The United Methodist Judicial Council, opening its Spring session today in Denver, Colorado, will hear cases relating to homosexual “marriage” ceremonies, church membership, and the planned George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University. (See full docket here—PDF.) The Council is the denomination’s supreme court and rules on questions of constitutionality in church law and practice.
The homosexual-marriage case stems from a resolution passed at the 2008 session of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. The resolution encouraged and commended retired United Methodist clergy who publicly offered to perform same-sex marriages, following a 4-3 ruling by the California Supreme Court that legalized such unions. (That state court ruling was subsequently overturned by California voters.)
Because the United Methodist Book of Discipline forbids UM clergy from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies (¶341.6, ¶2702.1), 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. Last October, the Judicial Council remanded the case to the secretary of the California-Nevada Conference because documentation related to the Conference’s action was incomplete.
“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 church membership case, originating in the Alaska Conference, asks whether paragraphs 214 and 225 of the 2004 Book of Discipline are at odds with Article IV of the UM Constitution.
Article IV (¶4) says that “[a]ll persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.”
In 2005, the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1032 (full text) that “[p]aragraphs 214 and 225 are permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows.”
The Council ruled that the Book of Discipline invests the “pastor-in-charge” of a local church with the authority to determine “a person’s readiness to receive the vows of membership.” (Those vows include “renounc[ing] the spiritual forces of wickedness,” “repent[ing] of sin,” “confess[ing] Jesus Christ as savior,” “promis[ing] to serve Him as…Lord,” and “receiv[ing] and profess[ing] the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments”—¶217; see also, United Methodist Hymnal, pp. 34-35.)
The Alaska case first came to Council last October. As with the California-Nevada case mentioned above, the Judicial Council remanded it to the originating conference because of inadequate documentation.
(NOTE: The membership case may ultimately 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.” Before taking effect, a constitutional change must be approved by two-thirds of the eligible voting members of the Annual Conferences. All of the UMC’s Annual Conferences are voting on that constitutional proposal, as well as many others, in sessions this spring and summer.)
The Bush Presidential Center case involves a decision made last year by Bishop Robert Hayes at a meeting of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.
The South Central Jurisdiction owns much of the land where Southern Methodist University is located. Certain land use at SMU must be approved by Jurisdictional Conference delegates.
Last summer, delegates voted to approve leasing land at SMU for a planned Bush Center and Library. (Both President Bush and his wife, Laura, are United Methodists; Mrs. Bush is a 1968 graduate of SMU.)
The approval was challenged by a group led by the Rev. Jeannie Trevino-Teddlie of Fort Worth, who heads the Mexican-American Program at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She requested a bishop’s ruling as to whether the lease would violate a Book of Discipline provision (¶2503.4) which requires United Methodist property to be “kept [and] maintained…for the benefit of The United Methodist Church and subject to the usages and the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.”
She further asked if such a lease would “subsidize a specific political and ideological point of view.”
(The Bush Presidential Center web site notes that George W. Bush Policy Institute, part of the Center, will focus on “core governing principles of freedom, opportunity, responsibility and compassion. The…Institute will advance these core governing principles through research, discussion and scholarship. The Institute will operate independently of SMU but will leverage opportunities for collaboration with SMU faculty and students to enhance the Institute’s efforts.”)
Bishop Hayes ruled that a request for a decision about the SMU’s right to lease property to the Bush Foundation was “improper, moot and hypothetical.” Under standard United Methodist procedure, any ruling of law by a bishop is automatically reviewed by the Judicial Council.
The make-up of the nine-member Judicial Council changed sharply 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.”
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 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 2), 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
—— Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines
The alternate members:
|•||Judicial Council sends controversial cases back to conferences|
|•||Joe Whittemore: ‘Enough is enough’|
|•||John Ed Mathison: Seven concerns about the UMC|
|•||Bill Bouknight: The bad news from General Conference ‘08|
Related articles and information
|•||Judicial Council docket — April 22-25, 2009 (PDF)|
|•||Court docket includes Bush library, same-sex unions | Neill Caldwell, UM News Service (Jan. 21, 2009)|
|•||United Methodists elect new Judicial Council candidates | Institute on Religion and Democracy (April 29, 2008)|
|•||Five new members are elected to Judicial Council | Neill Caldwell, UM News Service (April 28, 2008)|
|•||Angela Brown of Jones Memorial UMC, San Francisco, elected to UM Judicial Council | Bruce Pettit, California-Nevada News Service (April 28, 2008)|
|•||Reflections on the 2008 General Conference | Editorial, Good News magazine (May/June 2008)|
|•||The George W. Bush Presidential Center|
|•||SMU’s Bush Library page|