By Walter Fenton-
In yet another bid to overturn The United Methodist Church’s sexual ethics, the Denmark and California-Pacific annual conferences are asking the Judicial Council to rule out of order a key provision in the Book of Discipline.
According to motions approved by the two regional bodies, the 1972 General Conference delegates violated the church’s constitution when it adopted into the church’s Social Principles the statement finding the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The annual conferences claim the word “teaching” is synonymous with the word “doctrine.” And since the church’s constitution does not allow the General Conference alone to modify or add to church doctrine, the conferences argue the “teaching” on the “practice of homosexuality” should be ruled out of order as a “doctrine” never accorded constitutional privilege.
This is clever, but exceedingly strained, and therefore it is doubtful the Judicial Council will find the argument persuasive.
The delegates at the 1972 General Conference were attempting to carefully and graciously address an issue that was just beginning to be discussed more openly in American society. They were not attempting to modify or add to the church’s constitution. Rather, they were simply trying to make explicit what the vast majority of United Methodists implicitly believed about the practice of homosexuality, and still do.
Furthermore, any number of issues addressed in the church’s Social Principles are essentially its “teachings.” However, this does not mean they lack authority or are null and void because they were never integrated into the church’s constitution.
And in fact, the Judicial Council, on numerous occasions, has been asked to render decisions that have directly or indirectly touched upon the section of the Social Principles having to do with the church’s sexual ethics, and specifically its statement on the practice of homosexuality.
A number of the Council’s rulings are grounded, at least in part, in the statement. It is unlikely its present members will accept the invitation to rule out of order a statement that has been in the Discipline for 45 years, and that the Council has ruled upon in various cases.
Finally, and wisely, unless there are very compelling reasons for doing so, the Judicial Council is loath to upend the settled will of the global church’s legislative branch. The 1972 General Conference approved of the “incompatible” statement, and eleven subsequent General Conferences have rebuffed all attempts to modify it or change it.
This latest attempt by progressives to have the church’s judicial branch do what they cannot accomplish legislatively reveals their increasingly aggressive litigious bent. They have violated church law, and even gone on record saying they will defy Judicial Council decisions based on it. And yet, they have the temerity to ask that same Council to rule in their favor against the will of General Conference.
As we have said before, no one disputes the rights of United Methodists to petition General Conference and to advocate for changes to church teaching and law. However, progressives’ repeated attempts to circumvent its law only serve to ignite more legal maneuvering at General Conference and before the Judicial Council. And then, in a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black, they absurdly castigate those defending the church’s teaching as being obsessed with its law.
We doubt the Judicial Council will undo a global church’s sexual ethics based on this clever, but strained argument. It will consider the matter at its fall meeting in Los Angeles, October 24-27, and then release its ruling shortly thereafter.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.