Judicial Council ruling preserve church unity

Commentary by Thomas A. Lambrecht

The fall session of the Judicial Council, United Methodism’s supreme court, adjourned October 29 and rendered two significant decisions. One related to a proposed “maximum penalty” for clergy found guilty of performing a same-sex union or wedding. The other decision requested clarification of previous Judicial Council rulings on the legality of congregations identifying themselves as “Reconciling Congregations.”

Earlier this year, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference passed a resolution suggesting that a 24 hour suspension should be the “maximum penalty” for United Methodist clergy charged, tried, and convicted of officiating at a same-sex union ceremony.

Of course, this resolution makes a mockery of the holy conferencing that takes place at General Conference when we discern the standards for our denomination. For two quadrenniums, delegates have overwhelmingly agreed to prohibit United Methodism’s participation in same-sex unions by our clergy and in our sanctuaries.

In its ruling, the Judicial Council declared the Northern Illinois resolution “null, void and of no effect.” The Book of Discipline makes clear “that only a trial court has the power to set a penalty in a church trial which results in a conviction,” stated the decision. Furthermore, a trial court can consider “the full legislated range of options” when determining a penalty, including the revoking of the minister’s ordination, suspending the minister, or imposing a lesser penalty.

Judicial Council member Jon R. Gray noted that the Northern Illinois resolution is “worthy of Macbeth’s commentary: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Good News applauds the finding of Judicial Council decision 1201. This inappropriate attempt to influence the outcome of potential trials further divides our church. Pressure from colleagues to administer only a “slap on the wrist” penalty for willfully defying the church’s rules increases the likelihood that clergy will disobey the Book of Discipline and contribute to the breaking of our clergy covenant. A broken covenant will invariably lead to a church broken by schism.

“Reconciling Congregations”

In another decision, the Council declined to rule on a request for a declaratory decision coming from the Northwest Texas Annual Conference. The request asked “whether it is impermissible for a congregation of The United Methodist Church to publically identify with, affiliate with, label itself as part of, permit its name to be listed on the website of or in the communications of any unofficial body or movement” in light of the fact that Judicial Council decisions 847 and 871 have declared such identification impermissible and divisive.

The question arose because of several instances of local congregations recently acting to designate themselves as “Reconciling Congregations” and becoming affiliated with the “Reconciling Ministries Network.” The RMN seeks the full acceptance of homosexual behavior by the church, including the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the celebration of same-sex weddings or unions.

In 1999, the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 871 that “a local church or any of its organizational units may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement. Such identification or labeling is divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of The United Methodist Church.” The decision goes on, “Certainly, an annual conference has the right to correct what it determines to be actions by its local churches identifying or labeling themselves as unofficial bodies or movements which are not in compliance with the Discipline and the Constitution.” The Judicial Council quotes its earlier decision 847 that such action would be “divisive and destructive to the life of the church.”

In refusing to rule on the question for a third time this fall, the Judicial Council stated, “In the request, there is no justifiable cause to revisit, re-open, alter or abandon the cited rulings. The holdings of the Judicial Council in these two decisions are clear. For the Judicial Council to declare as impermissible similar acts that it has twice ruled may not be done for being divisive would be an unnecessary exercise in redundancy.”

Good News endorses this ruling for its clear restatement of the fact that local churches and ministries that identify themselves as “Reconciling Congregations” are being disobedient to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church and engaging in actions that are “divisive and destructive to the life of the church.”

Good News and other renewal groups have refrained from seeking congregational members in order to honor the Judicial Council decisions. We call upon all “Reconciling Congregations” to do the same and to remove that designation and comply with the requirements of the Book of Discipline as interpreted by the Judicial Council. Rather than acting to divide our church, we implore congregations to act for unity. The failure to do so would place personal agendas ahead of the covenantal unity of The United Methodist Church.

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News.