions but raising many more questions. So the commission will institute new registration and credentialing procedures for any persons who claim to be delegates to the next General Conference in May 2020.

The commission has also asked the Council of Bishops (a separate constitutional authority) and the General Council on Finance and Administration (an agency created by the General Conference, which is the same constitutional authority that created the commission) to determine whether the church can trust the self-reported statistics from each annual conference that are used to determine how many delegates an annual conference sends to the General Conference.

The commission also cast doubt on the legitimacy of votes taken and legislation approved during the February 2019 special session of the General Conference. Enough individuals improperly cast invalid votes to convince the commission that at least one legislative action is null and void — an action that cleared the way for other acts by the General Conference. However, the commission does not seem to be sure if all of the subsequent legislative steps should also be declared null and void, though they resulted from the apparently flawed vote. This hesitation is bewildering at best.

In reaching conclusions, raising questions and reaching out to other bodies for help, the commission has added to the confusion by making its own mistakes. 

Here are two of them.

First, the commission convened in closed session, without satisfying the criteria for holding a closed meeting under existing church law. Paragraph 722 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016 explicitly states, “… all meetings of councils, boards, agencies, commissions, and committees of the Church … shall be open.” In the language of the Discipline, “shall” means “must.” 

So the default setting is that all meetings must be open. Nevertheless, this church law does address the possibility that “closed sessions” might be necessary under certain circumstances, and it lists the cases when such closed sessions “may be considered” while stipulating that these exceptions “should be used as seldom as possible.” To be clear, the risk that some individual may be embarrassed by a disclosure in an open meeting is not one of the exceptions listed in the Discipline. Having a closed session only added to the spirit of suspicion and cynicism that clouds much of United Methodism nowadays.

Second, the commission determined that it could not take its conclusions directly to the Judicial Council for a definitive ruling on its findings. The commission cited as its authority for this judgment Division Four, Article II, (¶ 56.4) of the church constitution. However, the commission apparently failed to look at the very next numbered item in the constitution (¶ 56.5), which says the General Conference can confer other powers on the Judicial Council, and it apparently failed to notice ¶ 2609.4 in the Discipline. 

In that provision of church law, the General Conference has said, “The Judicial Council shall hear and determine the legality of any action taken by any body created or authorized by the General Conference … upon appeal by one-third of the members thereof or upon request of the Council of Bishops …” The commission clearly is a body created by the General Conference. Therefore, if one-third of the members of the commission were to appeal, asking the Judicial Council to consider the legality of the commission’s judgments about flaws in voting procedure, the Judicial Council must address the issue. 

As matters stand, the commission appears to have added to the confusion in the church by releasing a statement and by hoping that the Council of Bishops or somebody else will ask the Judicial Council to rule on the matter at some point. The commission could have taken one small step toward alleviating the confusion by exercising its own authority under ¶2609.4 to submit the matter to the Judicial Council directly. 

For its part, the Judicial Council could also help alleviate some of the confusion by recognizing the urgency of the matter. July 15 was the deadline to submit matters for consideration and Aug. 19 was the deadline for submitting briefs and making a request for oral hearings. So while it may be too late to add this issue from the commission to the docket for its regular meeting in October, the Judicial Council could call a special session — to be convened on the day before or immediately after the conclusion of its regular session — for determining the legality of what the commission has concluded. 

These are dreadfully confusing days in The United Methodist Church. Sadly, the commission has further confounded things by its own errors—one of judgment in regard to having a closed meeting, and one of knowledge in regard to seeking a ruling from the Judicial Council. 

What United Methodists desperately need these days are voices that can cut through the confusion, not compound it.

Lawrence is an ordained elder of The United Methodist Church, former dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and former president of the Judicial Council.

News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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