Issues That Divide

Tom Lambrecht

Tom Lambrecht

After enduring the controversy (and a trial) over clergy performing same-sex marriages, events within The United Methodist Church recently turned to other aspects of the church’s moral teachings on sexuality. Judicial Council decisions and annual conference actions focused on benefits for same-sex partners and whether self-avowed practicing homosexuals could be ordained or appointed as clergy.

Desert Southwest. Delegates to the Desert Southwest Annual Conference passed a 2013 resolution in support of same-sex marriage. It made a public statement supporting and upholding Marriage Equality, pledged to “support our clergy who take the bold and faithful stand to minister to all equally and include all in the life of the church, which includes but is not limited to, conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies where it is civically legal to do so,” and vowed to “support (spiritually, emotionally and prayerfully) clergy who are brought up on charges for conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.”

At its April session, the Judicial Council declared that most of this resolution is null and void (see Decision 1262). The Judicial Council declared that supporting same-sex marriage is an acceptable expression of opinion of the annual conference; however, pledging support for clergy who conduct same-sex services is “null and void and of no effect” because it “ignores Church Law and encourages a violation of Church Law.” The Judicial Council also clarified that the final part of the resolution “is within Church Law to the extent that its definition of supporting someone ‘spiritually, emotionally and prayerfully’ is understood not to ignore, negate, or violate Church Law.”

This decision is an important clarification of the boundaries of appropriate annual conference action. Annual Conferences may disagree with church teachings, but they may not “negate, ignore, or violate the provisions of the Discipline.” One wonders, however, whether this clear and firm decision will count for much since the Western Jurisdiction has already determined to ignore the Discipline’s provisions regarding marriage and sexuality.

Same-Sex Benefits. The Judicial Council was asked to rule on a change in policy by the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). At its fall meeting, GCFA revised the terms of the denomination’s benefits policy that changes the definition of “spouse” of an employee, in order to make available spousal benefits to a broader range of people. The new policy defines “spouse” as:

• Opposite-sex and same sex-spouses, recognized by a state as being legally married to the employee; and

• Civil partners, either through a civil union or a comprehensive domestic partnership, recognized by a state as being the legal partner of an employee.

Under the new policy, a same-sex spouse or registered domestic partner, or an unmarried heterosexual registered domestic partner of an employee, would be entitled to receive spousal benefits from the denomination. Since denominational apportionment funds are used to support these benefits, GCFA asked the Judicial Council for a decision on the legality of this policy change under the Discipline.

Unfortunately, the Judicial Council ruled that these benefits may be granted and that GCFA is the only group that may determine whether offering same-sex benefits to employees would violate the prohibition against using “United Methodist funds … to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (Discipline, ¶806.9). There is no check or balance on the determination of GCFA other than legislation passed by General Conference.

The Council found that GCFA could determine (as it did) that providing benefits to same-sex partners does not “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” It is hard to understand how providing a benefit does not promote the acceptance of that behavior. The offering of equal benefits makes same-sex marriage appear equal in the eyes of the church to heterosexual marriage.

Even though the request for a declaratory decision asked not only about ¶806.9, but about any other part of the Discipline that this new policy might violate, the Judicial Council chose to restrict its consideration only to that one paragraph. Defining “spouse” to include persons of the same gender or even opposite-gender unmarried persons violates United Methodist teaching on the definition of marriage, which we define as a “covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman” (¶161B). So our official church teaching says one thing, and our denominational policy now says something different. This decision will only confuse and dishearten rank and file United Methodists, who once again see an action by a general church agency that is out of touch with the vast majority of its members.

Ordination. Two recent cases were resolved that point out the near impossibility now of someone being removed from ordained ministry because they are a self-avowed practicing homosexual. The Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, an ordained elder in the New York Annual Conference, was named in a March 2013 complaint of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. She married Kristin Marcell, whom she calls her “spouse,” in 2008 in Canada, and lives with her and their two sons. Yet, she does not describe herself as a self-avowed practicing homosexual, although she openly acknowledges that she is a lesbian. Because she evidently did not say the right words to the right people, the complaint against her was dismissed by Bishop Martin McLee. According to United Methodist News Service, Tweedy interpreted the dismissal as showing “that the New York Annual Conference is very committed to being a place where GLBTIQ people can live and serve.” In other words, the bishop and the conference have determined not to enforce the Discipline and have found a way not to do so. There is no appeal of the bishop’s decision.

In a second case, Mary Ann Barclay (formerly Mary Ann Kaiser) is a candidate for ordained ministry in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference. In Spring 2013, Barclay was recommended by the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry for commissioning as a deacon, the first of two steps to full ordination. They did so knowing that Barclay had acknowledged to them that she is a lesbian living in a committed relationship. In fact, after she was recommended by the committee, she was married in a public ceremony in Maryland to her partner, Annanda Barclay (taking her partner’s last name).

The annual conference board of ordained ministry did the right thing in 2013 and removed Barclay as a candidate for ministry. That action was ratified by a narrow vote of the annual conference clergy session. However, the case was appealed to the Judicial Council on the grounds that Barclay did not receive an interview by the board of ordained ministry, as required by the Discipline. After two rulings of law by Bishop James Dorff, the Judicial Council ruled in April 2014 that Barclay was wrongly removed and entitled to an interview. They further ruled that, under the Discipline, only the district committee could remove her from candidacy.

In May of this year, Barclay was interviewed by the conference board of ordained ministry and was not accepted for commissioning. She was placed back under the care of the Austin District Committee. But according to United Methodist News Service, Barclay reported that the issue of her sexuality was never raised in her interview with the board. Instead, they gave four other reasons for their decision. It remains to be seen whether the district committee will continue Barclay’s candidacy in the months ahead or will end it in compliance with the Discipline’s requirements.

Regrettably, attempts to circumvent or outright ignore the Book of Discipline are becoming more widespread and more successful. The Discipline lays out the covenant that United Methodist members, clergy, and bishops vow to comply with. It is the way of discipleship that we have chosen to follow together, as we seek to grow in relationship with Jesus Christ and in love for God and one another. Because of the lack of accountability and the increasing determination of some to live outside the parameters of this way of discipleship, while continuing to receive the benefits of being United Methodist, our covenant relationship in the church is in turmoil, and some have even been led to consider proposing the formal separation of the denomination. Recent events have only deepened that turmoil and uncertainty.

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



  1. The last paragraph of the article is the key issue of the divide. We have too many secular ideas and thoughts vs. Biblical principles. The commandments of God are Freedom commandments and rules. Real Freedom lets us choose to be free of entanglements that would destroy the Body of Christ, physically, mentally or Spiritually. If we attempted to keep these faithfully as we should, our relationships would be plumb line straight, and it would be clean and pure, set apart from worldly unrighteousness.

  2. If the Book of Discipline is merely a guidebook, then why do we spend tens of thousands of dollars every four years to print many copies? If it is merely a guidebook (and no one is required to adhere to it) then one copy would be enough. If people can simply ignore it with no negative consequences then why do we repeatedly print and print them? It is a definite misuse of funds and negligent stewardship. But, if it is more than a guidebook, then it should be enforced as it is written.

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