When is language about The United Methodist Church’s positions on issues of sexuality considered “aspirational” and when could it condone a violation of church law?
That question relates to several statements adopted in 2014 by the denomination’s conferences. Rulings by bishops on the statements were among the 21 docket items considered by the United Methodist Judicial Council during its Oct. 22-25 meeting in Memphis, Tennessee.
The denomination’s top court affirmed the ruling of Bishop Marcus Matthews that a statement entitled "Agree to Disagree on Issues Pertaining to Gender and Sexual Minorities," one of five human sexuality resolutions passed by the Baltimore-Washington Conference, was lawful and did not violate the Book of Discipline or other council decisions.
In a separate decision, the council “affirmed in part and modified in part” the ruling by Matthews that the small-group “circle process” and written ballot used to vote on the five resolutions was lawful.
“The Judicial Council does not have jurisdiction in parliamentary matters,” the decision said. “Annual conference rules that make no distinctions because of race, color, national origin, status or economic conditions and apply to all members are not discriminatory.”
The council declared “null and of no effect” the ruling by Bishop Sally Dyck that a 2014 Northern Illinois Annual Conference resolution on marriage equality is “an historical and aspirational statement without prescriptive force which does not specifically negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline.”
While noting that Dyck’s response was “a thorough explanation and analysis,” the court said the questions presented to her were hypothetical and did not require a ruling.
Also considered an improper request by the council was a request submitted by a clergy member during the May 15, 2014, session of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.
The questioner asked whether it was “legal” for members or advisers of the Board of Ordained Ministry to remain on the board when they had made public statements “that they cannot and will not uphold the Discipline.” The request referred in particular to “those who participated in the Arch Street same-gender wedding” and cited Judicial Council Decision 980, “which held that persons who would not uphold the Discipline were ineligible to serve on the Committee on Investigation or a jury pool.”
Bishop Peggy Johnson issued a decision of law that Decision 980 does not apply to the nominations process by the conference’s committee on nominations. The Judicial Council reversed her decision, saying the request was moot and hypothetical.
“It is not a potential unwillingness by a clergy member to adhere to the Discipline, but a specified act of misconduct or a chargeable offense specified in the Discipline that can lead to ecclesiastical sanctions,” the decision said. “It is not permissible for some moot or hypothetical matter to become the basis of church law.”
The council deferred decisions on sexuality-related rulings by Bishop Deborah L. Kiesey regarding a 2014 Detroit Annual Conference resolution and by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar on a 2014 New England Annual Conference resolution until its April 2015 meeting.
Oral hearing on complaint process
The council held an oral hearing Oct. 22 on a petition filed by the Western Pennsylvania Conference asking for a “declaratory decision” about Book of Discipline guidelines regarding the process for the review and dismissal of a complaint against a bishop.
Although the questions raised in the petition applied to the church in general, the conference included details regarding its continued concerns about what it considered a lack of response from East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula over the handling of funds.
Two years ago, the Western Pennsylvania Conference, which raised about $100,000 for church projects in Uganda, asked the Judicial Council to rule whether funds given to the East Africa Conference were used in accordance with the intent of the donors as required by Paragraph 258.4 of the 2008 Book of Discipline.
During the oral hearing, Nancy DeNardo and the Rev. Robert Zilaver, representing the conference, addressed the council and responded to questions. Wandabula filed a statement but reported that he was unable to participate in the hearing.
The Judicial Council made two separate rulings related to the dispute during the Oct. 22-25 meeting. Decision 1275, addressing the general questions in the new petition, noted that the president or secretary of the College of Bishops has the power to refer a complaint and added, “If the matter is not referred, it is effectively dismissed.”
Other issues raised by the questions in the petition “require legislative resolution by the General Conference,” the decision said.
Decision 1281 addressed three issues raised earlier by the Western Pennsylvania Conference as part of Decisions 1238 and 1241.
The partnership between Western Pennsylvania and the East Africa Conference does not fall under the council’s jurisdiction, the ruling said, and the $3,000 the council agreed that Wandabula owed to the conference was received on May 27, 2014.
A complaint against Wandabula “was resolved when the College of Bishops of the Africa Central Conference verified that they had dismissed the charges against Bishop Wandabula,” the decision said. “The case has been resolved and the Judicial Council no longer has jurisdiction.”
In other rulings, the Judicial Council:
- Said, in responding to a request from Western Jurisdiction bishops, that a complaint against a bishop filed with the president of a Jurisdictional College of Bishops may be handled initially through the supervisory process but if just resolution cannot be achieved, “the involved parties may initiate an administrative complaint or a judicial complaint.”
- Instructed that the plan unifying the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande conferences into the Rio Texas Conference is “remanded back” for further refining, with a report and revised structure plan sent to the council’s secretary 30 days following the adjournment of the 2015 Rio Texas Annual Conference.