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.
Bishop Julius Trimble has dismissed a complaint filed against a United Methodist clergywoman who announced during a plenary session of the 2016 Iowa Annual Conference, “I am a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Or in my language, I am out, queer, partnered, clergy.”
The Rev. Anna Blaedel, a campus minister at the University of Iowa Wesley Center, made her announcement during a moment of personal privilege during a June 4 plenary session. Shortly after her address, three of her clergy colleagues prepared a complaint against her and submitted it to Trimble.
Trimble informed the complainants on the second to last day of his tenure as bishop of the Iowa Episcopal Area that he was dismissing their charge. As of September 1, Trimble is now the presiding bishop of the Indiana Episcopal Area.
Two of the three complainants in the case, the Revs. Craig Peters and Ben Blanchard, were only mildly surprised by Trimble’s decision. They noted that other bishops are also trying to quietly resolve cases related to the church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage, and that the resolutions often allow clergy members to keep their ministerial credentials and remain under appointment with no blemish on their service record.
But Peters and Blanchard also pointed out their laity are mystified by a system that allows clergy to openly defy its standards and then suffer no consequences for their defiance.
In order to dismiss a complaint a bishop needs the consent of his or her cabinet (i.e., the district superintendents serving the annual conference). According to Peters, Trimble told him that he had the “general consent” of his eight cabinet members, but he also said the bishop would not say whether that meant all eight approved his decision or just a simple majority of them.
The Book of Discipline requires a bishop to put in writing for the complainants the reasons why he or she has decided to dismiss a complaint. Both Peters and Blanchard report they have received no such statement from Trimble.
Bishops are also charged with giving “due regard to the interests and needs of the complainants” when deciding to dismiss their complaint. Both Peters and Blanchard said Trimble failed to do so. They believed they were acting as representatives of a larger body of clergy and laity in their annual conference who are concerned about integrity and accountability with respect to the UM Church’s sexual ethics and teachings on same sex marriage.
“I believe the bishop was hoping for a swift and quiet just resolution,” said Blanchard. “But when it became apparent that would not happen he dismissed it as an alternate way of keeping it quiet.” To date, Trimble has not made a public statement regarding his actions, and the Iowa Annual Conference Communications Office is either unaware of Trimble’s decision or has decided not to report on the matter.
In an open letter to “Friends and Colleagues” regarding Trimble’s decision, Peters said he interpreted the bishop’s decision as follows: “We find ourselves in an unprecedented ‘time of transition.’ … We must be willing to offer grace to one another, who for conscience sake can no longer follow the Book of Discipline. This evidently would include those who, for conscience sake, feel they can no longer, with integrity, pay their church apportionments.”
Blaedel remains at her appointment at the University of Iowa Wesley Center, and newly elected Bishop Laurie Haller is now presiding over the Iowa Episcopal Area.
Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News.
The following statement was adopted by the Good News board following the recent election of a married lesbian as bishop and the actions of nine annual conferences refusing to conform to the Book of Discipline.
The United Methodist Church faces a constitutional crisis. Nine annual conferences and two jurisdictional conferences have pledged non-conformity to our church order and polity. This rebellion has now culminated in the election of a married lesbian clergyperson as bishop, contrary to the requirements of our Book of Discipline. These schismatic actions have ruptured the unity of the denomination. Without swift and decisive action by the Council of Bishops and other leaders, it may be impossible to restore that unity. This rebellious behavior ignores the adoption of legislation at General Conference in May 2016 that called for a pause in all “legislative solutions” regarding the church’s historic position on human sexuality to make space for a special commission appointed by our bishops to consider the future of the church.
Accordingly, we urge that:
- The Council of Bishops issue a statement rejecting Karen Oliveto’s election as bishop and asking her to resign the office for the sake of the unity of the church;
- The Council of Bishops act swiftly to form the special commission approved by General Conference, with fair representation of the church theologically and geographically;
- That the Bishops’ Commission complete its work within 18 months on two options:
- A plan that will resolve our differences over the church’s teachings on marriage and human sexuality that can garner the support of at least two-thirds of the General Conference delegates, thus preserving the unity of the church
- A plan for the fair and equitable separation of the church that will allow progressives and traditionalists to be faithful to the grace and truth of God as they understand them
- That the Council of Bishops call a special session of the General Conference to be held by October 31, 2018, to consider these proposals;
- That individual bishops and annual conferences cease any discrimination against or penalizing of clergy who espouse and defend the current and historic position of the church on marriage and human sexuality;
- That evangelical and traditionalist United Methodists come together through the newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Association as a way of speaking with one voice and acting together to promote orthodox Wesleyan scriptural Christianity in response to whatever recommendations come from the Bishops’ Commission.
We strongly believe that those individuals, annual conferences, and jurisdictions that are acting contrary to our church order and discipline are promoting and causing separation in the body. Whatever our points of disagreement, it is these defiant actions that are bringing about division and separation, not the disagreements themselves.
