Church court reviews LGBTQ-related resolutions

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Key points:

  • The United Methodist Judicial Council released more rulings as it works through its fall docket.
  • Three of the church court’s decisions relate to resolutions about the status of LGBTQ people in the church.
  • The church court also released two memoranda that address requests for declaratory decisions related to the denomination’s complaint process and bishop elections in Africa.

The United Methodist Church’s top court released three decisions on March 10 that deal with resolutions related to the status of LGBTQ people in the church.

In another ruling, the Judicial Council reiterated its previous determination that annual conferences, the denomination’s regional bodies, do not have the authority to unilaterally withdraw from The United Methodist Church.

The nine-member Judicial Council released its rulings as the denomination is undergoing a slow-motion separation after decades of intensifying debate related to LGBTQ inclusion.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, has stated since 1972 that all people are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The book bans clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings and prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

However, some annual conferences and even U.S. jurisdictional conferences — regional bodies consisting of voters from multiple annual conferences — have challenged these bans in recent years.

Bishops frequently face questions of law during church meetings where they preside about the resolutions that these bodies consider, and the Discipline requires the Judicial Council to review all of the bishops’ resulting decisions.

A recurring source of questions for bishops and thus the Judicial Council is the language in conference-approved resolutions sharing views related to the status of LGBTQ people. At issue is often whether the resolution’s language counts as aspirational for the church’s future or whether it ignores, negates or violates church law in the present.

2 memoranda released

The Judicial Council also released two memoranda that address requests for declaratory decisions related to the denomination’s complaint process and bishop elections in Africa. Both included dissents.

In Memorandum 1466, the church court majority declined to take up a request from the Virginia Conference for a declaratory decision on the meaning, application and effect of various provisions related to the denomination’s complaint process.
The memorandum said the record showed that the conference’s request stemmed from a complaint filed in 2019 against a clergyperson that was still in the supervisory response process and thus still open. “Given the judicial and pending nature of the request, the Judicial Council declines jurisdiction in this case,” the majority said.
However, in a dissenting opinion, members Beth Capen, the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko and Lidia N. Gulele disagreed with the majority’s assessment. “A well-informed application of the long line of Judicial Council decisions requires the opposite result from the majority opinion,” the dissent said. 

In Decision 1469, the church court affirmed in part and reversed in part Bishop David Allan Bard’s decision upholding the resolution titled “Covenant to Build BeLoved Community” as aspirational. Delegates at the special North Central Jurisdictional Conference on Nov. 11, 2021, passed the resolution by a vote of 135-32.

The Judicial Council agreed with Bard that much of the contested part of the resolution, which implores no harm be done to LGBTQ people, is aspirational in nature. In the resolution, delegates “urge all members of the NCJ to avoid pursuing charges for LGBTQIA+ clergy and allies, and request our episcopal leaders dismiss charges related to LGBTQIA+ identity or officiating same gender weddings.”

However, the Judicial Council said the resolution crossed the line when it said, “We will not restrict God’s calling based solely on a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

In reviewing a conference resolution, the church court said it distinguishes between aspirational language that makes a request and prescriptive language that directs action contrary to the Discipline. The jurisdiction’s statement that its members “will not” restrict a clergy candidate’s calling based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity amounted to “a declaration of non-compliance,” the Judicial Council said.

The church court has ruled previously that annual conference boards of ordained ministry must “conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope,” to ensure clergy candidates meet the requirements set forth in the Discipline.

“The issue here is not fair treatment of LGBTQIA+ persons but thorough examination and investigation of all candidates for ministry in The United Methodist Church,” the church court said in Decision 1469.

In an opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part, Judicial Council member Beth Capen said the conference’s statement on a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity is consistent with the Discipline.

“The candidate must be meaningfully evaluated in a whole variety of aspects of his or her life. Indeed this sentence is less problematic than other sentences that the Judicial Council has affirmed as aspirational,” she wrote. “Also, there are no prohibitions or restrictions regarding gender identity in the Discipline.”

She added that the Discipline’s restriction is not against ordaining someone who is “homosexual,” but against ordaining gay people who are noncelibate.

In the similar Decision 1468, the Judicial Council reversed Indiana Conference Bishop Julius C. Trimble’s decision that said the conference’s resolution “A Commitment to Grace in The Indiana Conference” was aspirational in nature. The conference approved the resolution by a vote of 380 to 332 last year.

The church court said the resolution “contains prescriptive language that runs counter to The Discipline and is, therefore, null and void.”

Specifically, the church court said that the resolution’s encouragement of leaving weddings up to individual clergy and congregations, so long as the unions are “between two consenting, committed adults,” deviates from the denomination’s definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman.” Similarly, the church court said the resolution’s promise not to restrict a clergy candidate’s call solely based on sexual orientation and gender identity was “a call to ignore human sexuality in the candidacy process.”

However, in a dissenting opinion, Judicial Council members Capen and the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko said they would have affirmed Trimble’s ruling.

In Decision 1467, the Judicial Council affirmed now-retired Bishop James E. Swanson Sr.’s decision to uphold the Mississippi Conference’s resolution on human sexuality. By a vote of 402 to 348, the conference last year approved the resolution, which states that the practice of homosexuality “is contrary to God’s standard of holy behavior and consequently, is an immoral (sinful) act of behavior.”

Because the resolution set out to establish “a theological statement” on the practice of homosexuality, the bishop faced the question of whether the conference had exceeded authority reserved to the Book of Discipline.

Swanson noted that the Discipline encourages reflection across the theological spectrum. “It is the doctrinal standards, not theological interpretation, that are within our denomination immutable,” he wrote. He added that the resolution was aspirational in nature, and does not request that Mississippi United Methodists act in any way that rejects the Discipline.

The Judicial Council affirmed Swanson for the reasons stated in his ruling.

In a separate opinion, Capen and Kiboko urged their fellow court members to include more information than simply affirming a bishop’s decision “for the reasons set forth therein.”

“The specific issues that the Judicial Council is affirming in its review of a Bishop’s ruling on a question of law ought to be set forth in the Digest,” the two wrote.

Capen also wrote separately that an additional concern is that “episcopal rulings contain many nuanced statements that can be interpreted in a variety of ways” and thereby risk resulting in misapplication without a Judicial Council ruling identifying the key points.

In Decision 1464, the Judicial Council affirmed South Georgia Conference Bishop David W. Graves’ decision that a resolution calling for a special session to consider the annual conference’s disaffiliation violates church law and is moot and hypothetical.

The resolution called for a special session in October 2022 should General Conference happen that year. Since General Conference was postponed to 2024, the bishop said the resolution was moot and hypothetical.

The bishop also said the resolution proposed the special session take action that would be unconstitutional, null and void.

He noted that the Judicial Council had previously ruled, “There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church.”

The Judicial Council reiterated that point in its March decision. “An Annual Conference may not disobey the Discipline by engaging in any act that is prohibited by the Discipline,” the church court said.

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.


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