January 24, 2008

United Methodist Agency Officials Supported Transgender Minister

At the 2007 Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference of the UnitedMethodistChurch, delegates were informed that Bishop John Schol had reappointed a clergywoman, Ann Gordon, as pastor of a Baltimore congregation. What caused a stir was that Gordon had recently announced a new, male identity as Drew Phoenix. Bishop Schol, a staunch supporter of the pro-homosexuality cause in the denomination, pushed through Gordon/Phoenix’s reappointment with little opportunity for the conference delegates to assess the implications of this unusual situation.

The Gordon/Phoenix case was reviewed at the United Methodist Judicial Council’s fall 2007 meeting. A striking aspect of the proceedings was that officials of the denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) lobbied the denominational high court on behalf of the transsexual pastor. UMAction recently obtained copies of “friend of the court” briefs filed by those officials, as well as other interested parties, before the Judicial Council’s October 24-27 semiannual meeting in San Francisco. All such briefs are considered public documents.

‘Episcopal Fiat’
In the end, the Judicial Council declined to intervene in the Gordon/Phoenix reappointment, punting the issue of transgender ministers to the 2008 General Conference. This decision fit a pattern of recent council decisions side-stepping delicate questions related to the denomination’s standards of sexual behavior.

A brief filed in the Gordon/Phoenix case by the Rev. David Simpson, a Baltimore-Washington Conference member, provided a helpful outline of how “there seemed to be a concerted effort to keep the information and issue [of the transgender pastor] carefully controlled.” Instead of a “collaborative process” with adequate opportunity for full discussion of the issue, Simpson says, “Bishop Schol chose a unilateral process that has the effect of allowing a single bishop to establish church law regarding qualifications for appointment of clergy.” In doing so, the bishop overturned the precedent set by the conference’s previous challenge of a transgender minister and asserted for himself “unprecedented and perhaps unconstitutional power” in a way that “diminishes the duties and functions reserved to the Board of Ordained Ministry [BOOM], the legislative and judicial branches of the church.” Affirming Bishop Schol’s rulings of law upholding his re-appointment of Gordon/Phoenix would effectively make church law on the issue “decided by episcopal fiat,” Simpson warned the Judicial Council.

Had BOOM members been given the courtesy of advance notice of Gordon/Phoenix’s sex change, Simpson said “the board would have had the opportunity to reflect on the guidelines provided by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.” Those guidelines are found in GBHEM’s Behavioral Health Guidelines for Boards of Ordained Ministry and a related addendum that together define “deviant sexual behaviors” as including but not limited to “pedophilia, exhibitionism, or other paraphilias.” These “deviant sexual behaviors” are included in the GBHEM guidelines as a sub-category of “improper sexual conduct,” which is in turn included in the broad category of “critical behaviors” that are beyond the bounds of healthy and appropriate behavior for clergy. Simpson’s brief noted that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) classifies “gender identity disorder” (exhibited by Gordon/Phoenix) as a paraphilia.

A brief filed by the Rev. C. David Jones, another conference member, stated that while “[t]he Book of Discipline does not specifically address the issue of sexual identity change,” relevant principles are found in the Bible and in historic Christian teaching—for example, God’s creating all humans as male or female and the Old Testament proscription of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5). In the section of his Explanatory Notes addressing the latter verse, John Wesley highlighted the need to “not confound those sexes which God hath distinguished.” Jones noted the APA’s classification of transgenderism and gender identity disorder as mental disorders. He reported that the GBHEM’s Advisory Committee for Psychological Assessment has endorsed the APA’s judgment on this matter. Like Simpson, Jones also cited the GBHEM’s Guidelines, in his case arguing that their “critical behavior” category of mental illness applied to Gordon/Phoenix, due to the APA’s standards.

Agency Officials Minimize Their Own Guidelines
Yet, Robert Kohler, a GBHEM Assistant General Secretary, and Sharon Rubey, the GBHEM’s Director of Candidacy and Conference Relations, intervened on the opposite side of the case. Kohler and Rubey went out of their way to use the prestige of their positions to defend the cause of the transgender minister. They filed a brief urging the Judicial Council to uphold Bishop Schol’s re-appointment of Gordon/Phoenix as “within the discretionary power of the sitting bishop.” And the two GBHEM officials minimized the importance of their own board’s standards for clergy behavior, protesting that these “are but guidelines.”

In their advocacy before the Judicial Council, Kohler and Rubey made common cause with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). In its own brief for this Judicial Council case, RMN described its founding goal as combating the United Methodist Church’s “religious intolerance” practiced “toward United Methodists of homosexual status.” RMN argued (as does a separate brief filed by Gordon/Phoenix herself) that the question of Gordon/Phoenix’s appointment is settled by the Discipline’s requirement that all ministers “in full connection and in good standing” are entitled to guaranteed appointments. The RMN brief also maintained that since the denomination decided decades ago “that gender is not an impediment to ordination” for women, it would “turn back the clock and reinstate prohibitions based on gender identity” if ordination were now denied to transgender persons. 

At one point in her brief, Gordon/Phoenix described her church, which is affiliated with RMN, as “growing and thriving in its ministry and mission.” However, a different story is told by recent revelation that the congregation has relied on an anarchist collective to pay its utility bills. Average worship attendance is reported to be 25.

