By Rob Renfroe
A reassuring ruling from the Judicial Council was released on November 2, 2009. The Council serves as the supreme court of the United Methodist Church and it functions as a binding interpreter of church law as stated in The Book of Discipline.
At General Conference 2008, roughly half of the members of the Council were up for re-election—the majority of whom were supported by Good News and other renewal groups. They were all were soundly defeated.
Many observers saw this as an orchestrated and successful attempt to replace Council members who had voted in favor of Judicial Council Decision 1032. Decision 1032 determined that Virginia Annual Conference Bishop Charlene Kammerer was wrong when she ruled that the pastor of a church did not possess “the right and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into church membership of a local church.”
The Council of Bishops shortly thereafter issued a statement against the ruling and in support of Bishop Kammerer. Several pro-homosexual special interest groups did the same.
Interested United Methodists have since watched closely to see how the new Council would rule on controversial matters, particularly those regarding human sexuality. The Council was recently given the opportunity to do so as the result of an action taken by the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.
At its 2009 gathering, the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference adopted a statement regarding the practice of homosexuality that differed markedly from the church’s clearly enunciated statement in The Book of Discipline. The statement affirmed by the conference was essentially a minority position advocated by liberals and pro-homosexual advocacy groups at the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth. It claimed that the United Methodist Church “is divided on the practice of homosexuality,” and it sought to remove from the Discipline the church’s long held position that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Baltimore-Washington’s position was rejected by the gathered General Conference delegates.
However, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference Bishop John Schol imprudently ruled that it was appropriate for his conference to adopt a statement that was in direct conflict with the church’s official position. Indeed, it was in direct conflict with a position reaffirmed by numerous General Conferences.
In a unanimous decision, the Judicial Council reversed Bishop Schol’s ruling. It ruled that annual conferences cannot “articulate a new and different standard of church belief using language that has been specifically rejected by the General Conference” and “may not negate, ignore or violate” the church’s position “even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections.”
In other words, we are one church. And it is the General Conference that speaks for the church—not special interest groups, annual conferences, or even bishops. The Judicial Council’s ruling makes clear the inappropriateness of an annual conference’s attempt to claim greater enlightenment, a special revelation, or a more sensitive conscience on a matter clearly addressed by General Conference.
Along with previous rulings that overturned two Western Jurisdiction annual conference votes supporting clergy who perform same-sex marriages, this latest decision gives hope that the current Council will be the fair and impartial interpreter of the Discipline that the United Methodist Church deserves.
We commend the present Council for its good work regarding this most controversial issue and for allowing the General Conference to speak for the church. In doing so, its members are following a tradition of integrity and faithfulness that has served United Methodists well.
Serving as a member of the Judicial Council is one of the most important and taxing positions in the church. Its ruling can either keep us together or tear us apart. Please join me in praying for the members of the Council as they serve Christ and his Church.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He is the pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas.