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Citing a lack of official documentation, the United Methodist Judicial Council has sent two controversial cases back to the conferences in which they originated. One case involves homosexual marriage, the other church membership.

The same-sex marriage case stems from a resolution passed at the 2008 session of the California-Nevada Conference. The resolution encouraged and commended retired United Methodist clergy who publicly offered to perform same-sex marriages, following a 4-3 ruling (PDF) by the California Supreme Court that legalized such unions.

Because the United Methodist Book of Discipline forbids UM clergy from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies (¶341.6), Bishop Beverly Shamana, then-bishop of the California-Nevada Conference, ruled that the resolution was “void and of no effect.”

“It is not within the power or prerogative of an annual conference to offer the services of its clergy to perform acts which the General Conference has declared to be chargeable offenses against the law of The United Methodist Church,” she wrote.

Under standard UM denominational procedure, her ruling was automatically appealed to the Judicial Council.

Bloomington Sheraton, site of the Judicial Council meeting

Bloomington (Minn.) Sheraton,
site of the Judicial Council meeting

The Council, at its Oct. 22-25 meeting in Bloomington, Minn., said related documentation submitted by the California-Nevada Conference was lacking.

“The record does not provide the minutes and the specific action of the Annual Conference,” the Council wrote. “Consequently, the submission fails to reflect facts sufficient to invoke the Judicial Council’s jurisdiction” (full text here).

The case was remanded to the secretary of the California-Nevada Conference, along with a 30-day deadline to provide the Judicial Council with necessary materials relating to the matter.

(NOTE: The California Supreme Court’s homosexual-marriage ruling could be overturned next week, depending on the outcome of the vote on the state’s Proposition 8 referendum).

The Judicial Council also sent back a case involving standards for church membership. It was remanded to the the Alaska Conference.

From a United Methodist News Service report by Neill Caldwell:

While conference lay leader Lonnie Brooks offered oral arguments to the court in behalf of the conference, the council said “the record supplied is insufficient in that it fails to provide an exact statement of the entire question submitted for declaratory decision” (full text here). The Alaska case will be added to the spring 2009 docket.

The matter involves whether paragraphs 214 and 225 of the 2004 Book of Discipline are at odds with Article IV of the UM Constitution.

(NOTE: This case ultimately could become moot. The 2008 General Conference, barely mustering the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional change, voted 66.9% to 33.1% to alter the language of Article IV to make it more “inclusive.” A transcript of the brief General Conference debate before the vote is in the PDF file here — see pages 2705-2707. Before taking effect, a constitutional change must be approved by two-thirds of the annual conferences.)

In another key matter, the Judicial Council ruled that the General Conference — meeting next in 2012 — would need to enact enabling legislation to change the church’s structure in the United States.

Again from UMNS:

The 2008 General Conference mandated creation of a regional conference in the United States as part of its efforts to make the denomination less U.S.-centric in structure and has sent the amendment to annual conferences for a vote in 2009 as part of the ratification process.

The Judicial Council, however, said the amendment does nothing to “harmonize its content” with the rest of the Book of Discipline… and that enabling legislation is necessary.

In responding to a request for a ruling of law brought from the floor of General Conference about the amendment’s meaning, application and effect, the council clarified that the structural changes could not take effect before 2012, even if ratified at the annual conference level in 2009.

“We conclude that the General Conference did not intend… to create a regional conference in the United States before the next General Conference,” Decision 1100 states.

The United Methodist Judicial Council has nine members:

  • Susan T. Henry-Crowe (Council president, clergy, South Carolina Conf.)
  • — Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life – Emory Univ. in Atlanta

  • Jon R. Gray (Council vice president, lay, Missouri West Conf.)
  • — attorney, former circuit court judge

  • Kathi Austin-Mahle (clergy, Minnesota Conf.)
  • — retired pastor and district superintendent, co-chair of the steering committee for the controversial 1993 Re-Imagining Conference that focused on feminist theology

  • William B. Lawrence (clergy, North Texas Conf.)
  • — Dean – SMU’s Perkins School of Theology

  • Ruben Reyes (lay, Philippines Central Conf.)
  • — Associate Justice – Supreme Court of the Philippines

The alternate members are:

  • Joe May (first clergy alternate, Mississippi Conf.)
  • Jay Arthur Garrison (first lay alternate, Holston Conf.)
  • J. Montgomery (Monty) Brown (clergy, West Virginia)
  • Thomas K. Byerly (lay, West Michigan Conf.)
  • Mary A. Daffin (lay, Texas Conf.)
  • John Harnish (clergy, Michigan Conf.)
  • James D. Karblee (clergy, Liberia Conf.)
  • Raymond Mande Mutombo (lay, North Katanga Conf.)
  • Deanell Tacha (lay, Kansas East Conf.)
  • William F. White (lay, Wisconsin Conf.)
  • Rodney E. Wilmoth (clergy, Rocky Mountain Conf.)
  • Vicki Woods (clergy, New England Conf.)