The Judicial Council’s ruling in the Gordon/Phoenix case narrowly responded to the specific questions before it. The council deferred to Bishop Schol and declined to order the defrocking of Gordon/Phoenix. But it also made clear that this decision did “not reach the question of whether gender change is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards established by the General Conference.” Thus the 2008 General Conference will have the opportunity to set clearer standards in this area. 

Cohabitation Support Approved, on a Technicality
In another high-profile case, the Judicial Council reviewed the Minnesota Annual Conference’s recently adopted policy of providing health benefits to cohabiting partners of lay employees of the conference. That policy made clear that such church employees in a non-marital “committed and intimate relationship” with an unrelated “domestic partner” were to receive the same benefits as if they had been married. In other words, the Minnesota Conference proposed to treat cohabitation and marriage as morally equivalent—in apparent contradiction of the Book of Discipline statement that “sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond” (¶ 161 G).

The Judicial Council cited a technicality in allowing the Minnesota arrangement to stand. The council determined that since the healthcare premiums were paid by the employees (with the conference in only an intermediary position between the employees and the insurer), this plan complied with the letter of church law.

Two other cases also related to the denomination’s prohibition on annual conference funds being given “to any gay caucus or group” or otherwise being used “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” The issue arose with regard to conference funding for campus ministries that had adopted a pro-homosexuality position and for multi-issue activist groups that promote the acceptance of homosexuality along with other causes. When such funding was challenged in the Pacific Northwest and Western North Carolina conferences, the bishops issued rulings of law finding the funding acceptable.

UMAction filed briefs in these two cases disputing the bishops’ reasoning. We documented how the campus ministries and multi-issue groups promote the acceptance of homosexuality and argued that ¶ 612.19 of the Discipline would therefore bar them from receiving unrestricted annual conference funds.

In a competing brief, the Reconciling Ministries Network conceded that campus ministries adopting pro-homosexuality “welcoming statements” do indeed “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.” The network also agreed with UMAction that Bishop Paup was “incorrect” to rule that the “Reconciling” campus ministries in his Pacific-Northwest Conference were not “part of” RMN.

Upholding Church Law Disparaged as ‘Pretext’ for Bigots to ‘Attack’
Much of the argument of the gay caucus’s brief is that the Judicial Council should look beyond the specifics of the law and the facts in these cases. Instead RMN sought to focus attention on the alleged motives of those who sought compliance with the Book of Discipline. The network labeled the challenges to conference funding of pro-homosexuality groups as “anti-United Methodist,” a mere “pretext” and “red herring” based on a “false pretense.” RMN asserted that the real motivation of the challenges was “efforts of extremists to manipulate and hijack our denomination’s system of church laws … for the purpose of advancing a specific, bigoted, and narrow agenda.”

The RMN brief virtually invited the Judicial Council to engage in judicial nullification, arguing that the church laws in question “should be stricken” because they violate the denomination’s constitutional prohibition of exclusion based on “race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition.” RMN has elsewhere called on the 2008 General Conference to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to that list. But even in the absence of any General Conference action to change the standards, it was willing to ask the Judicial Council to ignore them.

In the conclusion of its brief, RMN warned that theologically liberal students would be alienated from the UnitedMethodistChurch if it de-funded pro-homosexuality campus ministries. The brief did not address the effect on other students of seeing that United Methodist-supported ministries do not uphold the stated teachings of the denomination regarding sexuality, which also happen to be the consensus teachings of the UniversalChurch since biblical times.

Earlier in 2007, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry had also weighed in on the question of annual conference support for pro-homosexuality campus ministries. In June, GBHEM General Secretary Jerome Del Pino sent an e-mail to annual conference leaders denouncing calls for compliance with ¶ 612.19 as an “attack” on “the present and future lifeblood of the UnitedMethodistChurch.” Del Pino’s e-mail defended the pro-homosexuality positions of some campus ministries as simply fulfilling the mandate to minister to all people. He offered the services of himself and senior GBHEM official Ken Bedell to defend these stances of the campus ministries. Del Pino and Bedell even commissioned an attorney, Kent Meeks, to prepare a legal argument for annual conference officials defending the use of conference funds for such campus ministries.

In these cases from the Pacific Northwest and Western North Carolina, the Judicial Council ruled narrowly on the specific questions before it. Declining to render its own judgment of the ministries supported by annual conferences, it essentially sent enforcement of ¶ 612.19 back to the councils of finance and administration of each conference. Since the current wording of the Discipline does not directly address campus ministries or multi-issue groups, it apparently leaves room for conference councils so inclined to conclude that ¶ 612.19 does not apply to such groups.

Judicial Council Punts to General Conference
The Judicial Council thus basically punted the key issues in each of these decisions to the next General Conference. Other bishops have publicly said that they do not share Bishop Schol’s comfort in appointing a transgender minister. For instance, Bishop Lindsey Davis of the fast-growing North Georgia Conference said that he was “not personally comfortable with appointing a transgendered person at this time” and that “a very practical issue which ought to be part of the discussion” at the next General Conference is whether it is “fair to ask bishops and cabinets to be in the position of appointing transgendered persons to congregations.”

Yet if no ban on transgender clergy is enacted, such bishops may be forced to do so, as the Discipline guarantees appointments for ministers. The Discipline’s lack of a specific prohibition of domestic partner benefits has allowed such programs to continue in at least two annual conferences. And until the Discipline’s language becomes more specific, large amounts of offering plate money will continue to help RMN-affiliated campus ministries misguide much of the next generation of United Methodists and ensure that the denomination’s life-sapping internal turmoil over homosexuality will continue for many years to come.

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