By Walter Fenton-

In yet another bid to overturn The United Methodist Church’s sexual ethics, the Denmark and California-Pacific annual conferences are asking the Judicial Council to rule out of order a key provision in the Book of Discipline.

According to motions approved by the two regional bodies, the 1972 General Conference delegates violated the church’s constitution when it adopted into the church’s Social Principles the statement finding the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The annual conferences claim the word “teaching” is synonymous with the word “doctrine.” And since the church’s constitution does not allow the General Conference alone to modify or add to church doctrine, the conferences argue the “teaching” on the “practice of homosexuality” should be ruled out of order as a “doctrine” never accorded constitutional privilege.

This is clever, but exceedingly strained, and therefore it is doubtful the Judicial Council will find the argument persuasive.

The delegates at the 1972 General Conference were attempting to carefully and graciously address an issue that was just beginning to be discussed more openly in American society. They were not attempting to modify or add to the church’s constitution. Rather, they were simply trying to make explicit what the vast majority of United Methodists implicitly believed about the practice of homosexuality, and still do.

Furthermore, any number of issues addressed in the church’s Social Principles are essentially its “teachings.” However, this does not mean they lack authority or are null and void because they were never integrated into the church’s constitution.

And in fact, the Judicial Council, on numerous occasions, has been asked to render decisions that have directly or indirectly touched upon the section of the Social Principles having to do with the church’s sexual ethics, and specifically its statement on the practice of homosexuality.

A number of the Council’s rulings are grounded, at least in part, in the statement. It is unlikely its present members will accept the invitation to rule out of order a statement that has been in the Discipline for 45 years, and that the Council has ruled upon in various cases.

Finally, and wisely, unless there are very compelling reasons for doing so, the Judicial Council is loath to upend the settled will of the global church’s legislative branch. The 1972 General Conference approved of the “incompatible” statement, and eleven subsequent General Conferences have rebuffed all attempts to modify it or change it.

This latest attempt by progressives to have the church’s judicial branch do what they cannot accomplish legislatively reveals their increasingly aggressive litigious bent. They have violated church law, and even gone on record saying they will defy Judicial Council decisions based on it. And yet, they have the temerity to ask that same Council to rule in their favor against the will of General Conference.

As we have said before, no one disputes the rights of United Methodists to petition General Conference and to advocate for changes to church teaching and law. However, progressives’ repeated attempts to circumvent its law only serve to ignite more legal maneuvering at General Conference and before the Judicial Council. And then, in a fine example of the pot calling the kettle black, they absurdly castigate those defending the church’s teaching as being obsessed with its law.

We doubt the Judicial Council will undo a global church’s sexual ethics based on this clever, but strained argument. It will consider the matter at its fall meeting in Los Angeles, October 24-27, and then release its ruling shortly thereafter.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergy person and an analyst for Good News. 



  1. This is why I doubt that the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward will succeed and will ultimately fail. There are people through out the denomination that are so intent on getting their own way and having their life style affirmed as acceptable when it is not that they will do what ever they feel they have to get their way no matter who they have to hurt or what scriptures they have to ignore or disregard as being authoritative.

  2. Just more evidence of the fact that it is little more than wishful thinking to believe that the progressives would settle for anything out of the way forward commission and/or General Conference that did not give them ALL that they demand. The LBGT acronym has taken on the likeness of an idol among many progressives as it seems to be displacing the Word of God. There really is no tent or umbrella large enough to house orthodox Methodism with this new progressive theology. A complete separation is the only workable way forward.

  3. That is how they roll. Take it to court. If the decision goes their way then great. If not then continue to ignore it and do as they please further undermining our connection.
    What I find amazing is the traditionalists tolerance for all this. And to think we can continue in dialogue with oath breakers is simply ludicrous.

  4. With regards to the incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, the 1972 Conference was merely articulating what is maintained in Methodist doctrine, particularly in the Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church, Book of Discipline [2012], ¶104, section three, article VI – On the Old Testament. This part of our doctrine teaches that while the civil and ceremonial law of the Old Testament is no longer binding on Christians, “no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” (This distinction is what enables the UMC to stand against the death penalty, yet still maintain that murder is a sin. The Old Testament civil law is no longer binding, yet it is still a sin to murder [moral law]. In the same way, the ceremonial law that requires the sacrifice of a lamb is no longer valid for Christians, yet it is still a sin to steal, covet, or bear false oath [moral law].)

    Articles of Religion – VI on the Old Testament is an articulation of what John Wesley taught in his sermon, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount,” Sermon 5, section I.2, where he explained that the moral law of the Old Testament reveals God’s ethics, which are timeless and can never be broken while believers are conscious of good and evil.

    It should also be pointed out that our Doctrinal Standards are also derived from Wesley’s Sermons and Notes, and preachers in pulpits were to “preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament and four volumes of Sermons” ( ¶103 – On Doctrinal Standards).

    It should also be noted that all ordained elders must affirm, preach, and maintain doctrines for continuance of full membership in the church (Book of Discipline [2012], ¶336): “Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Will you preach and maintain them?” Notice that an ordained member of the clergy must continue to affirm and teach that the doctrines of The United Methodist Church are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures as a condition of continuing in full membership in the Annual Conference. If a member of the clergy cannot affirm and teach the doctrines of the UMC, which can never be changed or amended (United Methodist Constitution, Division Two, Section III – Restrictive Rules, Article I – “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”), then they do not fit the requirements for membership as United Methodist clergy. They are probably more suited for another denomination, just as a person who affirms predestination is more suited for the Baptist Church than the UMC where Free Will is our doctrinal standard.

    The clergy who are bringing this case to the Judicial Council really do not have a case. I hope the Judicial Council fully understands that.

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