In the United Methodist Church’s structure, the Judicial Council serves as the equivalent of our denomination’s supreme court. Its next semi-annual meeting will be held April 25-28 in Newark, New Jersey.
Some high-profile cases are directly related to United Methodism’s controversies over sexual morality.
Official UMC policies teach that marriage is only between one man and one woman, say that sex is only for within this covenant, call all homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and forbid clergy from performing same-sex union ceremonies or personally being sexually active in any way outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. However, a relatively tiny but very disruptive minority of UMC clergy have been openly defying these policies.
Given the widespread interest in these cases within and beyond my denomination, as well as widespread misunderstanding of how this process actually works, I offer this overview of all of the cases on which the Judicial Council will rule next week. Five of these seven cases are directly related to our controversies over sexual morality.
Last July, delegates in the Western Jurisdiction (one of the five large jurisdictions into which American United Methodism is geographically divided) eventually voted to elect the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco, an openly partnered lesbian, to be bishop, despite the aforementioned policies in the UMC’s governing Book of Discipline.
Oliveto was public about her lesbian partnership since at least 2014, and so the expectation of our church law is that she would have faced accountability for violating the Discipline’s explicit ban on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” But under California-Nevada Bishop Warner Brown, who retired last year, this did not happen. Oliveto told the media that Bishop Brown “has been very supportive of me and my wife.”
It is proper and important for church leaders and all involved in our denominational discussions to raise such questions as what this election may mean for the Way Forward Commission, why those defending and filing briefs on Oliveto’s behalf were so committed to spending so much time to make sure someone with her bizarre theology of rejecting Jesus Christ’s own explicit teachings while defending the alleged benefits of demon possession is made a prominent church leader, and why no liberal United Methodist that I’ve seen appears willing to criticize the dictator-like ways in which Oliveto has used the bishop’s office to seek out and attack what she calls “the bad churches” (her actual words!) who hold to official UMC doctrine.
But strictly speaking, the Judicial Council’s rulings next week will not be on such big-picture matters, but rather on much narrower questions of church law. It is even a bit misleading to refer to this case as “the Oliveto case,” as many are doing, since that suggests that this is a sort of trial for Karen Oliveto and that this case is exclusively about her, neither of which is the case.
As Dr. Oliveto was being elected, delegates to the 2016 South Central Jurisdictional Conference, which was meeting at the same time, were aware of this. And so they decided, by majority vote, to ask the Judicial Council to rule on a set of specific questions made in direct response to Oliveto’s election. These questions were submitted by Ms. Dixie Brewster, a lay delegate from the Great Plains Annual Conference and Steering Committee member of IRD’s UMAction team.
In February, Lonnie Brooks, former lay leader of the Alaska Conference, publicly shared the contents of the ten legal briefs that have been submitted to the Judicial Council in response to these questions. These briefs came from individual or groups of United Methodists in all five U.S. jurisdictions as well as Africa and the Philippines. For the record, as a strong advocate of transparency, I personally have no problem with his revealing what I submitted to the Judicial Council.
Then more recently, the United Methodist News Service publicized official copies of the briefs submitted by both the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and by Ms. Brewster through her counsel, the Rev. Keith Boyette, esq.
There are essentially three basic steps of the Judicial Council’s ruling in this upcoming case.
First, before it does anything else, the Judicial Council needs to decide if it has “jurisdiction” to rule on the questions. The argument that under our church law, the Western Jurisdiction electing Karen Oliveto is none of the South Central Jurisdiction’s dang business has been made in briefs submitted by:
- Brooks along with his co-author, Rev. David Livingston (who as a clergy delegate from the Great Plains Conference had tried to convince fellow South Central Jurisdiction delegates not to bring this matter before the Judicial Council);
- Richard Marsh and Llewelyn Pritchard, Chancellors of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific-Northwest Annual Conferences, respectively, in the name of every active and retired bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, as well as of Dr. Oliveto herself;
- Rev. Thomas Griffith, retired elder of the California-Pacific Conference;
- Kevin Nelson, whose statements and actions reflect on the organization, United Methodist Women, which commissioned him as their “home missioner” and ambassador.
If the Judicial Council accepts the first part of the arguments separately made by each of the individuals noted above, then that will be the end of its ruling. Because if the Judicial Council has no “jurisdiction” (or authority) to rule on the substance of this case, then there is nothing more for the Judicial Council to say.
But that would be a rather surprising result. No less prominent United Methodist leaders than the executive committee of the Council of Bishops publicly urged the Judicial Council to rule on this case during the latter’s October 2016 meeting. But the leadership of the Judicial Council declined this request, citing the need for sufficient time for consideration of the matters raised by the case. Why do that if the final result would be to only issue a very brief, one-page ruling that avoids addressing the very church-law matters the Judicial Council needed more time to consider?
