Last week, the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s supreme court, completed its Fall 2017 session. As usual, the most closely watched cases related to sexual morality. On quite a number of matters, the Judicial Council “punted” by avoiding making substantive rulings on key matters appealed to it. And one little-noticed part of its latest round of rulings effectively require current Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller to file a new complaint against lesbian activist minister Anna Blaedel.
Here’s what happened:
The most substantive ruling on sexuality matters in this session was Decision #1352, which affirmed a ruling by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling. In this decision, the Judicial Council re-affirmed previously established church law by declaring, in the context of discussions about the UMC Discipline’s forbidding the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” “It is the duty of the Board of Ordained Ministry to conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation of a candidate, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope to ensure that disciplinary standards are met,” and that the full clergy session of an annual conference has no right to vote to ordain someone in violation of our denomination’s standards.
This case was a sort of epilogue to the failed attempt by openly “married” lesbian activist T.C. Morrow to be ordained in the UMC’s liberal-leaning Baltimore-Washington Conference. We have reported earlier on how this prompted a prominent liberal retired clergyman to surrender his own ordination in protest. This latest decision alluded to this history by recalling, “Decisions 1341, 1343 and 1344 prevent a Board of Ordained Ministry from ignoring statements of self-disclosure about any action that violates any portion of church law as is the case of the candidate who acknowledged that she is a lesbian and married to another woman.”
But the most interesting case came out of the Iowa Conference.
The Judicial Council was asked to rule of several questions of law arising from how Anna Blaedel, an ordained campus minister at the University of Iowa, publicly declared, “I am a self-avowed, practicing homosexual” before everyone gathered at the 2016 Iowa Annual Conference session, a complaint was properly filed against her, the complaint was later bizarrely dismissed, and Blaedel was kept in good standing (for now), despite the clear violation of our aforementioned ordination standards.
I remain disappointed with how the Judicial Council mostly dodged the relevant questions and accountability concerns brought before it in this case. But one key detail of Decision #1351 was the declaration that if Anna Blaedel were to make another statement of “self-avowing” her status as a practicing homosexual, at any point after September 1, 2016, then “Clearly … the current bishop would have a duty to initiate proceedings [against Blaedel] under Discipline ¶362 in accordance with JCD 920 and 1341.” Anna Blaedel almost immediately issued another public statement declaring “I proudly remain a ‘self-avowed, practicing homosexual,’” and Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller has been made aware of this. This triggers the mandate for a new complaint against Ms. Blaedel mandated by Decision #1351.
The liberal-leaning, numerically tiny Denmark Annual Conference got some attention by voting to request that the Judicial Council judicially invalidate our denomination’s official disapproval of homosexuality, on the specious grounds that this somehow established a brand new standard contrary to our denomination’s core Doctrinal Standards – the Methodist Articles of Religion, EUB Confession of Faith, Standard Sermons of John Wesley, and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament. Three of these documents were set in stone in our church law way back in 1808.
Those making, cheering, and supporting this petition seemed oblivious about the fact that the Judicial Council had already been asked to rule on this essential question, multiple times, and consistently determined that there was no conflict between our Doctrinal Standards and the General Conference adopting binding standards disapproving of homosexual practice. I reminded the Council of this history in my “friend of the court” brief. (Fellow church-law nerds, you can check out Decisions #845, 1027, and 1185). Other briefs were submitted on both sides.
As for the core question of if anti-homosexuality teaching is contrary to our Doctrinal Standards, on the one hand, the Judicial Council had my brief which among other things outlined numerous ways in which disapproval of homosexual practice is already inextricably embedded within these Doctrinal Standards we have in place for over 200 years. You can read all about that here, and keep this in mind the next time you hear someone ignorantly claim that our church had no official teaching related to homosexuality before 1972.
And on the other hand, supporters of the Denmark request… well they really had no argument I could discern for identifying any part of the UMC Doctrinal Standards to which our marriage and ordination standards were somehow “contrary.” And they were unable to refute or explain away the numerous places and ways in which I outlined how our marriage and ordination standards reflect the clear teaching within the Doctrinal Standards.
In the unanimous Memorandum #1347, the Judicial Council basically punted by avoiding a direct answer to Denmark’s request, citing technicalities about how it was submitted. This means that all current church law related to homosexuality, as well as the Council’s aforementioned precedents affirming these provision’s compatibility with our Doctrinal Standards, remain in place.
