By Thomas Lambrecht-
The latest rulings by the Judicial Council illustrate that the impasse in our denomination over theological disagreements and the question of LGBTQ inclusion cannot be resolved by the church legal process.
Church’s Teaching Still Constitutional
In the most blatant challenge to The United Methodist Church’s teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” the Judicial Council declined to rule. That leaves the church’s teaching intact.
Both the Denmark and California-Pacific Annual Conferences had requested declaratory decisions on whether the church’s teaching violates the First Restrictive Rule in our church constitution. That rule states that “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline ¶ 17). The conferences argued that the church’s teaching on the incompatibility of homosexual practice is a new doctrinal standard, and that it needed a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a three-fourths majority vote of all the members of the annual conferences in order to adopt such a new standard.
Good News argued in a brief submitted to the Judicial Council that the church’s teaching was not a doctrinal standard on par with the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith, but simply a moral teaching of the church. Further, we argued that, even if it were a new doctrinal standard, it was not “contrary to our present and existing standards of doctrine” and therefore permissible.
The Judicial Council, however, did not even rule on the issue. It decided that there was no direct connection between the question of the constitutionality of the church’s teaching and the work of the annual conferences. According to ¶ 2610.2j, a request for a declaratory decision coming from an annual conference “must relate to annual conferences or the work therein.” “Our longstanding jurisprudence has interpreted ¶ 2610 to mean that a request for a declaratory decision that comes from an annual conference must be germane to the regular business, consideration, or discussion of the annual conference and must have a direct and tangible effect on the work of the annual conference session.” There was also confusion in the California-Pacific Annual Conference minutes that did not show the motion for declaratory decision received a majority vote.
The bottom line is that the church’s teaching that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is still valid under our church constitution. Using the legal process to challenge its constitutionality will not work. The issue can only be settled by action of General Conference.
Complaint Against Lesbian Pastor Cannot Be Reactivated
In June 2016, the Rev. Anna Blaedel announced during a plenary session of the Iowa Annual Conference that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Such a statement brought her standing into question, since a self-avowed practicing homosexual may not be ordained or appointed as clergy (Discipline ¶ 304.3). A complaint was filed against Blaedel and there was no just resolution of that complaint, but Bishop Julius Trimble (who was the bishop of Iowa at the time) dismissed the complaint without putting Blaedel on trial.
At the 2017 session of the Iowa Annual Conference, a question of law was asked as to whether the dismissal of the complaint by Bishop Trimble was proper under the Discipline and whether the complaint could be reopened in order to start a trial process.
The Judicial Council ruled that, once a complaint has been resolved, whether by a trial, a just resolution, or by being dismissed, it cannot be reopened. A new complaint would have to be filed if the violation were repeated. In this case, the Judicial Council said, there would have to be evidence that Blaedel once again publicly claimed to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual after the dismissal of the previous complaint on September 1, 2016.
In a little-noted passage in the decision, the Judicial Council said, “Clearly if the record in this case alleged a self-avowing statement since that date, the current bishop would have a duty to initiate proceedings under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341.” In an article posted by Reconciling Ministries Network in response to the decision last week, “Rev. Anna Blaedel reflected on the ruling by saying, ‘I am relieved to have this dehumanizing, disempowering process resolved, for now. However, I proudly remain a ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual.’ I delight in my queerness, and my relationship with my beloved. I lament the use of loopholes to hide any aspect of queer life and love.'”
Thus, Blaedel is renewing her self-avowal, making her once again subject to a complaint. According to the Judicial Council decision, new Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller “would have a duty to initiate proceedings.” At the very least, someone could file a new complaint against Blaedel for her ongoing violation of the standards for ordained ministry.
Lesbian Candidate for Ministry May Not Be Approved
The Judicial Council ruled that an annual conference board of ordained ministry was not obligated to recommend for commissioning as a provisional member a person that they believed did not meet the qualifications for ordained ministry. The case involved Tara Morrow, who had been turned down for commissioning in 2016 in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference due to the fact that she disclosed to the board that she is a lesbian married to another woman.
When the board declined to recommend her for commissioning in 2017, even though she initially received the required three-fourths vote of approval by the board, their failure to do so was challenged by a question of law. Heightening the controversy, the Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman surrendered his clergy credentials in protest on the eve of celebrating 60 years of ordained ministry service.
The Judicial Council asserted that the board was within its rights to rescind its recommendation of Morrow in light of Judicial Council decisions issued in May. “Decisions 1341, 1343 and 1344 prevent a Board of Ordained Ministry from ignoring statements of self-disclosure about any action that violates any portion of church law as is the case of the candidate who acknowledged that she is a lesbian and married to another woman. In JCD 1344 the Judicial Council stated that it is the duty of the Board to conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope to ensure that disciplinary standards are met.”
Again, the attempted exploitation of presumed legal loopholes cannot overturn the settled will of the General Conference in establishing qualifications for ministry.
How to Deal with Parliamentary Rulings
Two other decisions related to resolutions that were declared “out of order” by a bishop. In Western Pennsylvania, a resolution requiring the annual conference to conform to the Book of Discipline on matters of ordination and same-sex marriage was declared out of order by Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi and thus not able to be voted on. In South Carolina, a petition to form a task force to study the possibility of the annual conference disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church was also declared out of order by Bishop L. Jonathan Holston.
The Judicial Council ruled correctly in both cases that it has no jurisdiction to rule on parliamentary questions. A decision by a bishop to declare a particular proposal out of order is a parliamentary decision, and therefore not subject to Judicial Council review.
It is important that annual conference members understand how to handle a parliamentary ruling with which they disagree. The proper response is to appeal the ruling of “out of order” to the “house.” That means that the whole annual conference gets to vote on whether they agree with the bishop’s decision to call something out of order. The annual conference can vote to overrule the bishop, which enables the conference to consider the matter that was ruled out of order. Or the annual conference can vote to sustain the bishop’s ruling that the item is out of order, which ends consideration of that item. Either way, the bishop’s rationale for ruling it out of order would be placed on the record.
If the annual conference votes to sustain the bishop’s ruling of “out of order,” the matter could then be the subject of a question of law that would eventually go to the Judicial Council. Because the annual conference took an action (to sustain the bishop’s ruling), the question of law is no longer about a parliamentary decision, but about the action of the annual conference. A question of law must be about an action taken or proposed to be taken by the annual conference. Thus, this is the way to get that issue before the Judicial Council.
The Way Forward
All of the above cases illustrate that the legal processes of The United Methodist Church cannot resolve the impasse in our church over theology and the moral teachings of the church regarding the extent of LGBTQ inclusion. We are currently in a state of schism, where some parts of the church are following the Book of Discipline and other parts are not conforming. The General Conference is the only body that can resolve the dispute. Our prayer is that the proposals of the Commission on a Way Forward, as submitted by the Council of Bishops, will enable the special session of the General Conference in 2019 to take definitive action to resolve this crisis. The future of our church depends upon it.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.