A lot of United Methodists are debating, predicting, and guessing whether or not the Judicial Council will allow petitions from anyone besides the Council of Bishops for next February’s Special General Conference. They meet next week to decide. As a delegate to 6 General Conferences, Annual Conference Parliamentarian for 7 quadrennia, professor of UM Discipline and Polity for 12 years at 2 seminaries, and legislation writer for 3 agencies of the church, I suggest that we all ponder the use of what has been called “Occam’s razor.” Occam’s razor is a means of solving problems by sticking with the simplest solution.
Judicial Decision 227 should settle the matter. It gives the JC (Judicial Council) ample basis to approve that anyone can make petitions to a special General Conference if the petitions “are in harmony” with the purpose stated in the call (Par. 14 2016 Book of Discipline). The Council of Bishop’s stated call is worded: “The purpose of this special session of the General Conference shall be limited to receiving and acting upon a report from the Council of Bishops based on the recommendations of the Commission on a Way Forward.”
Notice the plural “recommendations,” and the singular “report.” Using Occam’s razor this suggests that there will be one report based on multiple recommendations. Furthermore, the GC will “receive and act” upon the Bishop’s report. This implies to me that there is room for everything in it to be in legislative play. Our “Plan of Organization and Rules of Order for the General Conference” has always allowed for interested parties to have the ability to participate.
For instance, there is nothing in BOD Par. 14 about process and procedures of a special session. Hence, in accordance with Par. 505, the rules of the PRECEDING GC are in effect until altered by the succeeding GC: “The Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference shall be the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order as approved by the preceding General Conference until they have been altered or modified by the action of the General Conference.” The rules of the 2016 GC certainly allowed petitions (Section XIII DCA pg. 1964). As a matter of fact, this particular rule allows petitions from multiple sources. It cites BOD Par. 507.7 which delineates all the groups that can petition GC within the time constraint of 230 days in advance.
Furthermore, in terms of the openness of multiple petition sources, JD 929 spells out that legislative access (to General Conference) is available to “official” and non-official groups.” The exact language of JD 929 says: “The Commission on General Conference does not have the authority to define ‘any organization’ as being limited to official organizations of The United Methodist Church as it relates to 507 and the submission of petitions to the General Conference. This is a distinctively connectional matter. Par. 507 provides legislative access to both ‘official’ and unofficial groups within The United Methodist Church.”
Using once again Occam’s razor, only the GC can say who can send petitions. Par. 507 is the GC’s statement on the matter and it provides legislative access to everyone within The United Methodist Church. This suggests that it is impossible to limit the sources of petitions, which is exactly what’s said in reading the decision rendered in JD 227: “Any Methodist member or group has the Disciplinary right to file a petition to the 1966 General Conference within the areas of business as prescribed by the General Conference for that session.”
In light of these observations, I suspect that the Council of Bishop’s efforts will fail if their recommendation is the only one properly before us. It will be an undue and unheard of usurpation of power. Pars. 509 and 16 definitively state that only the General Conference can speak for the denomination and decide “all matters distinctively connectional.” Indeed, the very idea that the COB (Council of Bishops) would seek to limit who can or cannot petition General Conference is historic in our denomination’s history.
Even the Council of Bishop’s request for a declaratory decision becomes a “Balance of Powers” issue. The balance of powers between United Methodism’s executive, judicial, and legislative branches has been consistently cited by the Judicial Council as integral to our polity in JD 1156, 689, and 307, among many others. For instance, JD 1156 states: “The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law.” JD 689 specifically says: “The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. While the boundaries can become hazy in any particular situation, the preservation of the separation of powers must be observed.” JD 307 declares: “Under the Constitution, the General Conference is the supreme legislative body of the Church and except as otherwise provided in the Constitution, no other body or agency of the Church may regulate its work or determine the advisability or timing of its sessions, whether regular or special. This is a necessary conclusion to be drawn from the Constitution’s separation of powers of the legislative, judicial and episcopal branches of the government of the general Church.”
Again using Occam’s razor and reading these decisions, limiting the General Conference to only the Council of Bishop’s report or recommendation violates the balance of powers, and usurps the right of General Conference delegates to hear alternative legislation and petitions.
In summary, both the rules of the preceding General Conference and our polity should allow for petitions in harmony with the purpose of the special General Conference.