The United Methodist Judicial Council opened its fall session in New Orleans Wednesday with a heavy docket of 31 items (PDF), including several related to a controversial 2005 decision (Decision 1032) in which the council ruled that a pastor has the authority to gauge if a prospective church member is spiritually ready to take membership vows.
The Northern Illinois Conference is asking Judicial Council, the denomination’s “supreme court,” to reconsider Decision 1032, as are the Minnesota and Arkansas Conferences. Northern Illinois also is requesting declaratory decisions on four other matters related to membership.
Decision 1032, decided by a 5-3 vote, arose from a Virginia Conference case. In early 2005, the Rev. Ed Johnson, then pastor of South Hill UMC, counseled a sexually active homosexual man who wanted to join the South Hill church.
The man, an inactive member of a non-UM church in the area, had been attending South Hill UMC for several months and expressed a desire to transfer his membership.
Pastor Johnson made clear to the man that UM membership vows included both a renunciation of sin (“Do you…repent of your sin?”) and a profession of faith (“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord…?”).
Since homosexual activity is deemed by the UMC to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶161F of the Book of Discipline, in light of Romans 1 and other passages), Johnson made clear that joining the church would have implications for the man’s involvement in homosexual relationships.
(NOTE: The 2008 General Conference adopted a change in ¶225 of the Book of Discipline that allows a baptized member of “another denomination” to transfer to the UMC without a specific renunciation of sin. Instructions that accompany the new official membership liturgy (PDF) refer to this as “being received into baptized but not professing membership.” More on this below.)
In January 2005, Pastor Johnson “began his usual pastoral practice of holding membership classes. He met with [the membership candidate] six times, called him on the phone, took homemade raisin bread to his shop, and offered to be the membership candidate’s ‘spiritual friend,'” according to the oral argument (PDF) presented at the October 2005 Judicial Council hearing by the Rev. Tom Thomas, Johnson’s counsel.
“In February 2005 meetings with the membership candidate, [he] acknowledged to [Pastor] Johnson his on-going homosexual practice and his intention to continue having same-sex sex.
“[Pastor Johnson] told the membership candidate he would regretfully have to postpone [the man's] membership candidacy until they worked through some issues,” Thomas said.
The following month, Virginia Conference Bishop Charlene Kammerer sent an administrative complaint against Ed Johnson to the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, citing the pastor’s “unwillingness or inability to perform ministerial duties” (Book of Discipline ¶362.2). Later, Johnson was suspended without pay.
In Decision 1032, the Judicial Council ruled in Pastor Johnson’s favor, noting that the Book of Discipline “invest[s] discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make the determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership.”
In a dissenting opinion, council member (now council president) Susan T. Henry-Crowe argued that the decision “compromises the historical understanding that the Church is open to all.”
Johnson was appointed to a church in another city. A new pastor sent to South Hill, the Rev. Barry Burkholder, allowed the man at the center of the membership controversy to join by transfer from a nearby Baptist church.
In a recent commentary, associate director of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church, described what happened after Decision 1032 was issued and offered background on the moves to revisit the decision.
[The UM Council of Bishops] made a statement [four days after Decision 1032 was rendered] defending the bishop of Virginia, implying that the Judicial Council decision was wrong.
The bishops followed this with another unprecedented action: they would not renominate for re-election any of the Judicial Council members who voted with the majority in the decision.
In 2008 the General Conference elected a new slate of Judicial Council members whose views were more in line with the “progressive” element of the church….
[Further] an amendment to Article IV [— the "Inclusiveness of the Church" article of the UM Constitution] was submitted to the 2008 General Conference and approved (with very little debate) by that body with the necessary two-thirds vote.
The amendment sought to [alter the language of Article IV] so that “all persons” meant all persons, regardless of what persons believed or practiced, or even whether they had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Thus, supposedly, in the name of diversity a blow would be struck for the condoning of homosexual practice…. “[D]iversity” would now be inscribed in the constitution as the basis for membership, taking the place of confession in Jesus Christ.
The amendment to Article IV, which needed to be ratified by two-thirds of the voting members of annual conferences, failed spectacularly. Needing a two-thirds vote in the annual conferences, it failed even to muster a majority. [This] was, and is, a sharp reminder that the leadership of The United Methodist Church is disconnected from the local church, from the annual conferences, and from the overseas church….
Now a new strategy…. The North Illinois Annual Conference petitioned the Judicial Council to consider whether Judicial Council Decision 1032 is superseded by ¶225 in the Discipline.
Paragraph 225 now states that “a member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to be united with The United Methodist Church shall be received” [rather than "may"] as a member of the UMC. The 2008 General Conference added the word “shall” to the paragraph in an effort to institutionally force “inclusivity.”
