The “supreme court” of the United Methodist denomination, known as the Judicial Council, recently completed its first session of the 2016-2020 term.
During those of its semi-annual sessions that are in the fall, the bulk of its cases consists of rulings of law issued by bishop in response to requests from individual members of their respective annual conferences. In our system, such rulings must be reviewed by the Judicial Council before they can become final.
There were four cases of particular interest to renewal-minded United Methodists, all of which had rather positive results.
On the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC)
The Judicial Council did not directly express an opinion about the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which celebrates all abortions as “holy work,” and stridently decries any legal restriction or moral opposition to this type of violence. But here is how it helped our denomination further distance ourselves from that group:
Last year, the Rev. Laura Young was recommended by the West Ohio Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) to have her work as CEO of RCRC’s Ohio chapter affirmed as an “extension ministry.” According to the UMC’s Book of Discipline, our clergy can be appointed to extension ministries (jobs other than pastoring a congregation) when such positions are “considered by the bishop and the annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry to be a true extension of the Christian ministry of the Church” (¶344.1d). There was quite some controversy within that conference about treating Young’s work – of lobbying the state legislature to broadly defend late-term abortions and her appearing to publicly brag on her website about having had an abortion herself – as “Christian ministry of the Church.” But the BOOM’s justification then was that our denomination was still formally affiliated with RCRC.
But then at last May’s General Conference, I and other delegates voted to direct the two UMC agencies who were member organizations of RCRC to cease this relationship, which they did, however reluctantly.
Shortly afterwards, the West Ohio BOOM decided to cease affirming Young’s work as an extension ministry, based on the recent denomination-wide decision to repudiate RCRC. Rev. John Edgar, a Young ally, attempted to challenge this action, but Bishop Gregory Palmer ruled that the BOOM indeed had a right to thus decide that Young’s RCRC work “no longer serves the missional needs of the Church.” In Decision #1333, the bishop was sustained by the Judicial Council without any dissent.
This means that our denomination continues to move away from abortion-defending extremism, with the positive impact of the recent General Conference trickling down to the annual conference level, so that if Young wants to continue her RCRC work, she has to go outside the United Methodist appointment system, which is no longer willing to affirm such work.
On New England Anarchy
At its June session, the New England Conference adopted, by a 71 percent majority, an “Action of Non-Conformity with the General Conference of The United Methodist Church.”
With all the denominational talk of possible schism, it is not clear what is more schismatic, by definition, than the majority faction of this region of our denomination declaring their independence from the rest of our denomination, and claiming a right to no longer be bound by United Methodist standards on sexual self-control, despite having no such right within United Methodism. The revisionist majority faction rammed this motion through, ignoring conciliatory pleas to seek a less divisive path and evidently not caring about their actions driving out a faithful pastor.
However, the most pointed parts of the resolution were all voided by the Judicial Council. In Decision #1327, the Council sustained the initial ruling of Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who despite being known as personally favoring liberalizing church standards on marriage, declared (beginning on page 69 here) that he was bound to “decide questions of law in accordance with the Discipline, not according to my heart or what I wish the Discipline said,” and that, “As a United Methodist Bishop, I cannot challenge what I believe to be an unjust law by approving an illegal law.”
While I certainly would not want someone with Bishop Devadhar’s theology to be my pastor, I do appreciate the relative integrity he showed here.
On Biblical Ordination Standards
After much confusing debate, the 2016 General Conference passed a motion widely described as “hitting the pause button” on our internal controversies over sexual morality by “refer[ring] this entire subject to a special Commission.”
Yet the liberal – or more accurately, theologically secularized Western – faction in our denomination, which our bishops continue going out of their ways to appease, quickly demonstrated how sincerely it can be trusted to negotiate in good faith. While many orthodox United Methodists extended an olive branch of offering to “hit the pause button” on our side, activists in the liberal minority hardly waited a month before dramatically breaking the ceasefire with motions in a handful of radicalized, declining U.S. annual conferences to commit themselves, in various ways, to disregarding the longstanding policies of the UMC Discipline forbidding the ordination of anyone openly sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
An attempt by the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference BOOM to approve an openly partnered lesbian activist clergy candidate failed, as reported earlier.
The moves of two other such annual conferences came before the Judicial Council.
