By Linda Bloom*
BALTIMORE (UMNS) — The denomination’s top court has decided that a United Methodist bishop in southwest Texas must rule within 60 days “on the merits” of a process-related question regarding the elimination of a lesbian clergy candidate, Mary Ann Kaiser, from the ordination track.
The United Methodist Judicial Council also declared that a petition adopted by the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference suggesting a light penalty for bishops convicted of ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals is “null, void, and of no effect.”
Those were among the decisions reached during the Judicial Council’s Oct. 22-26 fall meeting in Baltimore.
The Rev. Timothy K. Bruster, first clergy alternate, filled in for the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, a Judicial Council member, at the October meeting. First lay alternate Sandra Lutz and second clergy alternate John Harnish also participated in parts of the meeting.
Southwest Texas ordination ruling
Bishop James E. Dorff ruled in June that a question about the decision by the board of ordained ministry of the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference to drop Kaiser from the ordination process was “as presented, moot and hypothetical.”
Although The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from “being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church,” Kaiser and her supporters say due process was not followed in her case. An elder raised that point during a clergy session of the 2013 Southwest Texas Conference.
The top court reversed Dorff’s ruling that the question “had nothing to do with the discussion, consideration or business of the annual conference.” The bishop is now required to issue a new ruling on the question’s merits within 60 days.
While taking up the specifics of the Southwest Texas case in Decision 1244, the council also considered a constitutional issue that applied to several of the October docket items.
This concerned an amendment to Disciplinary Paragraph 2609.6, which requires one fifth of the annual conference present and voting to make an appeal of a bishop’s decision of law for Judicial Council review. The council found, effective immediately, that the amendment is unconstitutional “and therefore, null and void and of no effect.”
Paragraph 2609.6 gives Judicial Council the authority to “pass upon and affirm, modify or reverse the decisions of law made by bishops in central, district, annual or jurisdictional conferences…”
The court found the amendment, adopted by the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, “unconstitutionally vague,” restrictive and limiting to the council’s constitutional authority. General Conference cannot modify a constitutional process and procedure without amending the constitution, the decision says.
Western Jurisdiction resolution
The 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference adopted a petition stating that “the sense” of the jurisdiction — based on its welcoming attitude to people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity — was to impose only a 24-hour suspension on any bishop convicted of ordaining or appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
A lay member presented a question of law to Bishop Robert Hoshibata, who was presiding, over the resolution’s legality but the question was ruled “moot” because of a typographical error. At its April 2013 meeting, the council, which previously has said such an error in a question does “not necessarily negate the legitimacy of the questions,” remanded the question of law back to the bishop.
Hosibata then ruled that resolution is aspirational in nature and “does not legally negate, ignore or violate the penalty provisions of Para. 2711.3 of the Discipline.”
Judicial Council disagreed, reversing the ruling and voiding the resolution. “The Discipline grants to the trial court the exclusive power to set a penalty in a church trial which results in a conviction and the full legislated range of options must be available to a trial court in its penalty phase,” the court states in Decision 1250.
“A jurisdictional or annual conference may express disagreement with other bodies of The United Methodist Church, but it is still subject to the Constitution, the Discipline and the decisions of the Judicial Council,” the ruling says.
“The current controlling principle is that a conference — jurisdictional, central or annual — resolution may express disagreement with the current language of the Discipline and may express aspirational hopes, but a conference may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline, even when disagreements are based upon conscientious objection to those provisions.”
California-Pacific and New York resolutions
That principle was applied to the decisions of two other bishops before Judicial Council.
A 2013 resolution by the California-Pacific Annual Conference prompted a request for a bishop’s decision of law, resulting in an automatic review by Judicial Council.
The California-Pacific Annual Conference adopted a resolution on “Biblical Obedience” that supports the call from the Western Jurisdiction, in its 2012 Statement of Gospel Obedience, “to operate as if the statement in Para. 161F does not exist.” That disciplinary paragraph prohibits the ordination of homosexuals.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño ruled July 15 that the resolution “does not violate the legal authority of the Book of Discipline in that it does not require any person, office or body within the church to violate the Book of Discipline.”
Judicial Council affirmed the ruling while not specifically addressing the content of the 2012 Western Jurisdictional Conference resolution, which it has not been asked to review.
Decision 1254 notes the bishop’s focus on the fact that the church’s Social Principles are not considered church law “but a prayerful and thoughtful effort” to speak on human issues.
The decision points out that individual United Methodists and organizations choose to ignore the guidance of the Social Principles on various issues, such as health care and gun control, and that “while doing so might theologically imperil or weaken the church,” such action is not illegal under church law.
“The request for a decision of law asked simply, ‘Is it legal…?’ In essence, the bishop said, ‘It is legal.’ We concur.”
In a dissent, three Judicial Council members — N. Oswald Tweh, the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko and Ruben T. Reyes — noted “that the Social Principles is the foundation of most, if not all, legal requirements of church law in respect of sexuality. Therefore, ignoring the Social Principles undermines all the corresponding requirements of church law, as stipulated in the Discipline.”
A New York Annual Conference resolution, upheld by Bishop Martin McLee, commended both named and unnamed clergy, laity and congregations “whose bold actions and courageous statements help to provide for the pastoral needs of same-sex couples within The United Methodist Church.”
In Decision 1255, Judicial Council affirms that ruling: “The resolution as adopted is permissible because it is primarily a historical recounting of actions by others, is aspirational, and does not call for action that is contrary to The Book of Discipline.”
Greater New Jersey disaster ministry
Decisions 1256-1259 from the October Judicial Council meeting relate to A Future with Hope, the nonprofit organization created by leaders of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy “to handle the long term recovery of people in need in New Jersey.”
The council disagreed with Bishop John Schol’s decision allowing conference leadership to establish A Future with Hope as a nonprofit corporation and elect a board of directors without prior annual conference approval.
“To rule that A Future with Hope corporation is null, void and without effect is impractical and probably impossible as it is now a separately incorporated entity meeting a great humanitarian need,” states Decision 1257.
But the decision “serves as a pronouncement” to the conference regarding the importance of maintaining the role of the annual conference in making such decisions.
Concern over clergy triad process
Although Judicial Council upheld two rulings of law from the Texas Annual Conference regarding a question on a pastoral appointment, Decision 1251 notes that the matter raises “legitimate concerns” over a process used by the conference known as the “clergy triad process.”
A concurrence written by the Rev. William B. Lawrence, a Judicial Council member, refers to a document submitted by the conference describing the design and procedures of the triad process.
He points to “a substantial imbalance of power” in the process design; concerns over how the triad honors boundaries defined by the Discipline and possible confusion over how it handles pastoral appointments.
Judicial Council members signing on in agreement with the concurrence were Beth Capen, Katherine Austin Mahle, Angela Brown and Bruster.
In other business, the Judicial Council
- Affirmed a ruling by Bishop Patrick Streiff that the mandatory retirement age is 72 for Congo Central Conference bishops who continue in active ministry beyond their 68th birthday.
- Agreed with Bishop Hope Morgan Ward that the North Carolina Annual Conference’s Council on Finance and Administration had properly investigated and insured that providing funds to the North Carolina Council of Churches would not violate church laws related to homosexuality.
- Requested more information in a case involving election rules in the Philippines Central Conference.
- Ruled on organization and structural matters related to annual conferences
- Declined to reconsider previous decisions related to the Philippines, East Africa and a former bishop.