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Panel clarifies options for special General Conference

Options for the looming special session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church have become clearer with a key panel's ruling on which legislative petitions can be considered.

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The Committee on Reference decided all 48 petitions in the Commission on a Way Forward report – including those of the One Church, Traditional and Connectional Conference Plans – are "in harmony" with the Council of Bishops' call for the Feb. 23-26 legislative gathering in St. Louis.

Another 30 petitions got the go-ahead, meaning 78 petitions total have been cleared for General Conference 2019, a gathering of the denomination's top legislative assembly aimed at helping The United Methodist Church stay unified despite deep conflict over homosexuality.

A flow chart illustrates how the committee on reference made decisions about which petitions could be considered by the upcoming special session of General Conference. The panel, consisting of clergy and lay General Conference delegates from around the worldwide United Methodist Church connection, met Jan. 11-12 in Dallas. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Two very different legislative alternatives, the Simple Plan and Modified Traditional Plan, survived. But petitions that would change the episcopacy and Judicial Council did not. A petition that would allow for dissolution of the denomination also was ruled out of harmony.

The reference committee, consisting of clergy and lay General Conference delegates from all jurisdictions and central conferences, met Jan. 11-12 at an airport hotel near Dallas.

Committee members arrived at criteria for their decisions but acknowledged they were feeling their way through an extraordinary screening process.

The church's Judicial Council ruled last May that it was up to General Conference "to determine, in the first instance, through its committees, officers and presiders," whether a petition is in harmony with the call. That decision allowed petitions outside the Way Forward report to be considered in St. Louis — if those petitions were deemed in harmony.

The Commission on General Conference designated the reference committee for the important screening.
Before a more typical General Conference, that committee works obscurely, assigning petitions to legislative committees and consolidating similar petitions. Not this time.

The committee quickly and unanimously decided that all petitions in the Way Forward report would go on to General Conference.

Both the Simple Plan, and Modified Traditional Plan were found to be in harmony.

The reference committee also cleared for consideration in St. Louis petitions that would ease the way for churches to leave the denomination and retain their property.

A petition that would allow for the dissolution of the denomination was found out of harmony, with reference committee members concluding that the Way Forward report and its plans were focused on continuing The United Methodist Church.

More than one committee member noted that a regularly scheduled General Conference, without the restricted focus of the special General Conference, is set for 2020. Any petitions rejected as not in harmony could be resubmitted for 2020.

The reference committee voted unanimously on nearly every decision. Though discussions were intense, civility never flagged and there was tension-puncturing laughter along the way.

Members celebrated communion and hugged at the end.

Sam Hodges, Dallas-based writer for UMNS

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