UMC Judicial Council

April 20, 2017

A Preview of the UMC Judicial Council’s April 2017 Cases

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.


Docket #0417-1: The South Central Jurisdiction’s Request for a Declaratory Decision (aka, the Karen Oliveto case)

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.


Docket #0417-2: The Northeastern Jurisdiction “Stop the Trials” Resolution

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.


Docket #0417-3: Decision of Law from the Western Jurisdiction

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.


Docket #0417-4: Mandatory Suspensions in “Just Resolutions”

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.


Docket #0417-5: Pro-LGBTQ Ordination Policy in New York Conference

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).”


Docket #0417-6: Pro-LGBTQ Ordination Policy in Northern Illinois Conference

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.


Docket #0417-7: Decision of Law from West Michigan Conference

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.

  • Kaz

    Folks, when you see your church controlled by people who aren’t even remotely Christian, it’s time to leave. You may have a sentimental attachment to your local congregation, and you may feel the urge to stay in the denomination and “fight the good fight.” But consider the matter of stewardship of your precious time. The UMC is as rotten, spiritually and ethically, as the other mainlines, it’s just been slightly more hesitant to openly celebrate homosexuality, but be assured, the seminaries run by the UM are thoroughly and absolutely opposed to the sexual ethics taught in the New Testament.

    The ship is sinking. Why would you want to be on it? There are good churches out there, ones with real Christians. It may take some work to find the right fit, but it will be worth it.

    • Reed Swanson

      Do you realize that the United Methodist Church unlike other mainline denominations is international? The international church is growing more orthodox every day.

  • Bernice McBride

    Since she ‘married’ another female, it doesn’t sound fabricated. It sounds factual. The Methodist church has been hijacked by lgbtq.

    • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

      That isn’t the fabricated part. It’s the “pro-demon, anti-Jesus theology” part, and probably the “bad churches” part, since he steadfastly refuses to substantiate it. Other more subtle forms of spin and alternative facts, too. I hear you about how you feel regarding LGBT issues, and I am sorry that their desire to be treated like human beings makes you feel hijacked. Do you feel that something is being taken from you, when gay people gain the same rights and responsibilities that you and I enjoy?

      • Michael C

        Who should we trust on this issue?
        You – or the New Testament?

        I’m sticking with the New Testament.

        I’m sure you’re very proud of being so “inclusive,” but being more inclusive than God is just a tad presumptuous. For 2000 years, Christians consistently taught that homosexuality is a sin which can exclude a person from heaven. It’s a curious coincidence (to put it mildly) that it wasn’t until the rise of the gay movement that some so-called “Christians” suddenly “discovered” that Christians had been wrong for 2000 years. The New Testament was wrong, and the gay activists are right? Sorry – FAIL.

        You may think you’re on the “right side of history,” but if you persist in condoning a sin that is clearly condemned in the New Testament, you may find yourself on the wrong side of Judgment Day. Christianity is not about conforming to the world, and the Religious Left is in total conformity.

        • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

          Oh, I think God is the one to trust above all, and conforming to God’s will is exactly what this issue is all about. We have no interest in “conforming to the world.” We see the church’s attitudes and behaviors toward gay people yo be deeply and clearly sinful, and out of line with the will of God in Jesus Christ. So, we have resolved that — even at risk of our ministries and our lives — we must stop participating in this sin of pride and cruelty.

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            Also, the church did not teach for 2000 years that homosexuality would keep a person out of heaven, nor were the NT passages at issue always translated that way. But even if it did, and even if they were, it would still have been a wrong thing that the church would need to repent from, and reform. Like the long, long list of other sins we have committed as a church in the name of Jesus Christ…like the long, long list of things we have misunderstood, and then corrected as we have grown in faith with God.

          • apriluser

            Please substantiate your claims.

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            This statement is based on long years of reading and studying, most of it in books and personal experiences, rather than online, so it is more difficult to easily find sources to share with you. One good book that distills a lot of the history of Biblical and social views of homosexuality is “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” by Kathy Baldock. You can find it pretty much anywhere. Here is a link to an article by Walter Wink that discusses some of it:

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            To be clear, I am not saying that the Christian church never condemned homosexuality. Of course it did. But in the same breath, most writers (John Chrysostom, Peter Damian, Augustine, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas) grouped homosexuality with masturbation, bestiality, and any form of sex between men and women that could not result in a child, calling them all worse than murder. Until the 20th century, all of these things were included in the word “sodomy.” In their view rape and prostitution were better, because at least they weren’t murdering potential babies. So for them, it’s not that homosexuality itself was wrong, it’s that any waste of semen was murder. Some also expressed horror at men who “take on the role of women” in sex…in other words (sorry, don’t mean to be graphic here), the penetrator was guilty of wasting semen, but the receiver was MORE guilty because he was acting like a woman. Horror of horrors. Sexual restraint was also hugely important to early Christian writers (as well it should be), and so a big part of their disgust about any type of sex that wasn’t about reproduction — even between husband and wife — was that it was considered lustful and self-indulgent. I have an awesome 19th century book here at home that goes on and on and on about how a “real man” has no interest in sex at all, no enjoyment of it, and only does it reluctantly to create heirs. It evidently was extremely popular in its day, and has reviews in it from like 20 pastors.

