By Neill Caldwell*
ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. (UMNS) — A United Methodist bishop can be placed in involuntary retirement, the denomination’s top court has ruled.
The ruling could have implications for the forced early retirement of Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, which the United Methodist Judicial Council will consider separately next month.That case was one of 18 considered by the denomination’s top court during its Oct. 24-27 meeting, the first regular session for the new court, which includes two new members elected by the 2012 General Conference.The Judicial Council did not have the requisite number of votes to declare unconstitutional Paragraph 408.3(a) of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book. That church rule says that a jurisdictional episcopacy committee, by a two-thirds vote, can place a bishop “in retired relation” if the committee finds it “to be in the best interests of the bishop and/or the Church.”
The decision in Memorandum 1229 was a response to a request by the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops to rule on the paragraph, which the jurisdiction’s committee on episcopacy cited in its decision in July to remove Bledsoe from active assignment. The jurisdictional delegates affirmed the committee’s decision. Bledsoe will appeal that action at a special called session of the Judicial Council on Nov. 9-11 in Phoenix.
The Book of Discipline requires six Judicial Council member votes to rule a paragraph unconstitutional, a higher standard than a simple majority. The church court has nine members. In Decision 1210, the council said that in reviewing acts of the General Conference for constitutionality — that is, compliance with the church’s constitution — its first inclination is to save legislation, not destroy it.
The college of bishops’ request included four questions, but the council said it had jurisdiction on just the first question because the others were hypothetical and did not address a specific paragraph in the Book of Discipline.
In a separate case, the Judicial Council did declare unconstitutional an action by the 2012 General Conference regarding Paragraph 602, dealing with the balance between clergy and lay members at annual conference.
The General Conference added the language “Clergy who voluntarily indicate that they are unable to attend annual conference because of incapacity or advanced age shall not be counted in arriving at the balance between lay and clergy.” In Decision 1212, the Judicial Council said that “members cannot be eliminated from the count for equalization,” citing Paragraph 32, and added that “the principle of equalization stands and cannot be subverted under the Constitution.”
Issues related to homosexuality
Several of the items before the council dealt with related to homosexuality. The denomination’s official position is that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The church forbids the ordination of self-avowed practicing gays and lesbians, and it forbids the performance of same-gender union services in its sanctuaries and by its clergy. The church also holds that all people are of sacred worth.
The Judicial Council affirmed four bishop’s decisions of law that touched on the issue.
It supported the bishop who ruled that a petition before the New York Annual Conference, “The Spiritual Crisis Caused by the Requirement to Discriminate,” was aspirational in nature and did not violate provisions of the Book of Discipline. “We acknowledge that differences of opinion exist on this very difficult issue,” Decision 1218 says.
In a dissenting opinion, council member Oswald Tweh Sr., wrote that he felt “the resolution goes beyond a permissible statement of mere disagreement. The effect of the New York resolution is to negate and ignore the church’s clearly stated position as reflected in current disciplinary language.”
The council agreed with Bishop Al Gwinn’s decision that a question to identify the meaning of the phrase “promote the acceptance of homosexuality” was moot and hypothetical in the North Carolina Conference.
And the council supported Bishop Linda Lee in ruling that questions about a new “Clergy Covenant” were moot and hypothetical until the final document was presented to the 2013 session of the Wisconsin Annual Conference. This document was prepared by the Rev. Amy DeLong as part of the penalty assessed by a trial court after she was found guilty of performing a same gender couple’s union ceremony.
The council modified a bishop’s decision of law in the California-Pacific Annual Conference dealing with a “Resolution in Response to General Conference 2012.” The ruling in Decision 1220 said “A declaration by an annual conference to renounce a legislative act of the General Conference is not legal. But a declaration by an annual conference to express aspirations for full implementation of a legislative act by the General Conference is legal.”
The bishop ruled that all the elements of the resolution were aspiration in nature. But, the Judicial Council said that the first statement, to “renounce the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings,” was beyond the annual conference’s authority because it had been enacted by another body, the General Conference.
In other decisions, the Judicial Council rejected a ruling of law by Bishop John Schol and voided a June 1 policy update by the Baltimore-Washington Conference on sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment.
The policy contained sentences referring to “a dating, romantic or sexual relationship” involving church staff, lay or clergy, parishioners and ministry participants. During debate on the measure, Schol was asked for a decision of law on whether the words “sexual relationship” in the policy conflicted with the Book of Discipline, and Schol ruled that there was no conflict. But the Judicial Council disagreed, saying the phrase conflicts with the disciplinary call for “celibacy in singleness” for United Methodist clergy.
A concurring opinion signed by seven members of the council strongly urged the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference to reconsider any policy that allows exceptions for consensual relations between church staff members and between staff and church members, saying such relationships are “never appropriate.”
The court ruled it had no jurisdiction in a question from the North Alabama Conference on membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, saying the matter involved an agency of the general church, not the annual conference.
*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate.
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