Judicial Council to Consider Homosexuality Resolutions

Tom Lambrecht

Tom Lambrecht

At its meeting in late October, the United Methodist Judicial Council was scheduled to consider 17 cases involving church law and the Book of Discipline. Five of these cases involve important actions related to the ongoing controversy within United Methodism over homosexuality.

The resolutions and actions in question are part of a coordinated strategy by those advocating the acceptance of homosexuality to undermine the authority of the General Conference and the Book of Discipline. They hope to ultimately change the church’s position to one endorsing the practice of homosexuality.

The Judicial Council is therefore one of the most important bodies in the church for maintaining accountability to the Discipline and preserving the order and polity of The United Methodist Church. It is the court of last appeal for resolutions and actions that may be popular in an annual conference, but which contravene the collective vision for ministry set forth by the General Conference, the only body that can speak for the whole church. Each case is a test of how faithful United Methodists will be to the policies to which we have all declared our allegiance.

Violations of the Discipline that go uncorrected would demonstrate that The United Methodist Church is no longer “United.” Good News will be watching these cases with great interest.

Western Jurisdiction Resolution

In July 2012, the Western Jurisdiction passed a resolution declaring that any bishops in the Western Jurisdiction who are found guilty in a church trial of ordaining or appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual should be sentenced to a 24-hour suspension. This resolution was part of a series of actions the Western Jurisdiction has taken over the years to attempt to nullify the Discipline’s policies on the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals and the performing of same-sex unions or weddings. This resolution was challenged by a question of law offered by one of the delegates.

Initially, Bishop Hoshibata ruled that the question of law was flawed because the questioner cited an incorrect paragraph in the Discipline. However, the Judicial Council ruled in the spring that “harmless errors” are to be overlooked, and sent the case back to Bishop Hoshibata for a ruling.

What is before the Judicial Council now is Bishop Hoshibata’s latest ruling, that the resolution is allowed because it is “aspirational” in nature. However, the Western Jurisdiction resolution is nearly identical to a 2011 Northern Illinois Conference resolution calling for a 24-hour suspension for clergy who were found guilty of performing a same-sex union. In that case, the Judicial Council ruled that “any effort by an annual conference, even by means of a suggestion, to modify or to limit the legislation governing penalties is to intrude upon the authority which the Discipline grants to the trial court.” Therefore, it is expected that the Judicial Council will rule the Western Jurisdiction resolution to be similarly null, void, and of no effect.

New York resolution

The New York Annual Conference passed a resolution commending a long list of persons who have previously violated the Book of Discipline’s prohibition of performing same-sex unions. In addition, the resolution commended the more than 1,100 clergy across the connection who have pledged to officiate at same-sex unions. The resolution thereby endorsed conduct that is in direct violation of the Discipline. Such endorsement has been declared illegal by the Judicial Council previously in decision 1111. Therefore, it is expected that the Judicial Council will rule the New York resolution to be similarly null, void, and of no effect.

An important side issue for the New York resolution is that it is the first test of a new provision in the Book of Discipline that requires a one-fifth vote by an annual conference before a question of law can be reviewed by the Judicial Council. This new provision, added in 2012, was not followed in the case of the New York resolution — the bishop did not call for a vote.

Good News filed a brief arguing that the one-fifth vote requirement is unconstitutional, as Para. 56.3 of the Constitution requires that all rulings of law go to the Judicial Council for review. It remains to be seen whether the Judicial Council agrees with our reasoning. If not, it is possible the Council will toss out this particular case on the technicality that it did not meet the one-fifth requirement.

California-Pacific resolution

The California-Pacific Annual Conference passed a resolution entitled “A Statement of Biblical Obedience.” In this resolution, the conference quoted the language of another Western Jurisdiction resolution of the same name, which declared its intention “to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F [declaring the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching] does not exist.” The resolution went on to say that if any “disciplinary actions result” from following this intention, the “Conference Leadership, The Cabinet, and the Board of Ordained Ministry” are “to consider this resolution as a guideline.”

In effect, the resolution seeks to nullify all provisions in the Discipline that prohibit the candidacy, ordination, or appointment of self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the performing of same-sex weddings or unions, and the spending of annual conference money to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. Inasmuch as the annual conference is subject to the authority of the General Conference, it is hoped that the Judicial Council will rule this resolution to be null, void, and of no effect.

Southwest Texas

The Southwest Texas Annual Conference discontinued the candidacy of a woman who had declared herself to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual. (The woman has since married her partner.) What made the case unusual is that the woman’s candidacy was approved by the District Committee on Ordained Ministry before being voted down by the clergy session.

This action has been challenged by a question of law as to whether the Board of Ordained Ministry can discontinue a candidate without an interview and examination by the Board. Bishop Dorff ruled in the case that the question “as presented, [is] moot and hypothetical,” therefore declining to rule. If the Judicial Council finds that the question is not moot, it would return the issue to Bishop Dorff for a substantive ruling.

North Carolina

North Carolina conference budget. A contribution by the North Carolina Annual Conference to the North Carolina Council of Churches (NCCC) was challenged by a question of law. The contribution may have violated Para. 613.20, which forbids annual conferences from giving funds to any group “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” Allegedly the NCCC elected a self-avowed practicing homosexual as president, advocated for the legalization of homosexual marriage in the state, admitted into its membership denominations that ordain self-avowed homosexuals and conduct same-sex unions, and provided worship and other resources that encourage acceptance of homosexuality. The Judicial Council could rule that the expenditure of such funds is a violation of the Discipline.

The rulings in all of these cases are expected to be published early in November and will be posted on the Judicial Council website. Good News will also post analysis of the decisions after they come out.

Thomas A. Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News and an ordained United Methodist clergyperson. 

 

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