Years of increasingly wayward actions have caused deep anguish and pain among orthodox and traditionalist United Methodists. These actions have caused thousands of our members to leave the UM Church for non-denominational bodies, precipitated the departure or early retirement of effective clergy, and prevented the calling of new young clergy who see no future in a denomination that is plagued by constant fighting and a disintegrating connectional polity. We have been forced to try to explain to potential members why the actions of a minority do not represent the teachings of the church and yet are permitted almost without consequence. Plummeting morale among clergy and lay leaders alike and the accelerating decline of our church membership and attendance have created in some parts of our connection a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
Faced with this crisis, many of our laity and even some clergy and entire congregations are reconsidering their membership and participation within The United Methodist Church. Some congregations and many laity will no longer find it possible to financially support a church that has intentionally violated Scripture and our covenant, with potentially devastating impact on the global church, annual conference ministry, and even local church ministry. We have heard from those who plan to redirect or delay their apportionments to no longer support the Episcopal Fund, out of which bishops’ salaries and expenses are paid. Others plan to redirect or delay most or all general church apportionments, and some in affected annual conferences are redirecting or delaying annual conference apportionments as well. We have also heard from laity who plan to stop supporting their local church financially until such time as they can be assured that their tithes and offerings are not going to a disobedient denomination.
We plead with the Council of Bishops to act swiftly and decisively to quell this growing crisis. We appeal to all United Methodists to pray earnestly that God will open the way for a return to connectional faithfulness and a renewed commitment to scriptural holiness in the personal and social dimensions. We commit ourselves to stand strongly on the foundation of God’s holy word and to work with like-minded brothers and sisters in the United States and in the global church to lead the way to a faithful future.
Rev. Keith Boyette, board chair (540/538-3202)
Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher (281/507-9153)
In light of the election of a married lesbian as a bishop of the United Methodist Church, faithful United Methodists can endorse the following statement by visiting Methodist Crossroads.
Good News issues the following statement in light of the election of a married, lesbian as a bishop of the United Methodist Church. Shortly, faithful United Methodists will have a chance to endorse the statement.
A Statement to the Council of Bishops from Faithful United Methodists
With the election of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop of The United Methodist Church, a pastor who is married to another woman and therefore unqualified to assume the office, it is clear to most people that the church has reached a crisis point.
Therefore, we call upon the Council of Bishops to do one of the following:  To do all within its power to rectify this breach of our covenant by issuing a strong statement opposing Oliveto’s election, and petitioning the Judicial Council to rule the election null and void. Or , expedite the appointment of the members to its “Special Commission,” and to revise the commission’s mandate as follows: the sole purpose of the special commission is to devise an equitable and structured plan of separation of The United Methodist Church, and to present such a plan to a called General Conference to be held no later than October 31, 2018.
For 44 years our denomination has debated its sexual ethics at every level of the church. Valiant efforts have been made to bridge the divide and find ways to maintain unity. Unfortunately, all have failed, and we must confess that in recent years the chasm has only widened.
Shortly after the 2012 General Conference progressives decided to forsake our process of corporate discernment outlined in our Book of Discipline. Instead, they embarked upon an escalating and costly strategy of ecclesial disobedience. Since then we have witnessed the following:
- Many pastors and at least one bishop have, against the express will of General Conference and our Discipline, presided at same-sex weddings.
- Over one hundred clergy have openly acknowledged they are in same-sex partnered relationships, and still others have themselves married same-sex partners in the sanctuaries of local UM churches.
- In many of these cases our bishops have either been unwilling or unable to hold these clergy accountable for these acts of ecclesial disobedience.
- And in several instances, bishops have mocked our polity by administering disingenuous and even frivolous penalties for serious transgressions of our covenant.
This strategy of ecclesial disobedience has now reached new heights with the election of Oliveto as a bishop of the whole church. She has openly acknowledged that she has presided at over 50 same-sex weddings. And she clearly has no intention of holding her clergy colleagues accountable to their vows regarding our church’s sexual ethics. Her election to the episcopacy comes after:
- Four boards of ministry, five annual conferences, and two jurisdictions have voted to defy the will of General Conference and reject the rules of our Discipline.
- And the news that one of our bishops knowingly ordained an openly gay person as an elder and commissioned others for service in our church.
It is now obvious that progressives have no intention of waiting for the bishops’ special commission to fulfill its mandate to revisit our church’s sexual ethics and return with recommendations to preserve church unity. Such a task now seems naïve and out of touch with the reality of our situation. The recent actions of progressives speak as loudly as their words; they no longer want to walk together, they want to walk their own way, regardless of what the rest of our global church says.
Their acts of ecclesial disobedience have:
- Seriously undermined the ministries of thousands of clergy colleagues and the work of thousands of local churches.
- Pastors and lay leaders have spent precious time and talent trying to carefully explain to new and old members why our church’s leaders have failed to uphold the Discipline and maintain the good order of the church.
- Many pastors and local churches have witnessed the departure of faithful members and clergy colleagues dismayed by a church that says one thing about the importance of our biblically grounded sexual ethics, but then allows others to routinely flout them.
- And in recent years, annual conferences have watched healthy, vibrant local churches leave the denomination because they can no longer be yoked to a church that refuses to live by its own standards.
Our church is in crisis, and it is so at a time when it can least afford it. In the U.S. the long, steady decline in membership and worship attendance is now accelerating at alarming levels. Consequently, local churches, annual conferences, and the general church have been forced to slash budgets and pare back ministries. Before the church is harmed any further, it is imperative for our bishops to do all in their power to either rectify this very serious breach of our covenant or empower the special commission to devise a structured and equitable plan of separation for the consideration of a special called General Conference.
It is time to end the deadlock and to liberate one another with genuine affection. It is time to find a new way forward that honors our consciences and allows people of good faith to live into new ways of being the church.
We call upon all faithful United Methodists to be in prayer for our leaders, and for those who will be appointed as commission members.