The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church met in Memphis, Tennessee, this week.

On Wednesday morning, the public hearing was centered on the appeal in the Frank Schaefer trial. So it had some interest for me on a number of levels. I was able to attend the hearing, which offered insight into the working of the Judicial Council—clearly one of the less well known parts of United Methodist polity.

I’d never before experienced a Judicial Council hearing before. So I took some notes on how the proceedings went. Here is how the ‘movement of the morning’ went, so to speak:

1) Dr. William B. Lawrence, the chair, called the hearing to order and offered a description of the nature and function of the Judicial Council for the benefit of those present.

2) Dr. Lawrence then explained the purpose of the public hearing that day (i.e, the Schaefer appeal), and the procedure to be followed throughout the hearing.

3) The nine Judicial Council members then introduced themselves.

4) An opening prayer was offered by one of the JC members.

5) The hearing proper began with the presentation of the church’s argument by Chris Fisher, counsel for the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the UMC.

6) Next the presentation of Schaefer’s argument was given by Scott Campbell, who was serving as his counsel.

2014-10-22_Judicial Council 4

Frank Schaefer speaking to the media

7) Mr. Fisher was then allowed 5 minutes for a rebuttal, since the appeal was made by the church (and thus had the burden of overturning the decision of the lower court in the Northeastern Jurisdiction).

8) Dr. Lawrence opened up the floor for questions by members of the Judicial Council to either party, which followed for the next several minutes.

9) A closing prayer was offered by a Judicial Council member.

10) The public hearing was adjourned. (I believe the entire process took around 1 hr 30 mins.)

In all, it was an orderly and eminently reasonable expression of how the United Methodist Church goes about discerning difficult issues within the life of the church. There were clearly supporters of both parties present in the room, but no one attempted to disrupt the proceedings or cause a ruckus. (The only annoyance was a local member of the news media, who couldn’t get his microphone adjusted the way he wanted on the lectern and kept moving around between speakers in a way I found fairly unprofessional.) I would suggest that the hearing I witnessed ought to serve as a model for how all public meetings of the church should occur: with order, decorum, a respect for our polity, and mutual faith in the goodwill of all those present.

For what it’s worth: One of the first questions I was asked when I mentioned to some people that I had attended the hearing was which side (counsel for the church or counsel for Schaefer) seemed to do better in oral arguments. My only answer is that both litigators (Chris Fisher and Scott Campbell) seemed to me to present their cases well.

The problem in making a judgment any more specific than that due to two factors: the objective strength of the arguments they were making rests on their use and interpretation of numerous previous Judicial Council decisions (cited by decision #) and clauses in the Book of Discipline (cited by paragraph #). I have no familiarity with the Judicial Council decisions, and the Book of Discipline references were made so quickly that I didn’t get to write them down. (The one exception here that I noticed was an interesting strategy by Chris Fisher, the counsel for the church, which involved an interpretation of the “just resolution” provisions of the Discipline, which can be found in par. 2701 and following; I remembered this part of Fisher’s argument because it came up numerous times in his argument and would typically be the kind of theme I would have expected from his counter party.). So I’m sorry I can’t offer more substantive commentary than that.

Note: I believe the Judicial Council will announce its decisions for this case and the other matters before it during this session sometime early next week. When I see that news release, I will link to it here.

Update 10/27/14: The Judicial Council has upheld the appeals court’s reinstatement of Frank Schaefer. See the article by Linda Bloom of the United Methodist News Service on the Judicial Council affirming Schaefer’s reinstatement as clergy. Kathy Gilbert writes that the decision won’t end United Methodist same-sex debate. The text of Judicial Council decision 1270 can be found here.