Of first importance when reading a paragraph of the Discipline is an understanding that the Discipline is whatever your conference leadership says it is. Bishop Holston declares par. 2553 not applicable in South Carolina and then declares himself in full compliance with the Discipline. He is correct. Every bishop does the same. They take the paragraphs they don’t want to implement and declare them invalid or not applicable in their context, then they assure us they are in full compliance with the Discipline.
There are fifty-three conferences in North America. I know of forty-one that disagree with Bishop Holston’s invalidation of 2553, and I am not aware of one that agrees. Yet, every bishop is in full compliance with the Discipline. Every conference is an island entire unto itself. The death of a disciplinary paragraph in one does not diminish the other.
An honest reading of the text requires that we read it as it is given to us. We do not concern ourselves with which caucus proposed one provision or what sect proposed another. It does not matter which party imagined they would benefit, or which group assumed that they would be harmed. We do not re-litigate. When the arguments were made, and the debate was over, the General Conference gave us the document before us. I work from what the legislative body has given us and not from my opinion of what would’ve, could’ve, should’ve been. I read it not as a lawyer, but as one who loves words and respects the integrity of their meaning.
I love a beautifully crafted sentence. I know how difficult one is to produce. I usually fail, so it hurts to see one ravaged and perverted the way this one has been. Paragraph 2553.1 is one sentence. It is ninety-one words, but it is one beautifully crafted sentence. The paragraph is much simpler than its many words suggest. It consists of an introductory clause declaring its purpose and then the body of it can be expressed as “a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding (A), or (B)”; where (A) is the many words describing one set of circumstances and (B) is the few words containing describing another.
Title and introductory clause
¶ 2553. Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality.
- Because of the current deep conflict within The United Methodist Church around issues of human sexuality,…..
The first clause reinforces what is made clear in the title. The General Conference is offering a resolution to the conflicts around issues of human sexuality through a process of disaffiliation. A local church may disaffiliate when they find it to be a suitable remedy for conflicts over human sexuality. Terms and conditions apply, but we don’t have to guess the purpose of the paragraph.
An honest reading of the document shows the General Conference established two sets of conditions that can trigger the disaffiliation process.
Second clause (first trigger)
…a local church shall have a limited right, under the provisions of this paragraph, to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference,…
This provision relates to issues of homosexuality only and actions of the General Church only. It does not relate to actions by the annual conference. The local church may be comfortable with the current policies of its annual conference, or they may be disturbed by them. Either case is irrelevant. The question concerns action by the General Church. The first trigger is activated when a local church expresses a conscientious objection to changes enacted by the 2019 General Conference related to homosexuality. It is not limited to those who believe the changes are too oppressive, or too inadequate, too vague, or just misguided. The General Conference had the opportunity to include such language and chose not to. Those ideas were expressed by all parties in the public forum leading up to the conference and on the conference floor. When the delegates finished the debate, they gave us what we have. The process is triggered when a local church expresses a conscientious objection to what they gave us.
If the changes to provisions related to homosexuality enacted by the 2019 General Conference are an afront to the collective conscience of the local church, then the paragraph is activated. The policy and practice of the annual conference does not matter. This clause is activated by a conscience objection to action(s) of the General Church. Further, the local church need not defend its conscientious objection. The provisions of the paragraph do not call for it. (the conference had the opportunity to include such language and chose not too) and if a conscientious decision requires ratification by another party, then it is not the conscience of the local church but of the other party. The church only needs to cite the specific change(s) which occurred in 2019 and state its conscientious objection to begin the disaffiliation process.
Final clause (alternate trigger)
or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow.
The General Conference could have put a period at the end of the last sentence and omitted this provision. It chose not to. It chose a comma followed by ‘or’ and a new provision. It established an alternate set of circumstances that can trigger the disaffiliation process. This path is limited to actions by an annual conference. It is further limited to actions by an annual conference “which follow” the 2019 General Conference. One cannot state as a cause of action something that happened prior to 2019 unless it is a continuing action. It does not require the actions/inactions of the annual conference be in noncompliance with the Discipline. If an assumption were to be permitted, then given that the bulk of the paragraph deals with objections to actions that are required by the Discipline one would have to assume that this section also concerns actions/inactions that comply with the Discipline. An honest reading does not allow nor require assumption. The General Conference chose not to distinguish between acts of compliance and noncompliance in regard to this provision. The argument that an annual conference is acting in compliance with the Discipline is not a rebuttal to conscientious objection: it is confirmation of the need for disaffiliation.
