Oral Argument Remarks Before the Judicial Council

Date Posted: 5/22/2018

Oral Argument Remarks Before the Judicial Council
Bishop Scott J. Jones
Presented May 22, 2018
May it please the Council. I am grateful for the opportunity to present at this oral hearing in support of my request that you rule declaring that all petitions on the subject matter of the Council of Bishops’ report are permissible for consideration at the 2019 special session of the General Conference.
The main issue before this Council is whether the people of The United Methodist Church have a right to provide input to the decisions affecting our denomination. This right is crucial in our connectional system for trust and transparency. While the decisions are made by duly elected representatives of the clergy and the laity, the right to petition the General Conference is an important way for the voice of the people to be heard. Nothing in the Constitution generally and nothing in paragraph 14 specifically prohibits the people from petitioning the General Conference on the subject which it has been called to consider at a special session.
As a bishop, an important aspect of my role is to be an advocate for the whole church and to seek the establishment of fair, inclusive processes for decision-making. I am not advocating for or against any particular model included in the Council’s report. I am an advocate for allowing the voice of the people to be heard regarding the limited agenda for which the special session of the General Conference has been called. The Council of Bishops has petitioned for you to clarify the rules on this matter. Bishop Ough’s brief has suggested that this avenue of participation be denied to anyone who is not part of the majority of the Council of Bishops or a voting delegate to the special session of General Conference. I disagree.
Although the Council of Bishops sets the subject matter, other ideas worthy of consideration may arise through the petition process. The Council of Bishops is not the repository of all wisdom. The Judicial Council, as the arbiters of the law of the church, should look to the legislative intent of paragraph 507 and to the Constitution as it embodies our highest values.  The Judicial Council should look for interpretations that harmonize the Constitution with legislative enactments and not allow uncalled-for contradictions. The Council’s interpretative approach should presume congruence unless forced to see a contradiction.
Some of the briefs have debated the words “in harmony.” I think the Council should focus on what it means to be in harmony with the purpose stated in the call. Decision 227 does give the Council guidance in this respect notwithstanding it was decided at a time when there was no constitutional provision for a special session. To say that the precedential value of 227 “is more apparent than actual” loses sight of the fact that the decision directly addresses the question of who can send a petition to a called session with a limited agenda.  My argument is that the precedential value is the way in which “in harmony” applies to the right to petition.  Paragraph 507 gives United Methodist organizations, clergy, and lay members the right to petition General Conference so long as their petitions conform to its requirements.  Paragraph 14 of the Constitution impacts that right but does not take away the right.  There are advocates here who would read the language of the paragraph as prohibiting the filing of any petition in the special session other than the Council of Bishops’ report. That is a flawed reading of ¶ 14.  It does not prohibit the filing of a petition.  It only requires that the petition be “in harmony” with the stated purpose of the called special session. That is not a prohibition and there is nothing in the language of ¶ 14 that conflicts with ¶ 507 which gives clergy and lay members the right to petition the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  These two provisions, the Constitutional provision and the legislative enactment, complement each other and express the collective will of the General Conference.
It is the General Conference that will determine, through its Committee on Reference, whether any submitted petition addresses the subject matter identified in the call. The General Conference did ask the Council of Bishops to bring a report, but it never asked the Council to restrict input by denying the right to petition on the same subject matter.
It is quite enlightening to note that when the provision for a special session was elevated to constitutional status, the General Conference in its wisdom did not limit the right to file a petition to the Council of Bishops.  In like manner, upon the enactment of ¶ 507, we find no exclusion of special sessions in the right to petition General Conference.
Last, I will address the assertion that to allow petitions is tantamount to picking up where the 2016 General Conference left off.  I reject this assertion. The Commission and Council of Bishops have developed proposals that have moved the conversation forward and the whole church owes them a debt of gratitude for their work on a difficult task. Just as a study committee considers various alternatives and then makes its work available to the Conference, so the Commission and Council of Bishops have brought much improved options to the table. We are not at the same place where we were in May of 2016. Increased disobedience by bishops and by conferences has narrowed the range of workable options, and the hopes for some easy answer to move forward have been much reduced. The General Conference needs the wisdom of the whole church in order to decide on our next steps. Such wisdom comes best through an open, transparent and fair petition process.
The question before us is whether the three options the Council is presenting ought to be the only options the General Conference is allowed to consider. The General Conference should not be constrained by a limitation on its sources of ideas for consideration. It should be empowered by the Council of Bishops and by the wisdom generated by the petition process to do its work on the subject matter for which it has been called. Allowing all petitions that are “in harmony” with the subject matter of the Council of Bishops’ report will accomplish that noble mission. Thank you.