Judicial Council: Conferences may disagree with rulings
Nov. 6, 2006
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By Neill Caldwell*
CINCINNATI (UMNS) -- The United Methodist Church's top court says the denomination's regional conferences may pass petitions that disagree with court decisions, as long as they do not mandate any violation of the Book of Discipline or ignore directives included in those decisions.
Meeting here Oct. 25-28, the United Methodist Judicial Council considered several petitions that stemmed from a ruling it issued last fall, Decision 1032, which dealt with a Virginia pastor who denied membership to an openly gay man. The nine-member council ruled that a pastor has the right to determine who is ready for church membership.
During last summer's annual meeting of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, a petition encouraging churches to be inclusive was ruled to be in order by Bishop John R. Schol because it "represented the hope of the annual conference." Judicial Council - which routinely reviews all bishops' rulings during annual conference sessions - agreed with Schol.
A petition from the Kansas East Annual Conference went beyond the court's standard, the council said, but did not violate the specific paragraphs in the Book of Discipline that were cited in the request for a decision.
The difference is in the wording. The Baltimore-Washington's petition "expects and encourages its congregations and clergy" to be inclusive, the Judicial Council said. Because it is "aspirational in nature" it does not violate Paragraph 16.1 of the church's Constitution, the court said in Decision 1044.
The Kansas East petition reads: "No pastor ... shall deny membership solely based on the candidate for membership being a self-avowed practicing homosexual." That is "proscriptive language" according to the Judicial Council, meaning the resolution "does more than express ideals and opinions..." according to the analysis and rationale section of Decision 1052.
Addressing the Kansas East petition, the council reiterated that annual conferences are welcome to express ideals and opinions, but cannot direct pastors or lay members to do something that is contrary to the Discipline or past council decisions. "All actions of an annual conference must be faithful and consistent with the Discipline," the council said. "Annual conferences may express disagreement with other bodies of the United Methodist Church, but they are still subject to the Constitution, the Book of Discipline and the decisions of the Judicial Council."
Kansas clergy disagree
During oral arguments in the Kansas East case, the Rev. Mark Holland of Trinity United Methodist Church in Kansas City said that the council had created a "wedge issue" for the church by requiring a "litmus test" for church membership.
"It's an embarrassment to the church that we've picked this one issue," Holland said. He compared the action to that of a Baptist church in Kansas City "that requires members to sign a statement that says, 'I'm not gay.'"
Holland told the council that the Kansas East petition passed with 90 percent approval "and Kansans don't agree on anything. You'd be hard-pressed to get 90 percent to agree that the sky is blue."
The Rev. Paul Stevens, also from the Kansas East Conference but speaking against the petition, told the Judicial Council that the conference action should not be upheld "because it's not in line with the Book of Discipline and what the United Methodist Church says it believes. ... If a pastor sees fit to accept a person into membership, they can. Decision 1032 got it right, and still is right."
Pacific Northwest decisions
Reviewing other annual conference cases, the council affirmed Bishop Edward W. Paup's ruling that upheld a Pacific Northwest Conference petition "expressing dismay" at Decision 1032.
The council also agreed with Paup's ruling that another petition from the conference was out of order. That petition invited pastors to say publicly that they "voluntarily relinquish the authority granted them by Judicial Council Decision 1032." The Judicial Council agreed with Paup that the petition was contrary to the Book of Discipline.
The Judicial Council deferred six cases on its 20-item docket -- including one dealing with the National United Methodist Native American Center -- until its spring session, which will be held in April 25-28 in Manila, the Philippines. That will be a historic meeting, as it will be the first time a United Methodist Judicial Council has convened at a location outside the United States.
The Judicial Council also:
* Ruled that the 2004 General Conference was within its authority to limit the Methodist Church of Cote D'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to two General Conference delegates. (See related story.) * Ruled that the Task Force on Connection Funding in the Iowa Annual Conference was in violation of "many provisions" of the Book of Discipline. The task force set up a "tithe system" for the conference budget whereby churches sent 10 percent of their income to the annual conference and could choose additional conference ministries to support. "A system that allows local churches to choose what ministries to support violates the Discipline and undermines the spirit of the connectional system," the council stated in Decision 1054. "General Conference has set forth very specific and detailed processes by which annual conferences are to determine and set their budget." Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of Iowa had rejected the budget plan on the apportionment grounds and because it was not presented to Iowa's Council on Finance and Administration. His decision was affirmed. * Affirmed North Georgia Conference Bishop G. Lindsey Davis's ruling that only ordained clergy in full connection may vote for General and jurisdictional conference delegates, saying that Amendment VII to Paragraph 32 of the Book of Discipline did not change Paragraphs 35 and 602. * Upheld Bishop Sally Dyck's decision that the Minnesota Conference may officially join the Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice even if some of the group's stances disagree with the position of the United Methodist Church. * Ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in an item from Minnesota related to supervisory records because the questions were moot and hypothetical and the record did not have enough facts to show jurisdiction. * Affirmed Bishop Ben R. Chamness' decision of law in the Central Texas Conference regarding a question of the rights of an elder, saying that fair process procedures apply when a written and signed complaint is received by the bishop and that the actions in question preceded the filing of a complaint. * Said Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton of the Detroit Annual Conference had improperly ruled on a hypothetical question. The council repeated information from an earlier ruling that requests for decision of law from a presiding bishop must be related to the business under consideration by the annual conference. * Approved the clergy sexual misconduct policy for the Minnesota Annual Conference, saying it fulfilled the requirements of the council's Decision 736. * Ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in a request from the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference on just resolutions in judicial proceedings because the questions posed lacked factual context. * Ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in a bishop's decision of law from the Rocky Mountain Conference because it did not receive the minutes from the session in question. * Ruled in a case from the North Carolina Conference that a pastor's withdrawal -- whether it is made under complaint or is voluntary -- is effective at the time it is received. "The decision to surrender credentials before being presented with a formal complaint ... works as a forfeiture of further rights," the ruling said.
In a dissenting opinion on the North Carolina case, the Rev. Keith Boyette, Judicial Council secretary, wrote: "The decision of my colleagues concludes that a withdrawal is a withdrawal and that it does not matter whether the clergy person understood that he was withdrawing in response to a complaint which in fact did not exist at the time of his withdrawal. ... It is the bishop and the annual conference that (have) the responsibility of ensuring that disciplinary procedures and processes are faithfully followed. In my opinion, that was not done here."
Two members of the council, Mary A. Daffin and Shamwange P. Kyungu, were absent from the meeting.
*Caldwell covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service and is editor of the Virginia Advocate of the Virginia Annual Conference in Richmond.
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