The Judicial Council clerk is former Council member Sally Curtis AsKew (lay, North Georgia Conf.) — retired law librarian, Univ. of Georgia.

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With one more vacancy on the Supreme Court, we could be looking at a majority hostile to a woman’s fundamental right to choose [to have an abortion] for the first time since Roe v. Wade. The next president may be asked to nominate that Supreme Court justice.

That is what is at stake in this election.

Throughout my career, I’ve been a consistent and strong supporter of reproductive justice, and have consistently had a 100% pro-choice rating with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Sen. Barack Obama, Jan. 22, 2008

In response to such statements from the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, as well as to the party’s 2008 platform, Charles J. Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Denver, pulled no punches in an address last week to a conference of Catholic women.

I believe that Senator Obama, whatever his other talents, is the most committed ‘abortion-rights’ presidential candidate of either major party since the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973….

The party platform Senator Obama runs on this year is not only aggressively ‘pro-choice;’ it has also removed any suggestion that killing an unborn child might be a regrettable thing.

On the question of homicide against the unborn child — and let’s remember that the great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer explicitly called abortion ‘murder’ — the Democratic platform that emerged from Denver in August 2008 is clearly anti-life.

Archbishop Chaput isn’t alone among Catholic leaders. One political commentator observed that “the Roman Catholic leadership has never been this united or this vocal in denouncing the agenda of a nominee.”

In Scranton, Pa., hometown of Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, Catholic bishop Joseph Martino directed his priests to read a pastoral letter at all masses on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 in which the bishop noted that that “pro-choice candidates” are living out a “tragic irony”: they “have come to support homicide — the gravest injustice a society can tolerate — in the name of ‘social justice.'”

Although an uninformed observer might see such statements as “political,” the reality is that these and other Catholic leaders are simply urging Catholics to live out long-held moral teachings of the Church, teachings that through the centuries have often run counter to the prevailing culture.

And the appeals made by these leaders are being presented clearly in the context of Christian discipleship. As Bishop Martino put it in his pastoral letter: “Our Lord, Jesus Christ…does not ask us to take up his Cross only to have us leave it at the voting booth door.”

Strong language. Not the sort of thing you would hear from any Methodist leaders I know.

But let’s think about this.

Aren’t we, too, a people who — as Christian disciples — profess belief in the “sanctity of unborn human life” (UM Book of Discipline)? Don’t we say that we “cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control” (which account for an estimated 75 percent of abortions) and we “unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection”?

Perhaps we aren’t as bold in our speech as the Catholics (Hmm, didn’t we used to be “back in the day”?), but at least we’re willing to take up our cross and carry it into the voting booth!

Or are we? Do we still have the conviction to live out a biblically rooted moral code that runs counter the culture?

Thinking more: I sense that many United Methodists (and other Christians) are leaning toward voting for Sen. Obama, not so much because they agree with his economic and social views, or because they are confident regarding his judgment, but because of a sense of “white guilt” over past sins. By voting for Sen. Obama, they somehow hope to “make up for” the sins of the past.

Yes, we have racial sins in our past, nationally and denominationally. And we ought to decry them.

But shouldn’t we be more concerned about the sins of the present and the future? After all, these are the sins over which we have some control.

The reality is that left unchecked, legal abortion — which Sen. Obama is squarely behind — will continue to claim hundreds of thousands of innocent lives each year. And (speaking of race-based sin) let us remember that abortion disproportionately affects black and Hispanic children. The abortion rate for black women is 49 per 1,000 women. For Hispanic women, the rate is 33 per 1,000. The rate for white women is 13 per 1,000.

In other words, while abortion is violence against children generally, it has its severest cultural impact among black and Hispanic populations. Do we want to be complicit in this, just so we can feel better about our past?

We need to remember that the first General Rule of the United Methodist Church is: “Do no harm.”

UPDATE: From “Faithful Citizenship — Respect for Life,” issued Oct. 23 by Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia:

The human dignity that we proclaim works two ways: it affords us a great privilege but it also demands a responsibility. The feeble defense ‘I did not know’ cannot be used by any responsible person in our time when confronted with the reality of abortion. We do know. We know because we can reason and think and see….

It is not a question of politics but a question of the gravest of intrinsic evils; and just as the reality of what it is cannot be explained away, neither can our responsibility.

A word about California, Florida, and Arizona, where the definition of marriage will on the ballot on Nov. 4. As United Methodists, we say we “affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in…shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” We even “support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”

Will these precepts regarding marriage, rooted in two-thousand years of Christian teaching, make any difference to Methodist voters in those states? I hope so, but I’m not too sure. Indeed, some UMs in California are working on the opposite side of the issue.

