Bishops must answer all questions of law that are properly before them, The United Methodist Church’s top court said in two cases stemming from the ordination of gay clergy.
That opinion was part of two decisions from the fall meeting of the Judicial Council, which met Oct. 25-28 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Lisle, Illinois.
Two cases, from the New York and Northern Illinois annual conferences, centered on a bishop’s decision of law regarding the conference board of ordained ministry and qualifications for candidacy and ordination.
In both conferences, the board of ordained ministry had publicly affirmed it would not consider sexual orientation or gender identity when evaluating candidates for the ministry.
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.”
Judicial Council also 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.
New York action
Last June, the New York Conference approved four openly gay candidates for the ministry. During that same annual conference session, Bishop Jane Allen Middleton was presented with four questions related to whether self-avowed practicing homosexuals or others in violation of the denomination’s fidelity and celibacy standard are legally eligible for the ministry.
In her decision of law, Middleton wrote that it would be “improper” for a bishop to make a decision related to the authority “reserved to other organizations, bodies and divisions in the Constitution.” The work of an independent conference board “is not a subject upon which a decision of law can be made,” she ruled.
Middleton did decide that two other questions relating to a candidate’s eligibility were “hypothetical” in the absence of specific facts and ruled them out of order.
In Decision 1330, Judicial Council affirmed Middleton’s decision that the last two of the four questions were hypothetical, but reversed her ruling that the first two questions were improper.
The questions raised in the New York case, the council declared, 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 request for a decision of law is remanded to the bishop for a ruling on questions one and two and shall be reported back to the Judicial Council before December 31, 2016,” the council ruled.
Middleton is no longer the bishop there, so the decision could fall to Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who became the New York Conference episcopal leader on Sept. 1.
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, a request for a decision of law about what the board of ordained ministry is required to do also asked whether the board can “legally recommend to the clergy session a candidate whom they believe to be in violation of the fidelity, celibacy or definition of marriage standard.”
Bishop Sally Dyck ruled both requests “moot and hypothetical.” Since the motion discussed in the clergy session was defeated, she wrote, it meant no action had occurred to warrant a decision of law.
And she said “no one knows for sure” if the board recommended candidates “who have a sexual identity, behavior, history or belief in violation of the stated disciplinary paragraphs.”
In Decision 1329, Judicial Council reversed the bishop’s action and requested a new ruling by Dec. 31. “A motion defeated by vote of the clergy executive session does not render a subsequent request for decision of law improper for ruling by a bishop,” the decision stated.
The court’s ruling referred to an earlier decision, Decision 799, in which the Judicial Council established specific criteria for determining when a question of law is proper.
Addressing those criteria, the decision said, “Contrary to the bishop’s finding, we conclude that the question of law is germane to the discussion, raised during the deliberation of a specific issue of a matter, connected to a specific action taken by the annual conference, and, therefore, proper for a ruling by the bishop.”
Non-conformity in New England
Judicial Council affirmed a decision by Devadhar that found the New England Conference's “non-conformity” resolution largely violated church law.
The resolution stated that the conference “will not conform or comply with provisions of the Discipline which discriminate against LGBTQIA persons,” would not participate in or conduct judicial procedures related to that, would make benefits available to all “regardless to the sexes or genders of the partners” and would “realign its funding to reflect these commitments.” LGBTQIA stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.
In Decision 1327, Judicial Council cited the Discipline’s prohibition against “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” being candidates for ministry, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in the denomination. Church law also prohibits ministers from conducting same-sex marriages and the use of church funds to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”
In accordance with Paragraph 363 of the Discipline, “the bishop is also affirmed in his decision that to refer certain offenses to a judicial proceeding is within the discretion of the bishop alone and not referred to the authority of the annual conference…,” the court’s decision stated.
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