From the California-Pacific Conference came a similar request to the one from Denmark. But officials in that annual conference did not even to bother to record whether or not the motion to petition the General Conference on this matter received the required majority vote. Apparently, the leadership of that conference for some reason thought that when the Discipline allowed annual conferences to submit request for declaratory decisions to the Judicial Council, this meant that any motion to submit such a request only needed the support of 20 percent of voting annual conference members to be valid. But the Judicial Council rightly countered that “In the absence of any specified vote [in the Discipline], it is assumed that a simple majority vote is the requirement for a declaratory decision by an annual conference.” The lack of competence on the part of the well-paid leadership of the California-Pacific Conference is rather striking here. But in any case, the Judicial Council correctly determined that the California-Pacific request was not properly submitted, and so they declined to rule on it.
A couple of decisions out of the Greater New Jersey Conference have publicized exposed how Bishop John Schol has been pursuing a complaint against a prominent clergywoman in his conference and has been inflicting severe punishments on her without any due process from the complaint actually proving that she has done anything wrong.
In the 2017 South Carolina Annual Conference session, quite a bit of attention surrounded a resolution submitted by a pastor that would have moved that annual conference towards disaffiliating from the denomination. However, the bishop ruled the resolution “out of order” before it could be discussed and voted on.
The bishop’s ruling was basically challenged by two requests for rulings of law, which ultimately were considered by the Judicial Council at this last session.
However, in Memorandum #1356, the Council declined to rule on the substance of the questions on the grounds that it is not the Council’s job to review “parliamentary” decisions by bishops. As that decision put it: “After the bishop ruled the resolution out of order, the proper recourse for the proponent of the resolution was to appeal that ruling. No request to appeal the ruling was made.”
Moral of the story: if you want to push a resolution at your annual conference, your bishop rules it out of order, and you believe that this was unfair, then the thing to do is to as soon as possible go to the microphone to “appeal the ruling of the chair,” that is, call for a vote of the annual conference and allow discussion and voting on the resolution even if the bishop does not want this.
Somewhat similar was Memorandum #1357, in which the Judicial Council ruled that it was not the proper body for an appeal of that conference bishop’s ruling two proposed resolutions out of order. However the record for that case suggests that Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi ruled the resolutions out of order in an unusual way, which I could see causing confusion for if or how these rulings of hers could be appealed. The Judicial Council did conclude this decision with a subtle, for-future-reference chiding of Bishop Moore-Koikoi: “However, the better way to make a record of a parliamentary decision would be to do so on the record and orally on the floor during a regular session of the Annual Conference.”
Both of these resolutions would have directly rebuked the disobedience movement.
One of these proposed Resolutions, “307: A Limitation on Conference and District Boards of Ordained Ministry Policies” would have put the whole annual conference on record as “express[ing] our deep and heartfelt disappointment” with a handful of annual conferences who have adopted vows to ignore the sexuality-morality provisions in our denomination’s ordination standards.
Another of the proposed resolutions, “611: Petition Against Actions of Non-Conformity” would have put the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference, the largest annual conference in the Northeastern Jurisdiction, on-record as “express[ing] its profound disagreement with the call to non-conformity made by the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference as well as those made by other Jurisdictions and Annual Conferences in our United Methodist connection.” (Note: that Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference resolution was later invalidated by the Judicial Council.)
In any case, both of these resolutions were supported by overwhelming votes in legislative section without amendment, each receiving 71 percent support. So both likely would have passed were it not for the bishop’s intervention. (In fairness to the bishop, those interested in the details of the bishop’s parliamentary ruling and the reasoning she offered, may read her public submissions to the Judicial Council here and here.)
These realities make it fair to take the content of both resolutions as likely reflective of the dominant mood of Western Pennsylvania United Methodists.
With that in mind, it is worth reading these resolutions. However, both are a bit long, so I am sharing only excerpted versions here:
P 307 Petition: A Limitation on Conference and District
Boards of Ordained Ministry Policies
WHEREAS Scripture calls the Church to be unified in mind and thought (I Corinthians 1:10),
WHEREAS Scripture teaches that leaders of the Church are to be above reproach and worthy of respect in all things (I Timothy 3:1-13),
WHEREAS ¶304.3 of the Book of Discipline states, “While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
WHEREAS ¶635.2.h states, “[The duties of the Board of Ordained Ministry shall be] To examine all applicants as to their fitness for ordained ministry and make a full inquiry as to the fitness of the candidate for: 1) annual election as local pastor; 2) election to associate membership; 3)election to provisional membership; 4) election to full conference membership.”
WHEREAS The New York Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry has adopted a policy which prevents the board from conducting a full inquiry of candidates as to their fitness for ministry by, “not consider[ing] the sexual orientation in evaluating a clergy candidate, even if that individual has a spouse of the same gender” (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/new-york-board-welcomes-gay-clergy-candidates).
