When the New England Annual Conference passed a resolution at its recent gathering in defiance of the standards of the global United Methodist Church regarding ordination and homosexuality, a “question of law” was immediately requested.
When an annual or jurisdictional conference takes an action that appears contrary to the Book of Discipline, it can be challenged through a question of law requesting a ruling clarifying the legality of the action in question. It is first ruled on by a bishop and then reviewed by the Judicial Council. The bishop and the Judicial Council have the authority to overrule conference actions, and the Judicial Council’s ruling becomes the accepted understanding of church law.
In response to an “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church” adopted by the New England Annual Conference on June 17, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar has ruled in a question of law that the resolution is “in violation of the Discipline.”
The resolution stated that “the New England Annual Conference will not conform or comply with provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons.” In short, the conference rejected the global church’s sexual ethics, standards on ordination, and its teachings on marriage.
The New England resolution was the first of five annual conferences pledging non-conformity with United Methodist teaching and policy. The others were, Desert Southwest, California-Nevada, Pacific Northwest, and California-Pacific. The Western Jurisdiction also adopted a resolution nearly identical to the New England one, as well as a resolution calling upon local churches and annual conferences in the jurisdiction to “not [comply] with the Book of Discipline whenever it denies full inclusion of a person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the life, ministry and leadership of The United Methodist Church.” If the Judicial Council upholds Bishop Devadhar’s ruling, all the similar resolutions adopted by other conferences would also be null and void.
The New England resolution contained a provision that conference members would “not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons” that was ruled to violate the Discipline. A provision to “realign [the conference’s] funding to reflect these commitments, using no reserve funds to pay for judicial procedures related to the Discipline’s prohibitions against LGBTQIA persons” was also ruled to be in violation of the Discipline.
The resolution called for the conference to offer the same benefits to clergy and employees in same-sex marriages as are available to heterosexual marriages and their families. Devadhar ruled that this provision was legal, since conference benefits are not covered in the Discipline. However, a brief filed by the Rev. Michael Pike, the person who asked the question of law that led to Devadhar’s ruling, argues that the “conference may not offer benefits that contradict United Methodist Church policy.” To offer such benefits would “in effect condone behavior that The United Methodist Church disapproves.”
Bishop Devadhar acknowledged that his ruling was “a painful one to make.” He explained that, “as a United Methodist Bishop, I cannot challenge what I believe to be an unjust law by approving an illegal law.” Although not supportive of United Methodist teaching on marriage and human sexuality, Devadhar acted with integrity in this instance. We wish all our bishops and clergy would exhibit similar integrity.
Northeastern Jurisdiction Resolution
A resolution initially titled, “Stop the Church Trials: A Moratorium by Bishops Within the Northeastern Jurisdiction,” was passed by the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference on July 14. The resolution was revised several times (including deleting the title), but ended by requesting “all CFA’s of the Annual Conferences of the jurisdiction to state that there are no funds available for initiating of investigations and trials based upon the sexual orientation or marital status of faithful United Methodists or involving clergy for conducting same-sex weddings.” The resolution passed by more than a two-thirds majority.
After the resolution was adopted, a question of law was raised. Bishop Mark Webb has ruled that the resolution “requests the CFAs and the annual conferences to violate Church law or, alternatively, discourages the enforcement of Church law. Either way, the Resolution would be null, void and of no effect.” In addition, Bishop Webb found that the “Resolution would also negate, ignore and violate … provisions in the Constitution,” making it unconstitutional.
Bishop Webb’s ruling will also be reviewed by the Judicial Council next April. If his ruling is affirmed, it would apply to any future resolutions attempting to negate or violate the Discipline in this way.
The Real Question
Given that these rulings are likely to be upheld by the Judicial Council, what does it mean that the resolutions of non-conformity will be ruled null and void? Will the annual conferences, bishops, and jurisdictional conferences that have publicly decided not to live within the bounds of the Discipline now suddenly acquiesce to follow Judicial Council rulings with which they disagree?
It is more likely that annual conferences, bishops, and jurisdictions will continue to ignore the parts of the Discipline that they disagree with, exacerbating the tensions and divisions within United Methodism. As Dr. Ted Campbell said recently at the World Methodist Conference, “When annual conferences declare that they will not follow the law of the church, I think that is in fact a division.”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergy person and the Vice President of Good News.