The question is moot, of course, because Decision 1032 was made before the word “shall” in ¶225 was placed in the Discipline. It would be a relevant question only if a similar Ed Johnson case were now presented to the Judicial Council.
But ¶225 illustrates the problem of ambiguity that characterizes so many parts of the Discipline. The same paragraph that uses the word “shall” also uses the word “may” (persons may be received).
The intent of the paragraph is to recognize the validity of church membership and baptism in other denominations. Is it now to be re-interpreted to mean much more than it was ever intended to mean — namely, that a church or a pastor may inquire into the faith of a person being received into membership by profession of faith, but may not inquire into the faith and beliefs of a possible transfer?
And what is a “Christian” denomination? Do we include Mormons, Unitarians, Seventh-Day Adventists, and United Pentecostals (who do not baptize in the name of the triune God)?….
And who is “a member in good standing”? In the actual Ed Johnson case that was an important part of the issue. The person seeking membership was hardly in good standing in the previous church (actually two churches) which basically asked him to leave because he was being disruptive.
If the Judicial Council decides at this week’s meeting to revisit Decision 1032, the actual reconsideration would not occur until the council’s spring 2011 meeting.
Also on the docket this week, the Judicial Council is also being asked to rule on whether the secretary of the General Conference has the authority to determine the number of delegates to quadrennial General Conference.
Another case asks the council to determine if a 224-year-old year old rule that that allows Methodist ministers to marry (Article XXI of the Articles of Religion) supersedes the church’s prohibition against same-sex marriage for clergy.
In addition to its request regarding Decision 1032, the Northern Illinois Conference is requesting that the council permit each annual conference to adopt its own definition of the term “status” in Article IV of the Constitution (“All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible…upon baptism [to] be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, [to] become professing members in any local church in the connection”—italics added for emphasis). Northern Illinois specifically seeks to include “sexual orientation and transgender identity” in its definition of “status.”
The Judicial Council rejected a 2006 request to reconsider Decision 1032 (filed by Bishop Charlene Kammerer and the Virginia Conference Board of Ordained Ministry). But as noted above, the make-up of the nine-member council has changed significantly since then as a result of the election of new council members at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
As reported in the April 29, 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (article no longer online), “The council previously had a 6-3 conservative majority. But only one of the council members elected…is conservative, joining the sole conservative member remaining on the council.” Even though approximately 30 percent of United Methodists live in Africa, no African was elected to serve as a primary member of the council (two Methodists from Africa were elected as “alternate” members).
According to a report by the California-Nevada (Conference) News Service, the election of “progressive” members was the result of a coordinated effort.
Richard Bentley, a clergyman in the California-Pacific Conference [and convener of the California-Pacific Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action], was instrumental in developing the winning progressive slate. He was one of three men who called together contacts from annual conferences in each of five U.S. jurisdictions to give input on candidates who progressives affirmed will be, in their terms, “fair and balanced.”
Consensus developed based on theological perspectives and existing base support that could be augmented….
The slate was printed and distributed to nearly every annual conference delegation.
An editorial (no longer online) in the May/June 2008 Good News magazine noted that distribution of the slate appeared to be in violation of General Conference guidelines.
A matter left unexplained after the election of the new Council members was who exactly was responsible for a brochure placed on the desks of many delegates the morning of the elections.
The goldenrod flier listed candidates who were “recommended by a politically unaffiliated group of fifty jurisdictional and central conference delegates” but didn’t say who these fifty were — it wasn’t signed. It simply appeared on the desks of many delegates. (A conference rule prohibits materials being placed on the desks of the delegates.)
The flier’s…recommended candidates were all elected, and in the order listed on the brochure.
Following the elections, a delegate raised a question about the official-looking flier, but the report back was that no rule had been violated.
Use the audio player below to hear delegate Dan Johnson (clergy member, Florida Conference) raise a question about whether the flier, apparently distributed in violation of General Conference rules, had affected the outcome of the Judicial Council elections.
Bishop Mike Coyner (Indiana Conference) is the presiding officer.
The interchange is about two minutes.
The nine current members of the United Methodist Judicial Council are:
—— Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life at Emory Univ. in Atlanta
—— attorney, former circuit court judge
—— retired pastor and district superintendent; co-chair of the steering committee for the controversial 1993 Re-Imagining Conference that focused on feminist theology; co-founder of The Stephen and Kathi Austin Mahle Endowed Fund for Progressive Christian Thought at Hamline University
—— pastor of Asbury UMC, Camden County, N.J.
—— asst. district attorney in San Francisco, board member—National Center for Lesbian Rights (PDF-see page 7), past vice president—NIA Collective, an organization for lesbians of African descent
—— retired pastor, author of Being Methodist in the Bible Belt
—— Dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology
The alternate members: