Top court: Deleting investigative group ‘unconstitutional’

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Eliminating the committee on investigation for clergy members in an annual conference from the denomination’s law book in 2012 was unconstitutional, the top court of The United Methodist Church has ruled.

During its April 15-18 meeting, the Judicial Council also ordered the full restoration — including back pay — of the salary of an African bishop whose income was reduced by the board of the denomination’s finance agency. The General Council on Finance and Administration board ordered the reduction after receiving what it believed to be inadequate responses to an audit inquiry.

In its decision regarding East Africa Area Bishop Daniel Wandabula, which included two different dissenting opinions, the council said the General Council on Finance and Administration had no power to reduce an active bishop’s salary. “A salary is a bishop’s basic financial entitlement, which cannot be curtailed save by judicial or administrative fair process,” the decision said.

Laity concerns

The ruling on the role of the committee on investigation also related to a question raised by the North Georgia Conference after action by the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, removed references to the clergy committee on investigation, which included peers and lay members.

Two North Georgia Conference representatives, Joe Whittemore and the Rev. Ed Tomlinson, spoke during an April 15 oral hearing on the matter, emphasizing the importance of legislation adopted by the 2004 and 2008 General Conferences that made the laity voting members of such committees.

“Laity are impacted and have significant concerns when charges are brought against clergy,” Whittemore said, noting that lay members want to make sure clergy are not falsely accused or that the process is handled correctly if valid issues are raised. “Laity are stakeholders in seeing that these matters are handled effectively … and with justice.”

Tomlinson called the deletion of Paragraph 2703.2 of the 2008 Book of Discipline, which defined the annual conference committee on investigation, a violation of fair process. “It appears that the absence of an investigative committee before trial is not fair to clergy,” he said.

Because of the changes in 2012, the church counsel — not an investigative committee — makes a determination about whether a case involving a clergy member of a conference should go to trial.

Historically, the North Georgia request pointed out, the investigation process for clergy has required counsel for the church to present fact-finding results to a committee on investigation before taking that step.

The Judicial Council’s decision pointed out that the trial court and committee on investigation “are clearly two distinct bodies, constituted by separate processes and functioning at different times in the complaint through trial process.” To eliminate the committee’s investigative function as a step in the process “is to call into question whether the clergy members have been granted fair process, an unconditional guarantee.”

The court’s ruling restores to the current law book the portions of the 2008 Discipline “that relate to the role of the committee on investigation for clergy members of the annual conference,” effective April 18.

One Judicial Council member, Ruben T. Reyes, filed a concurring opinion in the case, while two other members, the Rev. F. Belton Joyner, Jr. and N. Oswald Tweh, Sr. dissented, saying the action taken by the 2012 General Conference was constitutional. “The question of the wisdom of doing so is a legislative matter and is beyond the purview of the Judicial Council,” the dissent said.

Reducing a bishop’s salary

The request questioning the action “to drastically cut off the episcopal support” for Wandabula came from the committee on episcopacy of the denomination’s Burundi and East Africa conferences.

The General Council on Finance and Administration’s board initially reduced the bishop’s salary in 2012 until it received satisfactory answers to questions about how his episcopal area has used more than $757,000 in church funds. In November 2014, the board set Wandabula’s 2015 pay at an amount equal to his health plan and pension contributions — about $4,288, according to the Judicial Council’s decision.

While acknowledging the finance agency’s desire to protect church funds, the top court’s decision orders the agency to fully restore the bishop’s salary “from 2013 to 2015 and until the next General Conference.” The court ordered the finance agency to report its “detailed full compliance with this decision no later than May 31, 2015.” However, the decision does not preclude “an amicable settlement by the parties concerned.”

Three council members — Joyner and two alternates participating in the spring session, W. Warren Plowden Jr. and the Rev. Timothy K. Bruster — filed a dissenting opinion that called the action by the finance agency’s board in reducing Wandabula’s salary “in keeping with church law and its fiduciary duty.”

Their dissent also noted the Judicial Council “is not authorized” to determine the accuracy and completeness of either the East Africa financial records or audits conducted by church agencies.

In a separate dissent, the Rev. William B. Lawrence argued the Judicial Council does not have jurisdiction because the request improperly came from two annual conferences.

“Instead, if there might be an issue about whether GCFA has authority to reduce the salary of a bishop, then it should be a matter of concern for the Council of Bishops to discuss within its membership and possibly bring to the Judicial Council,” Lawrence wrote in his dissent. “Indeed, the Discipline provides for such a remedy.”

Same-sex resolutions

Two bishops’ decisions of law on annual conference resolutions related to same-sex marriage, held over from the council’s October 2014 meeting, were modified by the court.

Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar had ruled that a 2014 New England Annual Conference resolution “To Affirm God’s Call to Ministry and Marriage”— urging a change in denominational policy toward same-sex marriage and an openness to all couples wanting to marry — “is thoroughly aspirational in nature” and does not break church mandates.

Judicial Council agreed with his decision after modifying the bishop’s ruling on Item 4, which encourages congregations and clergy to open their “hearts, minds and doors” to all couples, by adding a phrase recognizing that church law forbids homosexual unions to be celebrated in United Methodist churches or conducted by United Methodist ministers.

Bishop Deborah L. Kiesey declared that language in a 2014 Detroit Annual Conference resolution to support lay members who chose same-sex marriage was aspirational, depending on the type of support. But she ruled “null and void” the call to stop filing complaints against those accused of violating church law or enforcing those laws.

Judicial Council “affirmed in part and modified in part” the ruling by Kiesey, specifically modifying one section of the resolution “to reflect the disciplinary understanding regarding bisexual, transgendered, and persons who do not declare themselves to be ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals.’”

Other business

Two decisions of law by Bishop Gary E. Mueller of the Arkansas Conference were modified by Judicial Council. The decisions referred to questions about appointment-making and length of service related to membership in the conference cabinet that Mueller had declared inappropriate or moot and hypothetical. The court’s modifications removed additional commentary from the bishop’s rulings.

Because the petition did not come from an authorized body, Judicial Council said it had no jurisdiction related to a request regarding a decision to discontinue a clergy member’s provisional membership in the East Ohio Conference.

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected]

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