Rev. Keith Boyette, Pastor in Virginia and Former Member
of the Judicial Council (2000-2008)
The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church, our denomination’s Supreme Court, met from April 22-24 in Denver, Colorado. The Judicial Council issued eight opinions on April 24. Four of the opinions are of particular interest to evangelicals.
First, in Memorandum 1118, the Council ruled on a declaratory request from the Alaska Annual Conference, which invited the Council to overrule Decision 1032 and hold that the pastor of a local church has no discretion when an applicant states that he or she is ready to take the vows of professing membership. The request asked whether paragraphs 214 (“all persons may . . . become members of any local church) and 225 (transfer of membership from another denomination) of the 2004 Book of Discipline are constitutional under paragraph 4 of the Constitution (“all persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition shall be eligible to . . . upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members of any local church. . . .”). In Decision 1032, the Judicial Council stated, “Paragraphs 214 and 225 are permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows.” The Judicial Council further declared that the pastor-in-charge of a local church has the power to determine “a person’s readiness to receive the vows of membership.”
In Memorandum 1118, the Council held that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the declaratory request from the Alaska Annual Conference because paragraph 2610.2(j) of the Discipline requires that a declaratory request from an annual conference must “relate to annual conferences or the work therein.” The Council noted that a declaratory request from an annual conference “must be germane to the regular business, consideration, and discussion of the annual conference and must have a direct and tangible effect on the work of the annual conference session.” The request “must relate to some action taken or to be taken by the annual conference session.” Because these conditions were not satisfied by the Alaska Annual Conference in making its declaratory request, the Council held that it was without jurisdiction.
Proponents of eliminating pastoral discretion obviously hoped that the change in the membership of the Judicial Council in the current quadrennium would result in the Council overruling Decision 1032. The declaratory request from the Alaska Annual Conference did not present a vehicle for them to achieve this goal. The Judicial Council properly concluded that it lacked jurisdiction.
The 2008 General Conference had an opportunity to reverse Decision 1032 legislatively by changing the disciplinary provisions on membership to negate the exercise of pastoral discretion, but it did not do so.
A second matter before the Judicial Council involved a review of a decision of law rendered by Bishop Beverly Shamana. The 2008 California-Nevada Annual Conference adopted a resolution, which commended retired clergy of the conference for their “compassion” in being willing to celebrate same-sex marriage or union ceremonies despite a prohibition in the Discipline, which forbids clergy from performing such ceremonies. In response to a question of law, Bishop Shamana ruled that the resolution stepped over a disciplinary line, and was void and of no effect. In her ruling, Shamana wrote, “While the resolution is a commendable gesture to the congregations of the conference in offering the pastoral counsel of a number of retired clergy to persons contemplating same-gender marriage under the laws of California, it steps over the disciplinary line when it commends these clergy to the congregations for the purpose of ‘performing same gender marriages or holy unions.”
In Decision 1111, the Judicial Council affirmed Bishop Shamana’s decision of law stating that an “annual conference may not negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based on conscientious objections to the provisions.” The Council said, “[A]n annual conference may not formally disseminate an official conference communication advising its local churches of the availability of clergy who are willing to officiate in ceremonies that celebrate same gender unions” since such an action is prohibited by paragraph 341.6 of the Discipline.
In a third matter, the Judicial Council reviewed a decision of law rendered by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. The 2008 California-Pacific Annual Conference adopted a resolution, which stated, “while we recognize that we are governed by the Book of Discipline . . . we support those pastors who conscientiously respond to the needs of their parishes by celebrating same-gender marriages, and we envision compassion and understanding in any resulting disciplinary actions.” Bishop Swenson ruled that the resolution was permissible and stated, “The action called for in the resolution can be characterized as a pastoral response on the part of the annual conference . . . . What the resolution does not call for is for pastors to violate the provisions of the Discipline governing the celebration of same-gender marriages. In fact, the resolution is specific in acknowledging the authority of the Discipline . . . . The resolution does not call for or encourage violation of the Discipline; it does provide for a response that is pastoral (compassionate) in nature.”
In Decision 1115, the Judicial Council affirmed the portion of Bishop Swenson’s decision of law, which ruled that clergy are subject to provisions of just resolution and fair process, but the Council reversed that portion of her decision of law, which ruled that the resolution was permissible. The Council held that that portion of the resolution which expressed support for actions which would violate the Discipline was impermissible. A concurring opinion by Jon Gray, joined in by Katherine Austin Mahle, stated, “Changes in church law can only be made by the General Conference and cannot be achieved through piecemeal resolutions adopted in an annual conference session. A request for a bishop’s decision of law in an annual conference or for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council are not effective ways to change the language of the Discipline.” One concern raised by Bishop’s Swenson’s decision of law and the opinion in Decision 1115 is the continued unwillingness of some parts of our church to hold members of our church accountable when the Discipline is violated. Language which calls for persons who violate the Discipline to be treated pastorally or compassionately in subsequent disciplinary proceedings has been used by some essentially to nullify the provisions of the Discipline and to fail to hold persons accountable in some circumstances. Such a result when it happens weakens the covenant United Methodists share embodied in the Discipline.
Finally, in Decision 1113, the Judicial Council held that the Mission Council of the South Central Jurisdiction was properly vested with the authority to give its consent to enter into a lease agreement of Southern Methodist University (“SMU”) with the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation (the “Bush Foundation”). The Mission Council’s action was reported to the 2008 session of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference. The Judicial Council held that the Jurisdictional Conference ratified the action of the Mission Council at the 2008 session of the Jurisdictional Conference. Because title to the property being leased to the Bush Foundation remains with SMU, the lease did not and could not violate the trust clause provisions of paragraph 2503.4 of the Discipline, the Judicial Council stated.
The opinions of the Judicial C
ouncil can be viewed in the Judicial Council section of the website of The United Methodist Church (www.umc.org).
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