With a structure remarkably paralleling the U.S. federal government, the United Methodist Church has its own “supreme court” called the Judicial Council.
A dominant issue for the nine-member church court’s twice-yearly meetings are various challenges by gay-rights activists to official UMC policies affirming biblical standards for sexual self-control.
The bottom line from the Judicial Council’s most recent round of rulings (last fall) was that there are no changes to the denomination’s biblical policies, there are limits to how far regional annual conferences can go in officially disagreeing with these policies, and it has now become much easier for conservative minorities in radicalized annual conferences to legally challenge liberal annual conference policies. However, these recent cases also make clear that liberal-dominated annual conferences will continue pushing the envelope and that there are important consequences of who the General Conference elects to the Judicial Council.
A few of the Judicial Council’s rulings from last fall are especially worth mentioning:
The Judicial Council declared that a resolution adopted by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference was “null, void, and of no effect,” reversing a ruling by liberal Bishop Robert Hoshibata of the Desert-Southwest Conference. That resolution suggested a meaningless “24-hour suspension” be the penalty for a Western Jurisdiction bishop if s/he is found guilty in a church trial of willfully breaking the UMC’s biblical policies by ordaining an openly homosexually active minister.
The Judicial Council stated that “If the resolution is allowed to stand, same would be tantamount to allowing each” geographic region “to set the standard or penalty to be used” for violations of the Discipline. The Council cited its 2011 decision similarly striking down a Northern Illinois Conference resolution calling for a token 24-hour suspension as the maximum penalty for clergy convicted of breaking our denomination’s biblical policies by officiating at a same-sex union service. So now the penalty-setting authority remains in the hands of each separately convened trial court.
In voiding the Western Jurisdiction’s action, the Judicial Council ruling repeated its well-established principle that, on the one hand, regional bodies of the UMC may pass “aspirational” resolutions expressing eventual hope for changes within the UMC (within the boundaries of our established procedures for making changes), but on the other hand, regional UMC bodies may not pass any resolution that would “negate, ignore or violate” any specific parts of our denomination-wide covenant.
This ruling was very appropriate, predictable, and clearly in line with well-established church law. While the liberal leaders of the Western Jurisdiction often seem to act as if they are not bound to honor their covenants with the rest of our global denomination, the Judicial Council has now clearly told them “No, you are not free to do whatever you want.”
In order for the action of an annual conference session to be challenged and brought before the Judicial Council, a lay or clergy member of that annual conference needs to submit a formal challenge according to specific guidelines. Such challenges by evangelicals within liberal-dominated annual conferences have been key for limiting the ability of radical annual conference leaders from doing whatever they want.
However, the 2012 General Conference disappointingly amended church law (¶2909.6) by adding that such requests for a ruling of law (initially made by the presiding bishop and then reviewed by the Judicial Council) must not only be submitted by an individual member of the annual conference, but also affirmed “by one-fifth of that conference present and voting.” Some feared that this would have the effect of further silencing already-marginalized evangelical minorities in several annual conferences. The sad fact of the matter is that some liberal-dominated annual conferences have become so exclusive of those who do not toe the militantly liberal party line that you cannot count on there being support of even 20 percent of annual conference members who want to ensure that annual conference policies are in line with our global denominational covenant, let alone who actually support biblical, historic Christian teaching on sexual morality. For example, last year a request for a ruling of law of a homosexuality-affirming resolution failed by a single vote to meet the 20 percent threshold in the Northern Illinois Conference. Thanks to the non-secret nature of that ballot, voting for the request would have meant publicly marking oneself as a target for the scorn, marginalization, and bullying of the liberal conference leadership.
But the Judicial Council has now invalidated that one-fifth requirement, since it limits a power the Council is given by the denomination’s constitution. So now any individual traditionalist member of even the most exclusively liberal annual conferences can once again faithfully challenge illegal actions of his or her annual conference.
Ironically, this ruling came in response to a secondary issue of a case brought by liberal activists in the Southwest-Texas Annual Conference. Evangelical United Methodists can be grateful for good results of this liberal activism!
For some time, some liberal activists in the Southwest Texas Annual Conference have been launching an extended publicity stunt (on which we have reported earlier) by pushing forward a young lesbian activist named Mary Ann Kaiser (who now calls herself Mary Ann Barclay) for ordination while she has proudly touted her non-marital cohabitation and subsequent “wedding” with her lesbian partner. UMC law clearly states that we do not ordain people who refuse to follow biblical Christian standards of sexual self-control. But a renegade district committee on ministry has pushed her candidacy forward. Ms. Barclay’s so-called “supporters” in the conference continue using her as a human battering ram against the church, while cruelly getting her hopes up for an ordination she cannot reasonably be expected to ultimately receive.
The Judicial Council’s ruling really does not change much beyond forcing the Southwest Texas bishop and other annual conference officials to spend more time tied up with somewhat esoteric details of UMC church law.
Now the church will have to divert even more of the church’s resources and energies away from the mission of Jesus Christ to deal with this attention-hogging publicity stunt. Ms. Barclay is currently employed as a youth pastor and “Justice Associate” for a liberal United Methodist congregation, which apparently believes that her activism against biblical, historic Christian teaching and personal lack of sexual self-control makes her the ideal role model for their youth group.
As of this writing, she reportedly has an interview scheduled with the conference board of ordained ministry on May 13.