WHEREAS The New York Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry’s policy has been set as a standard in the following annual conferences: Northern Illinois Annual Conference, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, California-Nevada Annual Conference, Wisconsin Annual Conference, New England Annual Conference, Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.
WHEREAS ¶635.1.b states that, “[The Board of Ordained Ministry] shall be directly amenable to the annual conference […]”
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Western PA Conference expresses our deep and heartfelt disappointment in our sibling conferences who have adopted policies and statements that restrict the evaluation of the fitness of candidates for ministry.
THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Western PA Conference applauds our Conference and District Boards of Ordained Ministry for not following in the example set by the New York Annual Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry’s policy but rather staying true to the stipulations of the Book of Discipline.
[submitted by] Nathanael Fugate, Jacob Judy, Joni Williams, Donald Henderson, Randy Hall
P 611 Petition Against Actions of Non-Conformity
WHEREAS 1 Corinthians 11:17-18 states, “I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together as a church, it does more harm than good. When you meet together, I hear that there are divisions among you…”,
WHEREAS The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states in paragraphs 103 and 104 that John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament are doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church,
WHEREAS John Wesley’s notes for 1 Corinthians 11:18 denounce divisional statements in the Church, stating, “It is plain that by schisms is not meant any separation from the church, but uncharitable divisions in it; for the Corinthians continued to be one church; and, notwithstanding all their strife and contention, there was no separation of any one party from the rest, with regard to external communion. And it is in the same sense that the word is used, 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 12:25; which are the only places in the New Testament, beside this, where church schisms are mentioned. Therefore, the indulging any temper contrary to this tender care of each other is the true scriptural schism. This is, therefore, a quite different thing from that orderly separation from corrupt churches which later ages have stigmatized as schisms; and have made a pretence for the vilest cruelties, oppressions, and murders, that have troubled the Christian world. ….”,
WHEREAS paragraph 125 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states, “United Methodists throughout the world are bound together in a connectional covenant in which we support and hold each other accountable for faithful discipleship and mission.”,
WHEREAS paragraph 4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states, “The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.”,
WHEREAS paragraph 304.3 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states…,
WHEREAS paragraph 161.C of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states…,
WHEREAS paragraph 161.G of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states…,
WHEREAS paragraph 613.19 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states …,
WHEREAS paragraph 2702.1 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 states…,
WHEREAS there were actions taken in 2016 by the Boards of Ordained Ministry in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, the California-Nevada Annual Conference, the New England Annual Conference, the New York Annual Conference, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, and the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference to ignore sexual behavior and/or gender identity when recommending people for ordained ministry,
WHEREAS there were non-binding resolutions passed in 2016 by the California-Pacific Annual Conference, the Desert Southwest Annual Conference, the New England Annual Conference, and the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference to ignore provisions of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church which provide direction to Annual Conferences regarding the clergy candidacy process, ordination, and appointment of persons engaged in homosexual behaviors,
WHEREAS the New York Annual Conference in 2016 ordained four openly homosexual clergy,
WHEREAS the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church in 2016 passed a resolution pledging non-conformity with The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church regarding issues related to homosexual practice,
WHEREAS the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church in 2016 elected a Bishop who is herself public about being a married lesbian (http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/married-lesbian-consecrated-united-methodist-bishop),
WHEREAS the Northeast Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church in 2016 passed a resolution encouraging Conferences to disobey The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church regarding issues related to homosexual practice (see Appendix),
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Western PA Conference pledges faithfulness to our covenant connection as outlined in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 as an obedient witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ through The United Methodist Church, even as the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference encourages covenantal unfaithfulness,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Western PA Conference expresses its profound disagreement with the call to non-conformity made by the Northeast Jurisdictional Conference as well as those made by other Jurisdictions and Annual Conferences in our United Methodist connection,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Western PA Conference calls on its sibling Conferences in the Northeast Jurisdiction to prayerfully practice faithfulness to the provisions of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2016 which pertain to sexual behaviors, particularly as they relate to United Methodist clergy and candidates for ministry,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the authors of this resolution are authorized by the Western PA Conference to send copies of this resolution as soon as possible following the 2017 Annual Conference session to the Bishops of each Episcopal area in the Northeast Jurisdiction, the President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, the three presiding Bishops of the Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, and the United Methodist News Service.
[submitted by] Keith Mcilwain, Cindy Duffee, Ken Duffee, John Emigh, Roy Gearhart, Paul Morelli, Joni Williams
(The full text of resolutions 307 and 611 can be read at this link.)