Several Bishops Uphold UM Discipline

Bishop Grant Hagiya. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

By Tom Lambrecht –

One would not think that bishops upholding the United Methodist Book of Discipline would be worthy of a headline, but such are the times in which we live. In the recent announcement of rulings on questions of law coming before this fall’s Judicial Council meeting, it was encouraging to see even some bishops one would not expect to rule in a positive way to live by the Discipline.

The October Judicial Council meeting will consider a number of rulings by bishops on questions of church law arising from their annual conference meetings this spring. Some of those rulings relate to resolutions passed by annual conferences opposing the Traditional Plan, which was enacted into the Discipline by the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.

Several bishops ruled that resolutions were invalid because they negated the requirements of the Discipline. Annual conferences are permitted to pass resolutions in which they disagree with actions by the General Conference. However, they are not able to legally “negate, ignore, or violate” the provisions of the Discipline. Sometimes, that becomes a very fine line to walk in the language of a resolution.

Bishop Laurie Haller (Iowa) ruled that part of a resolution passed by the Iowa Annual Conference illegally limited or eliminated funding for “background investigations, complaints, just resolutions, or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQ+ ordination and marriage.” Quoting Judicial Council Decision 1340, she ruled, “The Discipline does not ‘authorize annual conferences to impose financial controls or eliminate funding for fair process proceedings based on the nature of the charge.'” That portion of the resolution was therefore ruled out of order.

Bishop Mark Webb (Upper New York) ruled that part of a resolution passed by the Upper New York Conference recommending a similar limitation on funding for fair process proceedings is both contrary to the Discipline and unconstitutional under the Discipline. The offending language stated, “Be it further resolved, that we strongly recommend that UNYAC refrain from expending funds or monies (either directly through payments or indirectly through the time of employees of the conference) for the purpose of background investigations, complaints, just resolutions, or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage.” This language not only negated the Discipline’s requirements for certain expenses to be paid on these matters, it unconstitutionally usurped the General Conference’s power to provide for and define the judicial process of the church.

Bishop Webb also ruled part of another resolution null and void. The resolution would have encouraged the bishop, Board of Ordained Ministry, and conference leadership team to “impose an immediate moratorium on any punitive action related to LGBTQ clergy and same-gender weddings.” Webb ruled that this provision would tend to ignore, negate, or violate the Discipline and would therefore be unlawful.

Bishop Grant Hagiya (California-Pacific) ruled an entire resolution unlawful. The resolution (passed by 82 percent in legislative committee and then on the plenary consent calendar) was a wholesale rejection of the actions of the 2019 General Conference. Entitled, “Action of Nonconformity with the General Conference of the UMC,” the resolution would have committed the annual conference to:

  • “Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any provisions of the Traditional Plan”
  • “Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any provisions of the Book of Discipline … that discriminate against LGBTQIA+ persons”
  • “Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any other provisions relating to minimum penalties or the composition … and responsibilities of the Board of Ordained Ministry, among many others”
  • Expend “no funds, resources, or monies” for the purposes of “just resolutions, background investigations, or the process of complaints against clergy because of gender or sexual identity or their ministry with LGBTQI+ persons of faith”

Bishop Hagiya ruled, “It is not lawful for the California-Pacific Annual Conference to adopt RES 19-07 because it violates the principle of legality and the fair process rights of clergy persons. The resolution is, therefore, unconstitutional, null and void.”

Bishop Karen Oliveto (Mountain Sky) ruled that parts of a resolution passed by the Mountain Sky Conference were invalid. The parts ruled out stated:

  • The members of the Mountain Sky Conference “cannot and will not comply with the strict requirements of the Traditional Plan”
  • The members “reject and will not enforce the punitive and exclusionary policies in The Book of Discipline focused against gay and lesbian persons, their partners, allies, or their friends”
  • The members will support clergy who “choose to conduct same-sex unions and will take no disciplinary action against them on this matter”

Of course, Bishop Oliveto’s consecration as bishop was ruled “unlawful” by the Judicial Council in 2016 because she is married to another woman. (The Western Jurisdiction has not taken action to remove her from office.) Yet despite her vested interest, she ruled “with sincere regret and shared pain” that the above provisions “are contrary to the Book of Discipline and out of order.”

These rulings are notable because three of the four bishops involved favor changing the Discipline to allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Yet they rightly ruled that annual conferences cannot negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline. In their rulings, the bishops demonstrated the proper way to address the conflict in our church: compliance with the decisions made by General Conference while continuing to disagree and advocate for change.

If this had been the approach taken by bishops and clergy over the past eight years, The United Methodist Church would not be in crisis today. It is not the disagreement within the church that is the problem, but the decision by many to ignore and violate the decisions of General Conference, thus disrespecting the constitutional decision-making process of the only body empowered to speak on behalf of the whole church.

We pray and believe that the Judicial Council will uphold these rulings in its October meeting, lending much-needed stability and certainty to our church’s governance.

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

Comments

  1. With all the due respect in the world, it is most difficult to comprehend, “it is not the disagreement within the church that is the problem…..”. Tragically, we are in schism over our deeply divided and irreconcilable differences on Biblical authority, Scripture interpretation, and Wesleyan theology. If this is a sign that the church is turning and heading to reclaiming its Wesleyan heritage, then certainly a modern miracle of God is at hand.

    If this is a step by these bishops to be reconsidering their positions, a sign of repentance, and a return to their faith that they vowed to uphold and defend, then that would certainly be the flashing in neon headline. Let’s pray that this is the case and a sign of our denomination returning to God without having to split!

  2. Pat Downie says

    I so admire the Western Sky viewpoints and only pray that the whole Western Jurisdiction will follow their example.

  3. Jim Wolfgang says

    Tom, while I think it is an improvement that more bishops are trying to uphold the Discipline (as they always should have), I wonder if the Judicial Council is tripping over their own rulings to make upholding the Discipline problematic? I read in the U.M. News Service that in 2018 Bishop La Trell Esterling would not ordain two candidates because they were practicing homosexuality. Her conference protested to the Judicial Council and it ruled her out of compliance due to non separation of executive and legislative functions of authority in a conference. So, this year Bishop Esterling to be in compliance ordained an elder, and approved a provisional deacon: both of whom are in same sex marriages. What are the bishops to do, hand the candidates the ordination certificate with one hand and the notice they are now charged with a chargeable offense with the other? Have we come to the status of the Pharisees Jesus criticized in Matthew 23 who were so legalistic they fretted over tithing mint, cumin, and dill but neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith? Not many years ago the Judicial Council ruled properly that a pastor is correct not to approve for church membership a congregant who is in disagreement with our beliefs. It would seem to me that this issue of ordaining or approving a candidate for pastoral ministry is the same principle. If there is a restructuring of the denomination I hope we greatly streamline how we enforce our beliefs. Some of the other denominations simply vote at their general assemblies yes or no, and “no” means if the matter is not now changed the party in question is no longer in the denomination. Having a Judicial Council is not a bad idea, but we need theologians as well as jurists on it.

  4. The irony of an unlawfully consecrated bishop upholding the discipline is not lost on me. I simply think they are keeping their powder dry for now and reigning in their more radical elements. No need to get too far out front at this time.

  5. John Cobil says

    These bishops are not upholding the discipline. They are simply advising annual conferences that their decision to ignore the discipline, which some of the bishops are encouraging, cannot be put in writing.

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