If the Judicial Council decides that it does, indeed, have jurisdiction to rule on the questions (really, one integrated question with several sub-questions) submitted by the South Central Jurisdiction, then it must rule on the actual questions themselves. These questions, which can be read here, are what is centrally before the Judicial Council here. While they necessarily include a lot of UM church-law jargon, the bottom line is that they ask the Judicial Council to issue an authoritative, binding statement on what the standards in the UMC Discipline on marriage and sexual morality really mean, particularly in terms of whether or not someone’s being in a same-sex “marriage” (or same-sex civil union) “of public record” counts as them violating the Discipline’s ban on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” and whether or not someone in such a public homosexual relationship can be made a United Methodist bishop.
Contrary to what some have claimed, whatever the Judicial Council rules on these questions will become binding church law for our whole denomination, not just the Western Jurisdiction, and not just for the specific case of Oliveto.
Interestingly, the brief of the Western Jurisdiction bishops appears to take pains to avoid admitting that Oliveto’s election is any sort of protest against what these same bishops have elsewhere described as the Discipline’s unjust and immoral policies on homosexuality which they have committed to disobeying. Rather, the Western Jurisdiction bishops are now declaring that, despite the provisions of the UMC Discipline noted above, “our polity is silent on whether the status of a same-sex marriage is allowed or prohibited between a clergyperson and another.” My brief and others have argued otherwise. (I do wonder what liberal caucus activists think of these most liberal of UMC bishops shifting from “biblical disobedience” to “professions of technical obedience” to the Discipline.)
Thirdly, after the Judicial Council makes a general ruling on the meaning and application of church law, we will need to see what they say that would point towards how our church law can be applied and enforced in the specific case of Karen Oliveto.
The Judicial Council will hear oral arguments on this case.
Several delegates from the New York Annual Conference, including Dr. Dorothee Benz of the Methodists in New Directions (MIND) group, submitted a resolution to the 2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference. Originally entitled “Stop the Trials: A Moratorium by Bishops Within the Northeastern Jurisdiction,” this resolution denounced policies in the UMC Discipline forbidding clergy from performing same-sex marriages or being personally homosexually active, and sought to prevent these policies from being enforced anywhere in the Northeastern Jurisdiction.
Rev. Gere Reist (the liberal former Secretary of General Conference ) made an amendment to accomplish Benz’s goals by “request[ing]” relevant church officials throughout the Jurisdiction “to state that there are no funds available for” bringing accountability for clergy who choose to break these standards. While one brave delegate publicly noted that this amounted to “essentially asking people to lie” about their budgets, the majority of Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference delegates nevertheless voted to adopt this resolution with the Reist amendment.
One delegate then requested what is called a “decision of law.” This means that the bishop who was presiding over that session of the jurisdictional conference, Bishop Mark Webb of the Upper New York Conference, was required to write a legal opinion within 30 days of when the request submitted. The request questioned if the jurisdiction had any right to adopt the resolution discussed above.
Bishop Webb’s decision of law ruled that the resolution was invalid and “out of order,” citing well-established church law that jurisdictions and annual conferences have no right to negate, ignore, or violate portions of the Discipline, even if some people disagree with these portions of the Discipline.
When decisions of law are requested, first the decision is issued by a bishop and then the bishop’s decision is forwarded for the Judicial Council for review. The Judicial Council has authority to uphold or reverse any part of bishops’ decisions of law, as well as to rule that a request for such a decision was not properly submitted. Whatever the Judicial Council finally rules becomes binding church law.
It would be most consistent with a long history of previous rulings for the Judicial Council to simply affirm Bishop Webb’s ruling in this matter.
In this case, the Judicial Council is basically being asked to rule on a very “insider baseball” matter about the Western Jurisdiction’s compliance with some rules in the Discipline about who may be eligible for or restricted from a certain position.
This case does not directly involve sexuality or other hot-button controversies.
When United Methodist clergy violate the covenantal standards of our denomination and refuse to repent, a main way to hold them accountable is by having a church trial, at which the offending pastor can be removed from ministry, or face a lesser penalty, if found guilty.
However, we also have a process called “just resolutions,” the church equivalent of out-of-court settlements, through which bishops are encouraged to help everyone agree to a resolution of the problem in a way that brings repentance and restoration without needing the expenses, time, and emotional drain of a church trial.
The problem is that in recent years, several bishops with more secularized Western values on sexual morality have abused this process when clergy have performed same-sex union ceremonies, in direct defiance of the UMC Discipline, by imposing “just resolutions” that involve no repentance, no restoration, no penalty (beyond such joke-penalties as “24-hour suspensions”), nor, as Scripture commands, any warning for other clergy to not follow the offender’s example.