At least the Lutherans (LCMS) are willing to stand up for what they say they believe.

The UM Book of Discipline reminds us (Article XII, The Confession of Faith) of the biblical truth that someday we will all “stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ.” A sobering thought.

John Wesley, in his sermon The Good Steward (PDF), wrote that one aspect of that judgment is likely to be this question from the Judge: “Didst thou employ… whatever advantages thou hadst by education, whatever share of learning, [and] whatever knowledge… was committed thee, for the promoting of virtue in the world?”

Because we live in society in which people have the privilege of electing their leaders, a key means available to us for promoting virtue is the voting booth. May we take up that responsibility with a keen sense of our stewardship.

Here is a personal prayer for Election 2008 (I hope you will make it your own):

Righteous Judge, I am a steward of what belongs to you. By your Spirit and your Word, help me to judge righteously in the choices I make in this election, to the end that your will may done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Related posts:

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While many Methodist eyes are focused this week on the gathering of the UM Judicial Council in Minneapolis, another court is meeting to weigh a case that could have a significant impact on the United Methodist Church.

The Superior Court of the District of Columbia resumes a hearing related to whether the UM General Board of Church and Society can be allowed to use resources from a restricted trust fund to promote causes other than temperance. Last year, GBCS trustees — led by then-chair Bishop James Swanson (Holston Conference) — asked the Court (PDF) for a declaratory decision on the matter.

The UM Building on Capitol Hill

Some Methodist conservatives have complained that GBCS appears to be in violation of a specifically worded 1965 trust agreement that restricted the use of trust fund earnings to temperance-related ministry. For years, the Board has been using the money to lobby for abortion rights, government-run health care, an expanded welfare state, and other causes associated with the American political left.

Last year, the Western North Carolina Conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on GBCS to comply with the “purpose stated in the Trust and use Restricted Funds for the work on temperance and alcohol related problems” (see “Petition 34″ here—PDF). The resolution asserted that GBCS has not “followed either the letter of the trust or the spirit of its founders as it has expended a large portion of the funds from the trust (approximately $2 million annually) on items and programs not in accordance with the requirements of the trust.”

The Board of Church and Society is the successor to the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals and two other agencies of the former Methodist Episcopal Church. In the early 1920s, Methodists concerned about alcohol abuse donated millions of dollars to construct a headquarters for the Temperance Board near the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The 1965 trust agreement, which transferred the building and other assets to what was to become the Board of Church and Society, stipulated that income from the trust would be devoted “in perpetuity” to addressing the “areas of temperance and alcohol problems.” (The trust language is consistent with ¶1008.2 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline: “Funds vested in any of the predecessor boards shall be conserved for the specific purposes for which such funds have been given.”)

Attempts to loosen the restrictions of the trust began as early as 1969. In that year, the Investment Committee of the Endowment Fund Trustees concluded that language in “original” Board of Temperance documents is “broader in scope and more inclusive than certain language in…the Declaration of Trust of March 23, 1965.”

These “original” documents include the Temperance Board’s 1917 Certificate of Incorporation, which said the board was being created “to promote the cause of temperance by every legitimate means; to prevent the improper use of drugs and narcotics; [and] to render aid to such causes as in the judgment of the Board of Trustees, tend to advance the public welfare” (emphasis added).

In the mid-1970s, GBCS — in an attempt to further loosen the 1965 trust restrictions — sought an opinion from outside legal counsel. The result of that consultation is described in the GBCS’s financial statements (PDF) for 2005 and 2006:

The Board’s management, on March 5, 1975, asked outside legal counsel whether the income from the Trust Fund could be properly spent on certain activities carried out by the board related to “public morals” and “general welfare.”

The list reviewed by the outside legal counsel included not only alcohol and temperance concerns, and drug abuse, but also…policy aspects of the public welfare problem and policy aspects of our health care delivery system… [as well as] questions of public morality relating to human sexuality… [and] the cost of administration for these programs…”

On May 12, 1975, outside legal counsel stated that “it would be proper to interpret the [types of] work [which the Board described when it requested the legal opinion] as [being] included under the category of ‘public morals’…and ‘general welfare’ for Trust Fund purposes. This would mean that income from the Trust Fund could be used on an annual basis for these purposes.”

Thinking more about this: The end result of these attempts to loosen the 1965 trust fund restrictions is that temperance-related spending now accounts for a relatively small percentage of GBCS expenditures.

The building was constructed with funds from temperance-minded Methodist donors

The building was constructed with funds
from temperance-minded Methodist donors.

A record of the Board’s 2006 spending (PDF—see p. 5 of the file) shows a line item of $137,933 for programs focused on “Alcohol, Addictions, and Health Care,” with no breakdown of how much of that dollar amount actually went to specific alcohol-related ministry. Another $7,303 (a designated gift) was spent on “Substance Abuse Training.”