            With all of that in mind, here is a list of quotes from early Christian writers about homosexuality. As you will see, almost all of them talk about sex with boys rather than with 2 adult men. They also mention being “emasculated”, being addicted to pleasure and luxury, etc. Ironically, the guy who put the list together thinks it is making his point, but he evidently didn’t read the quotes very carefully LOL.

            He leaves out John Chrysostom in his list. Writing in the 300s, Chrysostom goes so far as to make clear that the Romans 1 passage is only about lust, and not about 2 men who are in love. Which he evidently knew was possible, and not sinful. Which, of course, is true.

            Interestingly, Peter Damian wrote a famous book about priests and their sexual excesses in the 11th century. In it, he is angry that the habit of the Christian church was to punish priests for sex with nuns or other women, but to ignore their sexual activity with young men (young adult men who were novices, in the first stages of taking their priestly vows). He writes that he knows that the church has never punished such things before, but that it is wrong, and it should, because any sex for a priest is wrong. By implication, then, we know that when clergy had sex with each other it was not considered a problem.

            Sorry this is so long. There is so, so much more. But no, it doesn’t come out of thin air. Blessings.

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            Hmmm I posted a comment with more detail, but it seems to have disappeared. It was kinda long, maybe there are length limits on this board? I will try to re-create it later.

          • Macy Rivera

            What are these things on this long list that you speak of?

        • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

          Re the “sudden” discovery that Christians had been wrong on homosexuality for 2000 years: the first Bible that condemned homosexuality was published in 1946.

          • apriluser

            You are completely correct in that the church has not been helpful at all for people dealing with homosexuality. Rather than condemn, we should have been seeking help for these precious brothers and sisters.

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            The “help” that the church has sought to provide has resulted in suicides. It seems clear that it is the church who needs help.

          • apriluser

            In the 50-some years of being in the church as a parishoner and decades as a clergy spouse, not one person took their own life. (Your comments tend to pull facts out of thin air and have no stats to substantiate your claims. I’m not sure that’s the perception you are aiming for.).

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            I am sorry you feel that way. As a pastor of a good sized church, I have been busy for the past couple of days preparing for worship and various events, and so I haven’t been able to gather the resources you have asked for. I am so glad that you haven’t experienced a suicide in your church, praise God for that…it is awful. Beyond awful. Here are some statistics about that, which you might find helpful, from the National Alliance on Mental Health, and the other from a suicide prevention site. Both cite the same statistical data about the lack of family/church/community support leading to a much higher rate of suicide, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse:

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            Oh, and here is some information regarding the harm that church “help” (in the form of formal or informal conversion therapy) has caused:

          • johnschuh

            The first chapter of Romans condemns homosexuality. Do you not think that Paul knew far more about the practice than you do? It is not of course ONLY homosexuality that he comdemns.The Greeks were far more public with their sexual practices than people are today. He had only to go to the nearest public toilet in any city to see people doing stuff that would turn your stomach but which he saw as just part of the general madness affecting society owing to their worship of false gods. The stuff that you can see in “adult films” could be seen on open display. Ditto what went on at Woodstock, but on a tiny scale so as not to bother public commerce as a whole.

          • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

            I’m not sure what Paul knew or didn’t know about homosexuality. I am sure that Romans 1 is about the kind of sexual excesses you describe, and not about a loving, faithful relationship between two adult men. Even St John Chrysostom, way back in the 300s, makes that clear. He writes, in a looooooong homily on Romans 1, that it is strictly about lust: “For it [Paul, in Romans 1:26, 27] does not say that they were in love, and thus desired each other, but rather “they burned in their lust toward one another.” It’s fascinating. Here’s a link to one translation:,_Iohannes_Chrysostomus,_Homilies_on_The_Epistle_To_The_Romans,_EN.pdf

      • johnschuh

        The point of Christianity is to treat people as human beings. We want to be sound in mind and body, and we want people to be honest about the condition of each one. Likewise we expect the truth in matters of of salvation.

        • Dawn M. Flower Blundell

          Amen. 😊