In February 2019, The United Methodist Church will hold a special session of General Conference, something that has only happened once before in our 50 year history. Our bishops called this gathering, at the request of the 2016 General Conference, to help us find a way forward through our deep disagreements about same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.
To understand why we are proceeding this way, it is helpful to look at the organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.
A constitutional church
Before The United Methodist Church was founded in 1968, the two uniting bodies—the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church—agreed to a constitution for the new church they were forming. Our constitution provides three bodies working in cooperation to govern our life together.
The General Conference enacts legislation and speaks for the church. The Council of Bishops oversees the life of the church based upon the legislation passed by the General Conference. The Judicial Council ensures our work remains in agreement with our Constitution.
The Constitution appears in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church paragraphs 1-61.
All decisions about how the church functions are made by the General Conference, a gathering of the worldwide church every four years. No single person, not even the Council of Bishops, can speak for The United Methodist Church. Only the General Conference can.
According to the Book of Discipline, the General Conference has full legislative power "over all matters distinctively connectional" (¶ 16). This means that all decisions about our life together as The United Methodist Church are made by this body.
This representative group of between 600 and 1,000 delegates elected by their annual conferences is the denomination's legislative body. Half of the delegates are clergy and half laity.
In 2016, the 864 delegates to the General Conference in Portland, Oregon, authorized the bishops to form a body that would help us navigate our differences. At the 2019 Special Session, the General Conference will receive and act on the report of that group, the Commission on a Way Forward.
Council of Bishops
The second of those groups provided by the constitution is our Council of Bishops. The Council consists of all of the bishops of The United Methodist Church, each of whom is elected by their region.
According to the constitution, their role is "general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church and for carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference."
This explains why the Council of Bishops called together the Commission on a Way Forward and consulted on the Commission's work during their nine meetings over seventeen months.
The Judicial Council, the third constitutional body, ensures that the work of both the General Conference and the Council of Bishops is in accord with our Constitution and Discipline. According to the Book of Discipline the Judicial Council is to "determine the constitutionality" of acts of the General Conference, jurisdictional conferences and central conferences, and bishops' decisions during annual conferences. They also rule on questions about the entire Book of Discipline. Rulings of the Judicial Council are final.
Judicial Council members are volunteers elected by the General Conference to perform this important role.
When the Commission on a Way Forward finished their work, questions arose about whom should receive their report. The Judicial Council determined that the Commission reports directly to General Conference.
In October, the Judicial Council was asked to rule on the constitutionality of proposed legislation to be considered by the February 2019 meeting.
Special Session of General Conference
Aware that we might not always be able to legislate in a regular four-year cycle, our Constitution provides a means by which the General Conference can gather at another time. The Discipline reads, "A special session of the General Conference, possessing the authority and exercising all the powers of the General Conference, may be called by the Council of Bishops, or in such other manner as the General Conference may from time to time prescribe."
The delegates for a special session are those elected to the previous General Conference, but Annual Conferences are allowed to elect new delegates if needed or desired.
The Constitution further ensures that special sessions remain focused. It reads, "The purpose of such special session shall be stated in the call, and only such business shall be transacted as is in harmony with the purpose stated in such call" (¶ 14).
The bishops' call for the 2019 General Conference Special Session states that its purpose "shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Commission on a Way Forward based upon the recommendations of the Council of Bishops."
The Special Session could deal with other matters if agreed to by a two-thirds majority of the General Conference.
Three parts working in harmony
In recent months, we have seen these three constitutional bodies work together. The General Conference adopted a plan, the Council of Bishops implemented the plan, and the Judicial Council ruled to keep the General Conference and the Council of Bishops in line with the Constitution and Discipline. The General Conference will gather in February 2019 for a special session in St. Louis, Missouri, to make decisions about a way forward.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN. Contact him by email or at 615-312-3733.
This UMC.org report was first published on October 15, 2018. Last edited November 1, 2018.