The bulk of the Board’s $2.3 million program budget in 2006 was spent on areas such as “Economic and Environmental Justice,” “Education and Leadership Formation,” and maintaining an office at the United Nations.

In an October 2002 letter, GBCS attorney Milton Cerny noted that it was unlikely that “the trust instrument’s language could be interpreted any more broadly than has already been done.”

Mark Tooley, author of the recent book, Taking Back the United Methodist Church (reviewed here), speculated in a 2004 article in Good News magazine, that “[i]f income from the Methodist Building and old Board of Temperance investments were restricted to alcohol-related work, it would be a devastating blow to Church and Society’s ability to lobby for its more favored liberal political causes.”

The new GBCS board of directors (for 2009-2012) is scheduled to gather this week in Washington for an organizational meeting — not at The United Methodist Building, but at the Renaissance M Street Hotel.

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This graph, based on research by social scientist Rodney Stark, appears in the October issue of the AFA Journal:

As you can see, United Methodists are among those who ought to “read ‘em and weep.” The Methodist Church had almost 59 members per 1,000 people in the U.S. in 1960. By the turn of the century, the United Methodist Church, despite a 1968 denominational merger, had fewer than 30 members per 1,000 people in the U.S. — a 49 percent decline.

The information above is included in Rodney Stark’s latest book, What Americans Really Believe: New Findings from the Baylor Surveys of Religion, published last month by Baylor University Press. Dr. Stark is the co-director of the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

At a Sept. 9 media briefing, Dr. Stark discussed discoveries from the latest Baylor research, including information about “megachurches” and about “mystical experiences.”

None of the things we all believe about the megachurch is true. We think of them as these great, huge, cold religious gatherings with a symphony orchestra and a paid choir and a lot of hoopla and a lot of good tidings but no bad tidings. A great collection of a big theater audience. Wrong.

Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark

Compared to small churches, the people who go to a church of 2,000 or more have a much higher percentage of their close personal friends in their church congregation than do the people who go to churches of a hundred and two hundred.

When you stop and think about it, how did they get to the megachurch? Their friends brought them there in the first place! Because how do megachurches grow? They grow because the people who belong to them work at making them grow. The individual outreach is enormous.

And it’s not true that it’s all happy talk. These people are as interested in evil and sin…as anybody in any of the churches.

Their levels of satisfaction are high, their volunteerism in community service is very high, and their outreach efforts are absolutely phenomenal. People in the megachurches talk to strangers about their church repeatedly. [emphasis added]

During the briefing, Dr. Stark responded to a question about which of the survey’s findings surprised him most.

When we did [religious] studies back in the 60s, the director of the center I was situated in…was plugged into all kinds of American religious intellectuals…. I designed the questionnaires and he sent them out to these people to kind of vet them.

And I had written a whole section on mystical experiences. [These intellectuals] hit the roof. Martin Marty went nuts, saying: “This is offensive. There’s not one person in a thousand who could say ‘Yes’ to these questions…. It’ll turn people off so much they won’t even finish [the survey].”… And we took [the questions] out….

Well, we didn’t take them out this time… [And the results] did astound me….

“I’ve heard the voice of God speaking to me.” Twenty percent said yes. “I felt called by God to do something.” Forty-four percent, yes. “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel.” Fifty-five percent said yes…. “I have received a miraculous physical healing.” Sixteen percent [said yes]….

I was groping the dark because nobody has ever asked this stuff…. Those [responses] absolutely knocked me down. I knew there was a lot more of [this kind of thing] out there than people at the liberal seminaries believe is out there, but I didn’t believe there was this much. [emphasis added]

Thinking more about this: 1) Dr. Stark noted that “People in the megachurches talk to strangers about their church repeatedly.” I suspect this is because they have found something at the megachurch — a vital worship experience, an array of positive relationships, clarity of biblical teaching — they want others to enjoy.

In contrast, many smaller and long-established churches have become staid, dysfunctional, and muddled in theology. As a result, members who may hang on because of family ties or responsibilities of office have no particular enthusiasm for inviting others.

2) The propensity of “intellectuals” to look down on (or simply be incognizant of) mystical encounters with God is nothing new. Consider this Journal entry by John Wesley, dated August 15, 1750:

I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected,… that the grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn, was not only that faith and holiness were well nigh lost; but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then [the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.] to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.

It is worth noting that the three fastest-growing denominations shown in the chart above are quite open to “mystical experiences,” as indeed were many of the early Methodists.

(Put this against the backdrop of related research by Russell Spittler of Vanguard University: “When the total figures are combined for classical Pentecostals along with charismatics from Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant sectors, the sum [now] exceeds the size of [non-charismatic] Protestantism as a whole.”)

Findings published in Rodney Stark’s book, What Americans Really Believe, are summarized here and here. Streaming video of the Sept. 9 media briefing is here.

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