While this case is sad, such a hijacking of the ordination process for the equivalent of a frivolous lawsuit against biblical teaching and the United Methodist Church can be expected to result in Ms. Barclay’s candidacy still ultimately going nowhere, to the extent that conference leaders are people whose word has any trustworthiness and whose commitment to the United Methodist Church has any integrity.
One of the major victories for evangelicals at the 2004 General Conference was adding a clear denomination-wide policy requiring that “no annual conference board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” (Book of Discipline ¶612.19).
In a response to a dispute about applying this in the (eastern) North Carolina Annual Conference, the Judicial Council, in line with some of its past decisions, basically reiterated that the main responsibility for determining whether the expenditure of funds by a regional annual conference violates this ban lies with the conference council on finance and administration.
While the previously noted rulings were unanimous, this one was a split (6-3) decision.
The Judicial Council upheld a California-Pacific Annual Conference resolution expressing disagreement with our church’s affirmation of the biblical standard that sex is for monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and encouraging church leaders to act as if one key part of our denominational covenant stating this does not exist. The resolution specifically affirmed and reprinted the entirety of a resolution passed by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference calling on regional church leaders “to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F does not exist.” The fact that liberal Western Jurisdictioners do not just single out the statement declaring homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching” but rather disregard the church’s entire statement on sexual morality further indicates (along with the Kaiser/Barclay case) how the denomination’s liberal faction not only rejects biblical teaching on homosexual practice but is also rather secularized on the more general question of sex outside of marriage.
The Judicial Council majority’s decision would certainly seem to fly in the face of its own repeatedly established standard that annual conferences may not “negate, ignore or violate” (emphasis added) any policies of the UMC, including the Social Principles.
The majority accurately noted that the preface to the Social Principles say that they are “not to be considered church law.” However, it is not as simple as that. There are other sections of the Book of Discipline (¶¶ 247.20, 244.3, 310.2d, 337, 710.2, 715.8, and 1004) which are clearly binding standards of church law that explicitly require alignment of certain programs and individual commitments with the Social Principles. So now is the Judicial Council majority saying that relevant pastors and other church leaders from the California-Pacific Conference are to insist on conformity to the all of the Social Principles except for the statement on human sexuality? Since such persons are members of both the annual conference and the wider denomination, when there is a conflict should they follow the policies of the former and disobey the latter, or vice-versa? The majority’s strange ruling offers sparse guidance to such questions, and does not even mention these other relevant Discipline paragraphs.
Furthermore, the Judicial Council majority broadly affirmed the outspokenly radical California-Pacific bishop, Minerva Carcaño, in her ruling that the resolution “does not violate the legal authority of the Book of Discipline,” despite the fact that the resolution was not only relevant to the Social Principles section of church law but also offered itself to be used as a sort of replacement guideline for the Discipline’s provisions for holding clergy accountable for violating church policies against sexual immorality. The Judicial Council did not directly address this aspect of the resolution (probably in part because of the narrow framing of the initial request for a ruling of law).
The majority opinion also offers some tortured logic to avoid ruling on the substance of the heart of the California-Pacific resolution, on the grounds that the same exact wording was adopted as “A Statement of Biblical Obedience” by the 2012 Western Jurisdiction Annual Conference. According to the majority’s apparent reasoning, the fact that the Judicial Council did not formally review that statement of one regional body (the Western Jurisdiction) somehow prevents them from reviewing that same statement if it is subsequently adopted by another regional body (the California-Pacific Conference).
At one point, the majority decision references (but does not cite) “the denomination’s Social Principles on … gun control.” While gun control is indeed addressed in the UMC’s Book of Resolutions, I did not find a single use of the word “gun” in the entire searchable version of the Book of Discipline (including but not limited to the Social Principles). Such a sloppy remark does not help win trust for the competence and diligence of the Judicial Council’s liberal majority.
The Judicial Council’s liberal majority was likely pleased when Bishop Carcaño touted this ruling in a way that suggested it was a sort of mandate for her encouraging the “biblical [dis]obedience” mass covenant-breaking movement, by showily inviting defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer to move to her conference.
Refreshingly, a dissenting opinion pointed out how striking down this California-Pacific resolution is mandated by the clear letter and spirit of our church law. The dissent was signed by the Judicial Council’s two African members (N. Oswald Tweh and J. Kabamba Kiboko) as well as its Filipino member (Reuben Reyes). Dennis Blackwell of New Jersey is generally counted among the church court’s consistently Discipline-upholding minority. But he was absent and so temporarily replaced by the Council’s first clergy alternate Timothy Bruster of Central Texas, who supported with the majority. But even if Blackwell had been present and supported the dissenters, that would not have been enough to get the five votes needed for a majority.
The majority opinion was also supported by Beth Capen (who serves as a leader in the New York chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action and was involved in producing a widely circulated 2003 book demonizing evangelical United Methodists), William Lawrence (dean of the UMC’s Perkins School of Theology), F. Belton Joyner (author of Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt: A Theological Survival Guide for Confused United Methodists), Angela Brown of California, and Kathi Austin Mahle of Minnesota.
This California-Pacific case’s demonstration of the Judicial Council’s liberal majority shows that elections have consequences. Each General Conference elects either five or four Judicial Council members to eight-year terms.