The recent Judicial Council decision related to a New York Conference bishop’s ruling on gay ordination issues has prompted statements from the conference board of ordained ministry, the current bishop and advocacy groups.
New York was one of two conferences — the other was Northern Illinois — where the top court of The United Methodist Church asked for a further ruling from bishops regarding public affirmations by boards of ordained ministry that they would not query clergy candidates about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
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The Judicial Council disagreed with Bishop Jane Allen Middleton’s argument that she could not rule on two questions related to the board of ordained ministry’s process for evaluating candidates. She said ruling would violate the denomination’s principle of separation of powers, saying the work of an independent conference board “is not a subject upon which a decision of law can be made.”
The council said the questions raised in the New York case are about whether the board of ordained ministry’s policy and procedures are legal. Ruling on those questions does not require the bishop to interfere in the ordination process or the vote of the clergy session, the council said. During the clergy session at annual conferences, all the clergy vote on candidates recommended by the board of ordained ministry.
The court’s decision “reveals a misguided understanding of the role of the board of ordained ministry as an agency of the annual conference,” said the Rev. Lydia E. Lebrón-Rivera, the New York board chair, in a Nov. 3 open letter.
Lebrón-Rivera pointed out that the board of ordained ministry is “amenable and accountable to the clergy session and to the annual conference. And we have heard loud and clear, time after time, of the need to recruit and ordain effective candidates for ministry, and equip them to serve diverse places of ministry in the New York Episcopal Area, regardless of the candidate’s sexual orientation and gender.”
General Conference “in its inability to affirm and celebrate the full inclusion of our LGBTQI brothers and sisters in the life and ministry of the church, has failed us all, depriving our churches and communities of their Spirit-given gifts and graces,” she wrote. LGBTQI stands for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer and intersex.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline has long stated that all individuals are of sacred worth but the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Rev. Steve Knutsen, who raised the questions that resulted in the ruling, said he had just read the board of ordained ministry’s letter and had not formulated any response.
Knutsen, a local pastor who leads Seaford United Methodist Church, said he planned to spend the day with a clergy colleague in prayer for the conference, the bishops and the entire United Methodist Church.
Bishop: More work needed
Lebrón-Rivera told United Methodist News Service she had not yet discussed the Judicial Council decision with the conference’s new episcopal leader, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, but is hopeful about his leadership.
“He is someone who is very inclusive,” she said. “I feel very comfortable that our work for the future is going to be very collaborative and mutually empowering.”
In a Nov. 1 message on the New York conference website, Bickerton wrote that Middleton, the former interim bishop, would make the rulings requested by Judicial Council, but noted “there is more work to be done.”
He asked for prayers for Middleton, expressed gratitude to the conference board of ordained ministry and shared a commitment to support “the persons directly affected by this matter.”
While acknowledging that conference members “are not of one mind” over the ordination issues, Bickerton expressed hope that their ministry “can unfold in the midst of varied contexts and theological expressions.”
“I fully believe that there is a way through all that we are facing,” the bishop wrote.
Methodists in New Directions, a New York Conference advocacy group, released an Oct. 30 statement noting “that the only way forward” was not to comply with unjust rules. The group called upon the conference board of ordained ministry to re-affirm its stance and for Bickerton to “embrace and affirm” that decision.
CalledOUT, a self-identified group of United Methodist LGBTQI clergy and candidates, lamented that the Judicial Council decisions undermined “the faithful work” of the New York, Northern Illinois and New England conferences and their boards of ordained ministry. In a letter posted on its Facebook page, the group expressed hope that boards and bishops of those conferences “will continue to affirm the commissioning and ordination of LGBTQI clergy.”
Northern Illinois ruling
Northern Illinois Bishop Sally Dyck said she would be “discerning the question of law as directed by the Judicial Council and will post my ruling by December 31, 2016.”
In the Northern Illinois Conference, a motion was defeated that would have directed the board of ordained ministry to “maintain the minimum standard for licensed or ordained ministry” of celibacy in singleness or fidelity in heterosexual marriage. The motion also directed the board to ascertain that candidates meet that standard.
After the vote, there was a request for a decision of law about what the board of ordained ministry is required to do and whether the board can recommend a candidate whom they believe “to be in violation of the fidelity, celibacy or definition of marriage standard.”
Dyck ruled both requests “moot and hypothetical,” but in Decision 1329, Judicial Council reversed the bishop’s action and requested a new ruling by Dec. 31.
In a third related matter, the Judicial Council affirmed a decision by Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar that most of a “non-conformity” resolution adopted by the New England Annual Conference was in violation of church law.
CalledOut also disagreed with that ruling.
“Dehumanizing laws are simply unjust; no amount of legalism can change that,” the letter said. “We believe it is discrimination that is, in fact, ‘out of order.’ ”
Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Brown is editor of United Methodist News Service. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]