This last clause turns us back to the fuller purpose of the paragraph as stated in its title and introductory clause. It addresses concerns related to these issues… What are these issues? The antecedent for these issues is found in the introductory clause and clearly expressed in the title. The title declares its purpose is to provide a process for “Disaffiliation of a Local Church Over Issues Related to Human Sexuality,” and the introductory clause states the purpose is to resolve the conflicts “around issues of human sexuality…” The second trigger is not confined to the issues homosexuality, marriage, and ordination that are the subject of the first trigger. This is broader than same sex marriage and ordination issues. Human sexuality involves the wider conflicts over divorce, serial marriage, abortion, gender fluidity, promiscuity, and infidelity. Further, the clause is not concerned with changes that transpired at 2019 General Conference but with actions of annual conferences that transpire following the 2019 General Conference.
With paragraph 2553 the General Conference provided a means for local churches to disaffiliate from the UMC over issues of human sexuality. It identifies two sets of circumstances that can trigger the provisions of the paragraph.
- actions of the General Conference (regardless of any annual conference practice,) and restricted to the practice of homosexual marriage and ordinations. The church need only cite the specific change(s) which occurred in 2019 and state its conscientious objection to begin the disaffiliation process.
- actions/inactions by the annual conference of the local church since 2019 (regardless of any general conference action) that are related to issues of human sexuality.
Under the first provision, some may object to the changes because they allow the marriages and ordinations described in the text to continue. Regardless of the intent of one party or another, when the debate was over and some paragraphs were accepted by General Conference and some were not, the collective changes to the Discipline are written to allow the continuing practice and require every General Church board to recognize the validity of those ordinations and marriages. The evidence is in the language and in the reality that followed General Conference.
Some churches may have a conscientious objection to the changes in 2019 because their terms cannot be uniformly applied and violate the principle of equal protection. Others may object because of the immoral deception of implying a right without a remedy. The current annual conference leadership may be perfectly aligned with both the Discipline and the conscience of the local church, however the next bishop, or even the current bishop, is free to change everything and the new provisions enacted in 2019 do not provide a remedy. There are still Christians who find such practices unconscionable even among heathens let alone the church.
Some local churches may use the alternate trigger because their annual conference has taken money from their collection plates to fund activities in other conferences regarding human sexuality that the local church finds unconscionable. The argument that the conference is required to do so by the Discipline does not negate the conscientious objection, but it does prove the need for disaffiliation that paragraph was written to provide.
The second option is likely available to those churches who object to the actions of their conference regarding Roe v Wade. Those bishops who have endorsed the Council Bishops’ statement and issued a call to action in their conference to codify Roe in their jurisdiction should know they are requiring a violation of conscience by many Christians in their conference. Given the history of bishop Holston’s interpretation of Discipline he may decide that in South Carolina abortion has nothing to do with pregnancy and pregnancy has nothing to do with human sexuality, but the disciplinary paragraph produced by General Conference has nothing to do with the bishop’s conscience or understanding and everything to do with that of the local church.
Many things could be in this paragraph that are not. A lot of proposals were argued, and a variety of intentions were expressed both in the public forum leading up to the 2019 General Conference and during it. The Commission on a Way Forward presented three lengthy documents with three different perspectives. Parachurch groups and individuals presented arguments and petitions. Some of those ideas made their way into the document that I wish did not. Some ideas are not expressed in this document that I wish were. It is not for me, or anyone else, to refer to those arguments and declare what General Conference really meant or what they should have said. The delegates have finished that work and have said what they have said. Supposedly, only the General Conference speaks for the whole church. General Conference has spoken.
For one to say that the paragraph is applicable only where the Discipline is not abided with, or that it applies to progressive churches only, or that it applies only to actions by annual conferences, or only to actions by the General Church, or that the annual conference actions must involve marriage and ordinations, is to add or subtract words which the General Conference had the opportunity to do and chose not to. Nonetheless, if your bishop determines the paragraph applies only to churches with blue carpet in the sanctuary, they are correct. If the neighboring annual conference decides it applies only to churches with red carpet in the sanctuary, they are correct. Yet, both are in full compliance with the Discipline. That is why I am not a United Methodist.
6 thoughts on “How To Read A Sentence”
You seemed to undo your entire argument at the very end???
I ended where I began.
The UMC has no mechanism to compel an annual conference to comply with the Discipline, and the truthfulness of a bishop’s statement is irrelevant in the United Methodist world.
I just want to contrast the integrity of a well written sentence against a bishop’s claim as to what it says.
I found the column fascinating and penetrating. I thought you might be offering some potential Pathways for churches to escape. However, would not the judicial Council offer a remedy for not obeying the discipline? I am aware of the foolishness in some ways of placing hope upon the judicial Council but in some cases they do still work, do they not? Thank you.
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I don’t know how one could get this question before the JC. A complaint would have to be filed against the bishop and that would be investigated by fellow bishops of the Southeast Jurisdiction.
But, even JC rulings can be ignored by an Annual Conference or Jurisdictional Conference. Just ask bishop Oliveto and the Western Jurisdiction bishops. JC decisions only work when the AC voluntarily submits to them.