So a United Methodist church group in Pennsylvania submitted four petitions that would have required that any “just resolutions” for the specific offense of performing a same-sex union ceremony, when the accused minister openly admits to having done this (so that there is no question of guilt or innocence), must include a one-year suspension from ministry. The submitted rationale for all four noted: “This is the only offense for which there has been a recent, widespread pattern of the ‘just resolution’ process being abused to effectively allow for open breaking of our moral, biblical, compassionate Disciplinary standards with which some bishops personally disagree.”
All four of these were passed by strong majorities in their legislative committee, but after being amended to apply to just resolutions for ALL offenses, not just those involving same-sex unions.
Before the full General Conference had a chance to vote on these four petitions, three of them were challenged and brought to the Judicial Council. In Decision #1318, the Judicial Council ruled that these petitions were unconstitutional, and so the General Conference could not vote on them. I have already critiqued the tortured logic of that ruling. That decision was based on the rather blatantly false claim that mandating suspensions as part of “just resolutions” would somehow take away clergy’s right to trial, and on the Judicial Council’s choice to ignore the rationale in the submitted text of each petition that such a change in church law “[p]reserves clergy right to trial without needing trials for accountability” – since offending clergy would still have every right to refuse a just resolution and face a church trial if they really, really wanted a trial.
But the bottom line is that at that time, the Judicial Council had a liberal majority, and they ruled in a way that promoted their biases rather than a strict construction of church law.
Then later, the Rev. Scot Campbell, a liberal leader from the New England Conference (and my old friend from my Harvard days), noticed that for some reason, the Judicial Council had only been asked to rule on only three of these four similar petitions, and so he moved to have the Judicial Council rule on the fourth one from this group, which specifically dealt with “just resolutions” for bishops accused of breaking our standards.
In this case, the Judicial Council will have the opportunity to either reverse some of the problems of the previously mentioned decision or to re-affirm that disappointing ruling.
Can annual conferences (the UMC’s main geographic unit, of which there are dozens) adopt their own ordination policies in place of the ban (in ¶304 of the UMC Discipline) on ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals”?
This central question is coming before the Judicial Council in both this case and the next one discussed below.
Last year, the New York Annual Conference publicly announced a new official policy REQUIRING some of those charged with screening ordination candidates to welcome gay candidates within that region of United Methodism, since “discriminating against married persons regardless of the gender of their spouse or against those who hope to be married is not the path we believe God is calling us to walk.”
A couple months later, the New York Conference made a big public deal of saying they had taken “historic” actions by ordaining and commissioning several gay activists under this new policy, at least one of whom publicly admits to being in a lesbian “marriage.”
At that same annual conference session, an evangelical pastor requested a decision of law, with the request challenging this new policy and asking for clarity on if the board of ordained ministry (the main body charged with screening ordination candidates) is required to determine if candidates meet the biblical standards of sexual self-control which the Discipline requires of all UMC clergy, and what right such boards have to approve clergy they believe to be in violation of these moral standards. (I have seen no one here object to the idea of ordaining individuals who are same-sex-attracted but, because of their Christian faith, committed to lifelong celibacy.)
As reported earlier, New York’s interim bishop (until last September), Bishop Jane Middleton, initially tried to avoid responding directly to these questions, until she was forced to do so by the Judicial Council.
I have submitted legal briefs on this case challenging both the new pro-LGBTQ ordination policy and the affirmations of certain gay-activist candidates under this policy. Others have submitted other briefs on different sides.
At one point, the current chair of the New York Conference board of ordained ministry (BOOM) characterized this case as asking the Judicial Council, “essentially, to rule on whether BOOM and its district Committees on Ordination can operate outside the disciplinary rule (¶304).”
This case is very similar to the New York case above.
Last year, the Chicago-based Northern Illinois Conference Board of Ordained Ministry announced its own pro-LGBTQ ordination policy that was remarkably similar to that of the New York Conference, even using the exact same wording at one key point.
At the 2016 Northern Illinois annual conference session, an evangelical pastor there similarly requested a decision of law, challenging this new policy and seeking clarity on the board’s rights and responsibilities in determining ordination candidates’ compliance with the UMC Discipline’s biblical standards for sexual self-control.
As with the New York case, Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck initially tried to avoid responding directly to these questions, only to be forced to do so by the Judicial Council.
Two key differences from the New York case are first of all, that this Northern Illinois case included no record that I have seen of any particular gay activists actually being ordained under this new policy, and second of all, that Bishop Dyck’s latest response did end up ruling the pro-LGBTQ ordination policy “out of order.”
Beyond that, much of the church law involved in either one of the two cases discussed above would logically apply to the other.
This case involves questions about the precise status in church law of campus ministries and campus ministers according to the rules of this one particular annual conference. It does not directly relate to major theological issues or moral controversies.