The Judicial Council has opened the way for the special General Conference to receive petitions from more than the Council of Bishops. The question remains: What sort of legislation can be submitted?
The denomination's top court, in Decision 1360, ruled that any United Methodist organization or individual can submit petitions "as long as the business proposed to be transacted in such petition is in harmony with the purpose stated in the call."
Determining what qualifies as in harmony, the Judicial Council says, is the job of General Conference itself, "through its committees, officers and presiders" and its "rules and procedures." Business deemed not in harmony will not be allowed unless approved by a two-thirds vote of General Conference.
So the crucial matter of the parameters for legislation is still to be decided.
United Methodists have differing projections of what the ruling will likely mean in practice when the denomination's top lawmaking body meets Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis.
Some see the ruling as inviting a wide array of proposals related to the church's division. Still others see it as requiring that petitions hew close to the bishops' recommendation.
The Council of Bishops called the special General Conference with the purpose "limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward."
With the Judicial Council decision, attention now turns to General Conference organizers who have a say in what petitions are deemed valid.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, the immediate past president of the Council of Bishops, argued that only legislation consistent with the bishops' report would be in order.
The Judicial Council agreed in part, ruling: "Yes, petitions may be filed, but No, petitions must not be inconsistent with the purpose stated in the call."
Bishop Scott Jones, who leads the Texas Conference, argued before the Judicial Council against constraining General Conference to the Council of Bishops report. He cheered the court's ruling.
For Alaska Conference layman Lonnie Brooks, who submitted a brief in the case, the ruling rightly allows General Conference delegates to get a long look at petitions in advance of the St. Louis gathering.
"A much more rational decision about what is 'in harmony' can be made in that context than in floor debate when amendments and substitutes are offered," he said.
Stephanie Henry, chair of the commission's rules committee, submitted a brief as an individual, arguing for a more constrained agenda.
Bishop Ken Carter, current Council of Bishops president, in a statement thanked the Judicial Council for its affirmation of the specific nature of the bishops' call and General Conference's authority.
Carter, who leads the Florida Conference, also was one of three bishops who were moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward.
He said the bishops requested a Judicial Council ruling in recognition of the special session's historic nature and need for focus. The bishops — who serve as presiders at General Conference — also want "to create an orderly environment without distraction and chaos, so that the delegates can do their best work," he added.
"We will continue to serve our beloved denomination," Carter concluded, "under the guidance of the decision and in consultation with the Commission on the General Conference."
Heather Hahn and Sam Hodges, writers for UMNS, Nashville, TN and Dallas TX
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