For the eighth time, the United Methodist Judicial Council is being asked to revisit a 2005 ruling that declared that the pastor-in-charge of a UM congregation is invested with the authority to determine if a parishioner is spiritually prepared to take the vows of church membership.
The council — the denomination’s supreme court — will hear a reconsideration request (PDF) from the California-Pacific Annual Conference at this week’s spring session, which begins Wednesday (April 27) in Detroit.
At its October 2010 meeting, the Judicial Council denied similar reconsideration requests from the Arkansas Conference and the Northern Illinois Conference. The tersely worded denial, issued in Memorandum No. 1158 (available here in PDF), said simply: “The requests for reconsideration are hereby denied.”
The controversial 2005 ruling, known as Decision 1032, stemmed from Virginia Conference case in which a pastor explained to a sexually active homosexual man who wanted to join the South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church that taking vows of membership in the UMC involved a public declaration of turning from sin. Further, the pastor explained that UM doctrine teaches that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is considered “incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶161F of the Book of Discipline).
The pastor, the Rev. Ed Johnson, did not bar the man from attending worship services or otherwise restrict his involvement in the congregational life of the South Hill church.
Pastor Johnson subsequently faced an administrative complaint from Virginia Conference Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who said that in not immediately allowing the man to become a member, Johnson was violating the Book of Discipline by demonstrating an “unwillingness or inability to perform ministerial duties” (¶362.2).
In Decision 1032, the Judicial Council ruled 5-3 against Bishop Kammerer, 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.”
Last October, in a concurring opinion (PDF-p.3) issued along with the council’s terse denial for a reconsideration of Decision 1032, council member Jon R. Gray urged that efforts to resolve the underlying dispute that led to the 2005 decision be focused on the legislative arena — via the General Conference — rather than on the judicial processes of the UMC.
“[In the] five years [since] Decision 1032 was rendered, we have been asked in seven separate cases to review or reconsider Decision 1032 in some fashion,” he wrote. “The General Conference is the only body authorized and able to resolve the issue for the Church.”
Also on the Judicial Council docket this week is a case that asks the council to determine if a 225-year-old year old rule that that allows Methodist ministers to marry — specifically, Article XXI of the Articles of Religion — supersedes the Book of Discipline‘s language on the heterosexual nature of marriage.
Policy Concerning Marriage
The case, deferred from last fall’s Judicial Council session, stems from a policy resolution adopted overwhelmingly last year (83%-17%) by the New York Annual Conference.
The resolution, sponsored by the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Methodists in New Directions (a New York Conference group affiliated with the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Ministries Network), is aimed at allowing homosexuals serving as clergy in the NY Conference to marry.
(Marriage between two men or two women is now legal in the state of Connecticut, which is part of the UMC’s New York Conference.)
The new policy (shown at right and here in PDF) permits clergy members of the New York Conference to be “legally married at their own discretion, as permitted by Paragraph 103 of the Articles of Religion.”
Strictly speaking, there should be no situations in which the New York Conference policy would apply. Book of Discipline requirements on “standards of holy living” for United Methodist clergy bar “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being “accepted as [ministerial] candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church” (¶304.3).
In addition, any “clergy member of an annual conference…may be tried when charged…with one or more of the following offenses: (a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage; (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual…” (¶2702).
The United Methodist News Service offered details on the New York Conference case earlier this year:
During an oral hearing at the October [Judicial Council] meeting, J. Ann Craig and Nehemiah Luckett — New York lay members who identified themselves as gay — argued that Article XXI of Paragraph 103, declares that marriage is “a moral structure available to all.”…
[J. Ann Craig previously served as the executive secretary for Spiritual and Theological Development in the UMC’s Women’s Division; Nehemiah Luckett is the composer-in-residence and associate minister of music at Asbury Crestwood United Methodist Church in Tuckahoe (Yonkers), N.Y.]
In her presentation, Craig said that the denomination’s ban on same-gender marriage is contrary to Paragraph 103, which states that it is “lawful” for pastors, “as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.”
She added that the church’s doctrinal standards, of which the Articles of Religion are a part, take precedence over changes to the Book of Discipline.
The October oral hearing also included a presentation in support of current UMC policy from Wisconsin pastor Thomas Lambrecht, a board member of Good News, a ministry that describes itself as “a voice for repentance, an agent for reform, and a catalyst for renewal within the United Methodist Church.” [Disclosure: The editor of this blog is a Good News board member.]
Lambrecht said the New York Conference policy constitutes a clear misapplication of Paragraph 103. The policy “unilaterally changes the [UMC’s] definition of marriage” without the approval of General Conference, he said.
Paragraph 161F of the United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
Further, according to Paragraph 161B, the United Methodist Church supports “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.”
The full five-case docket for this week’s meeting of the United Methodist Judicial Council is here (PDF). The nine current members of the United Methodist Judicial Council are listed below.
—— 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: