The Judicial Council released rulings April 25 stemming from last fall’s jurisdictional conferences, including one dealing with a resolution on LGBTQ inclusion adopted by all five jurisdictions.
The United Methodist Church’s top court also issued a memorandum related to a special session held by the Congo Central Conference in 2018.
Jurisdictions in the U.S. and central conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines are the intermediate organizational bodies in the denomination that are responsible for electing bishops and handling other matters in their geographic region.
In November 2022, the five U.S. jurisdictional conferences — meeting simultaneously — elected 13 new bishops. In collaboration across jurisdictional lines, the five jurisdictional also each passed three resolutions seeking to set the future for the denomination.
One of those resolutions was the “Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People in The UMC.” The resolution calls “for a future of The United Methodist Church where LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church… .”
The South Central Jurisdiction’s Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey and the North Central Jurisdiction’s Bishop Frank Beard each faced questions about whether the resolution violated church laws against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
In Decision 1483, the Judicial Council — as required by the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book — reviewed both bishops’ decisions about the resolution. The church court partially affirmed and reversed each bishop’s decision.
“Jurisdictional conferences may adopt resolutions that are aspirational in nature, and express their ideals and opinions so long as they do not attempt to negate, ignore, or contradict The Discipline,” the Judicial Council said.
Most of the resolution was aspirational, the Judicial Council’s majority said, but Paragraph 2 of the resolution called for action counter to the Discipline.
That part of the resolution affirms “the spirit of the abeyance or moratorium… until changes can be made in The United Methodist Book of Discipline.” Put another way, that part of the resolution is asking bishops to hold off on processing complaints against violations of the Discipline’s homosexuality prohibitions until such prohibitions no longer exist.
Decision 1483 noted that the Discipline currently mentions the term “abeyance” only once, saying complaints can be held in abeyance when civil authorities are involved.
“It is only in the context of ongoing or imminent civil or criminal proceedings that abeyance can be contemplated,” the decision said.
Judicial Council members the Revs. J. Kabamba Kiboko and Dennis Blackwell signed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.
“Taking all paragraphs together as a whole, the overall message may result in the violation of the Discipline,” their opinion said. “As a whole, it has a clear message: a call to negate, ignore, and violate provisions of the Discipline.”
In Memorandum 1474, the Judicial Council said it lacks jurisdiction to rule on Bishop Jonathan Holston’s determination that all three resolutions were out of order and should not have been up for consideration by the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
Holston issued what the Judicial Council considered a parliamentary ruling 30 days after the Southeastern Jurisdiction had approved all three resolutions and the gathering had adjourned.
In a concurrence, four Judicial Council members reiterated earlier memoranda calling on bishops to issue parliamentary rulings during the business session to give members the opportunity to appeal the bishop’s parliamentary ruling. Judicial Council members the Rev. Luan-Vu “Lui” Tran, the Rev. Øyvind Helliesen, Deanell Tacha and Oswald Tweh signed the concurrence.
In Memorandum 1477, the Judicial Council said it lacks jurisdiction to address the multiple questions it has faced regarding the special session of the Congo Central Conference held Dec. 11-14, 2018. During the meeting, delegates voted for its bishops to be elected for life rather than facing re-election after four years. The decision applies retroactively to the three bishops elected for the first time in 2017: Bishops Daniel Lunge, Central Congo; Mande Muyombo, North Katanga; and Kasap Owan, South Congo.
The Judicial Council said it lacks jurisdiction because none of the submissions it has received about the meeting qualify as a bishop’s ruling of law or request for a declaratory decision.
However, six of the nine Judicial Council members joined in a concurrence, noting the parts of the Discipline that require bishops to decide questions of law and the Judicial Council to review them. The memorandum also noted an amendment to the denomination’s constitution ratified in May 2018 that states central conferences are to elect bishops at a regular, not an extra, session of the central conference “except where an unexpected vacancy must be filled.”
Judicial Council members Kiboko, Tweh, Helliesen, Blackwell, Lidia Gulele and Beth Capen signed the concurrence.
Capen also issued a separate concurrence, saying that the constitutional amendment means that a bishop’s status should not be changed to a life term at a special session, “thereafter refusing to hold a future election at a regular session.”
The Judicial Council released three other decisions April 25.
Two deal with questions raised about the proceedings at a special online session of the Northeastern Jurisdiction, held Oct. 15 to determine how many bishops the jurisdiction would elect in November.
In Decision 1478, the Judicial Council held that the Northeastern Jurisdiction’s bishops did not exceed their authority when they recommended the jurisdiction elect no new bishops.
“A College of Bishops may make recommendations and express viewpoints different from other jurisdictional bodies as long as episcopal declarations are advisory in nature and are not legislative acts,” the church court’s majority said.
However, in a dissenting opinion, Capen, Blackwell and Kiboko said the jurisdiction’s bishops had overstepped their role. General Conference, they said, has established the processes that determine the number of bishops elected in each jurisdiction.
“The NEJ College of Bishops’ written recommendation to the NEJ Delegates urging them to elect no new bishops, is in direct violation of the Discipline and undermines the constitutional separation, and balance, of powers,” the dissent said.
In Decision 1481, the Judicial Council affirmed a decision by Bishop John R. Schol. The Judicial Council said church bodies may use online platforms to hold their meetings “provided the conference and voting process are conducted in an open and fair manner and all requirements of The Discipline are met.”
In Decision 1479, the Judicial Council dealt with questions raised by delegates from the former Memphis and Tennessee conferences about how to handle nominations to the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee. The church court affirmed in part and reversed in part a decision by Bishop David W. Graves.
“When two or more annual conferences unite to become a merged conference, the delegations of the original annual conferences are entitled to select nominees for election to the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy until they are replaced by newly elected delegates of the merged annual conference,” the Judicial Council said.
However, the church court added that this decision was prospective only — meaning it would only affect episcopacy committee nominations going forward.
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