The following commentary, about a recent decision by the United Methodist Judicial Council, is by blogger and church planter David Fischler. David writes frequently on topics related to mainline Protestantism at his blog, The Reformed Pastor.
A New Jersey native, David was born of Jewish parents and became a Christian in college after reading the Bible for the first time. He served as a United Methodist pastor for nine years.
David holds degrees from Rutgers University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, N.C.). He is currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Trinity School for Ministry near Pittsburgh.
This opinion piece first appeared in a slightly different form at The Reformed Pastor. Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com — Ed.
On April 29, the United Methodist Judicial Council struck down a policy passed last year by the New York Annual Conference that would have permitted a male pastor to get married to another man or a female pastor to marry a woman.
Policy Concerning Marriage
That policy, adopted overwhelmingly (83%-17%) by the New York Conference, is shown at right and is available here in PDF.
The United Methodist News Service reported on the Judicial Council’s rejection of the policy:
A policy adopted but not yet implemented by United Methodists in New York and Connecticut that essentially would have allowed clergy to marry someone of the same sex has been declared “null, void and of no effect” by the denomination’s top court.
The United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled that the New York Annual (regional) Conference resolution and policy allowing clergy “to marry at their own discretion” is “neither valid nor constitutional.”
While an annual conference can adopt rules and regulations for its own governance, the council wrote in Decision 1185, the conference “may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree even when the disagreement is based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.”
Strictly speaking, as noted in a previous MethodistThinker post, even if the policy had been upheld, there should have been no situations in which it would apply.
UM 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).
Nevertheless, the New York Conference presented an interesting set of arguments in favor of its policy:
The rationale for the New York policy…is that same-sex marriage is [now] legal in Connecticut[, which is part of the New York Conference]; that such unions performed legally elsewhere “are legally recognized by state agencies in New York”; and that the church’s Articles of Religion — doctrinal standards found in Paragraph 103 of the Book of Discipline — state that it is “lawful” for clergy “to marry at their own discretion.”
Contending that the Articles of Religion take precedence over other church laws outside the church’s constitution, the New York Conference declared that “we believe that any…provision (in the Discipline) denying marriage to some clergy is unconstitutional and contrary to the Articles of Religion…”
In particular, Paragraph 103 would take precedence over Paragraph 2702, the conference said.
It worth noting that liberals in the denomination have spent the better part of the last century slowly eviscerating the Articles of Religion, to the point where the document is widely held to be nothing more than historical curiosity that can be ignored at will (that’s certainly the only way to explain some of the bizarre stuff taught in United Methodist seminaries these days).
But when they think (incorrectly, as it turns out) they can use the Articles to get what they want, they go all creedal. The hypocrisy is stunning, if unsurprising.
The other two arguments seem to be saying (as liberals in the mainline have been saying since 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ignored precedent, tradition, history, biology, and anything else that would get the way in legalizing same-sex marriage) that state law should take precedence over church law in governing the denomination.
Needless to say, they didn’t get far with that.
During [an] oral hearing [last] October, J. Ann Craig and Nehemiah Luckett — New York lay members who identified themselves as homosexuals — argued that Article XXI of Paragraph 103, declares marriage is “a moral structure available to all.”
Which it is — any man is free to marry any woman, and vice versa.
At [last month’s] oral hearing in Detroit, Kevin Nelson, a New York lay member who identified himself as “a straight person who supports full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons,” argued that when John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote [sic] the Articles of Religion, he did not define marriage as heterosexual.
That’s true. The Articles don’t specifically prohibit two men from marrying, nor do they prohibit men from marrying manatees or statues of Elvis. Given the 18th century time frame, I would have thought we could simply assume that Wesley, who adapted the Methodism’s Twenty-Five Articles of Religion from the Anglican Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles (dating back to the 16th century), believed marriage to be a man-woman thing — but apparently not.
By the way, are you wondering what Article XXI actually says?
Article XXI—Of the Marriage of Ministers: The ministers of Christ are not commanded by God’s law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.
Ah. So Methodist Article XXI — just like Anglican Article XXXII on which it is based — was aimed at the Roman Catholic prohibition on ministers’ marrying. (Context can be such a pain in the neck, can’t it?)
More from the UMNS report:
Both Craig and Nelson noted that Wesley was well aware that issues of class, race and status could be used by society as an attempt to block marriage. “Although John Wesley may not have considered marriage for same-gender couples in Article XXI, the discretion of clergy to marry whom they choose can be understood on the face of it as a challenge to arbitrary social categories and prejudices,” Craig said at the October hearing.
Except that there’s nothing arbitrary about the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples. It’s that pesky Bible thing, doncha know.
Nelson[, a program associate at the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries,] declared that allowing other parts of the Discipline to supersede Article XXI is “anti-Wesleyan” and ignores the ministry of Jesus to the marginalized, “a marginalization that in today’s world and in the case of gay and lesbian persons is all too often perpetuated by the very Christian churches that have been charged by God with opposing it.”
Noting that “there is no acceptable place between humiliation and respect,” Nelson asked council members to “take a controversial but clearly proscribed stand” to uphold the church’s constitution and affirm the New York Conference policy.
As a constitutional argument, this amounted to a plea for the Judicial Council to do what the supreme courts of several states have done, and simply impose its own policy preferences (assuming they differ from the current ones) for that of the membership of the denomination.
The good thing about this is that it appears to shut off any judicial avenue for liberals in the United Methodist Church to foist their transformation of theology and ethics on the church as a whole.
Instead, they will have to go the route of trying to change the Book of Discipline at UMC’s General Conference, the world-wide meeting of the church that has seen evangelical United Methodists from Africa wield growing influence because their churches are growing which the American church shrinks.
Theological and moral standards still need to be enforced, of course, but at least the standards themselves aren’t going anywhere any time soon.