Each case involved a legal challenge to the BOOM in one of the most notoriously radicalized annual conferences having a new policy (interestingly, in one key place the wording was identical in both conferences) basically indicating their intention of disregarding our denomination’s ban on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” In accordance with their personal liberal biases, Bishop Sally Dyck of Northern Illinois and Bishop Jane Middleton of New York both tried to shoot down the legal challenge by avoiding ruling on the substance of the matter brought before them.
But in both cases, the Judicial Council ruled that the bishops were wrong to try to dodge the question, and ordered them to prepare by the end of this year a substantive ruling on whether or not their respective BOOMs are indeed required to determine if clergy candidates are following our denomination’s sexual ethics of celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and also on whether or not the boards have the right to approve clergy candidates they know do not follow this behavioral standard.
For fellow church-law geeks, Decision #1329 (the Northern Illinois case) is worth reading in full for how it expands the ways in which evangelical minorities in radicalized annual conferences can effectively seek the outside intervention of the Judicial Council even in situations in which the majority faction clearly wants to violate the Discipline’s standards.
Meanwhile, Decision #1330 (the New York case) makes clear that the right to requests a bishop’s ruling of law is not limited to certain “higher” categories of clergy, but that these can also be legitimately requested by any associate clergy member of an annual conference.
Significantly, in this decision, the Judicial Council subtly expanded its earlier long-standing precedent that “annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree” to apply this restriction directly to annual conference boards of ordained ministry.
The New York chapter of the Reconciling Ministries Network, whose leadership has distinguished itself with rather vulgarly strident rhetoric, was quick to lambaste this decision as “reaffirm[ing] our experience that all institutional channels of change are closed.”
These two cases amount to preliminary victories, as we still need to see what sort of substantive ruling the bishops will make on the questions before them, and then what the Judicial Council will finally decide on these ordination cases at its spring session. But these victories were important and necessary first steps. The alternative possibility for this time in the process would have been if the Council supported the Northern Illinois and New York bishops in sweeping the disobedience under the rug, which the Council pointedly did not do.
Overall, it was a very good Judicial Council session for the faithful renewal of our denomination, with rulings that bode well for our future.
One disappointment was that in the two ordination-related cases, the Council chose to re-affirm a precedent from an outdated 1946 case ruled on by the Judicial Council of the Methodist Church (a predecessor body of today’s United Methodist denomination), which declared that “Moot and hypothetical questions shall not be decided” in the context of bishops’ rulings of law. That quoted language from the 1946 Methodist Judicial Council ruling is actually taken directly from the 1944 Methodist version of the Book of Discipline, but was evidently removed from the Discipline by the 1952 version of that denomination’s Discipline by that year’s Methodist General Conference. It is disappointing that the Judicial Council chose to continue imposing a restriction from an outdated ruling that was itself based upon provisions in the Discipline that the General Conference has subsequently removed. Thankfully, this odd choice did not affect the main outcome of the two relevant cases, for the most part.
Perhaps with several new members, the Council was nervous about starting its first session of this four-year term by overturning a 70-year-old precedent. In any case, anyone wondering how their bishops may decide certain church law questions may want to check if their library has not just the current version of the Book of Discipline, but also the versions that were operative during World War II (and apparently still are sometimes)!
Overall, these rulings represent a welcome improvement from what we saw during the 2012-2016 term. I have previously critiqued the tortured logic the Council’s liberal majority used during that term to defend a pro-homosexuality resolution from the California-Pacific Conference (in a decision that split the Council between its six liberal American members and three members from overseas).
In the midst of this year’s General Conference session, after delegates had voted to replace several liberal American members, the outgoing members apparently made a parting shot with a ruling that laid bare their liberal biases. Right before losing its liberal-American majority, the Council issued Decision #1318, which struck down several accountability-strengthening petitions that had passed their legislative committee with the Council relying on the transparently non-sensical argument that when United Methodist clergy voluntarily acknowledge that they have committed what the Discipline considers “a chargeable offense,” and are given the option of having a “just resolution” (a process which has been widely abused in recent years) or a church trial, that petitions requiring that a temporary suspension from ministry be part of the former would somehow violate the offending clergy’s constitutional right to have a trial.
The then-liberal-dominated Council did not even bother to address how the rationales of these petitions made clear that they would maintain every clergy’s right to trial and not force them into accepting any such “just resolution.”
Thus, we until recently had a top denominational court willing to go out of its way to disregard basic facts and logic for the sake of advancing its liberal biases.
But the early signs from the new Judicial Council point towards its restoring some integrity to our system.