By Thomas Lambrecht
The Judicial Council has issued 18 decisions over the last two weeks, with about seven more cases waiting to be decided from its fall docket. The general tenor of the decisions has been to maintain the status quo in the church, affirming previous decisions and breaking little new ground. These recent decisions will not affect the process of disaffiliation as it is proceeding in the various annual conferences.
Here are the issues that the Judicial Council ruled on:
Annual Conference vetting of “reasons of conscience” for disaffiliation
Par. 2553 stipulates that local churches have a “limited right … to disaffiliate from the denomination for reasons of conscience regarding a change in the requirements and provisions of the Book of Discipline related to the practice of homosexuality or the ordination or marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals as resolved and adopted by the 2019 General Conference, or the actions or inactions of its annual conference related to these issues which follow.”
There has been a debate about whether traditionalist churches in certain annual conferences have a legitimate right to disaffiliate if their annual conference is enforcing the Discipline’s standards regarding these issues. The bishops of South Carolina and West Virginia outright forbid traditionalist churches from disaffiliating for this reason. Their reasoning was that traditionalist local churches agree with the Discipline and also with how their annual conference is administering the Discipline, so they have no grounds to disaffiliate. (Those two conferences are now allowing churches to disaffiliate through the church closure process in Par. 2549.)
Some annual conferences have decided not to require disaffiliating local churches to substantiate or defend their “reasons of conscience.” Such was the case in North Georgia, where the “Board of Trustees has indicated that it will not question ‘the reasons of conscience’ behind a church’s decision to disaffiliate. If the church sets forth this paragraph in the call for the called church conference, and the church conference is held fairly and in conformance with the BOD, and the motion contains the language of this paragraph and is duly voted upon, the Board of Trustees will not pursue any inquiry into the ‘reasons of conscience’ behind the vote.” Such a stance was affirmed by Judicial Council decision 1422, which was issued a year ago.
In Judicial Council decision 1453 just released, the Judicial Council affirms the same ruling in the case of South Georgia. The bishop there ruled that “Paragraph 2553 of The Book of Discipline does not require certification of eligibility based on reasons of conscience and Conference policy is to not inquire into the specifics of a local church’s reasons of conscience.”
However, other annual conferences do require local churches to justify their “reasons of conscience.” The Wisconsin Conference takes the approach that “it is important that, in the process of discernment, a congregation considering disaffiliation articulate its reasons for disaffiliating and evaluate its role in The UMC. The requirement that the congregation ‘explain how the current Discipline or actions or inactions of the annual conference have affected the mission and unity of the congregation’ provides a framework consistent with Paragraph 2553 to explore the congregation’s relationship to The UMC and whether that relationship gives rise to an application of Paragraph 2553.”
Judicial Council decision 1459 affirmed the legality of the Wisconsin approach, as well.
The bottom line is that annual conferences can choose whether or not to require local churches to justify their “reasons of conscience” for disaffiliation. Either approach is valid.
Can the annual conference determine the terms of disaffiliation?
Another point of controversy was whether the annual conference trustees or the annual conference itself are the final authority in setting the terms that local churches must follow for disaffiliation. Par. 2553 states, “the terms and conditions for that disaffiliation shall be established by the board of trustees of the applicable annual conference, with the advice of [various conference officials].” However, Par. 2512.2 says the conference board of trustees “shall be amenable to the annual conference.” Several annual conferences considered resolutions that attempted to direct the trustees as to what terms should be set for disaffiliation.
The Judicial Council ruled that it is the trustees who are responsible for setting the terms of disaffiliation. Decision 1457 (West Ohio) gives the trustees “exclusive” authority to set the terms. Decision 1460 (Greater New Jersey) gives the trustees “full” authority. The clearest decision was 1458 (Susquehanna), which stipulated that the trustees have the “right” to set the terms of disaffiliation, the annual conference can add to those terms (but not change or take away from them), and that the annual conference cannot direct the trustees in regard to setting the terms. The annual conference can still pass a resolution requesting or urging the trustees to set certain terms but cannot direct them to do so.
In several annual conferences, there were questions of law asked regarding the legitimacy of specific terms of disaffiliation set by the trustees. In general, the Judicial Council affirmed the ability of the annual conference and its trustees to set whatever terms they deem appropriate, so long as those terms do not contradict what is required in Par. 2553. The Judicial Council affirmed the validity of the 13 items of payment being required by the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference (Decision 1460). It also affirmed the process and deadlines set by the Wisconsin Annual Conference (Decision 1459). It further affirmed that the annual conference is not required to charge disaffiliating churches for their property (Decision 1453, Alabama-West Florida). Of course, some do charge a percentage of the property value. The Judicial Council has given annual conferences great latitude in the setting of terms.
Can churches use Par. 2548.2 to disaffiliate?
This question was settled by Decision 1449, issued last August. The Judicial Council affirmed that decision in recently issued Decisions 1455 (West Ohio) and 1456 (Indiana). The Council further affirmed that an annual conference cannot recognize another denomination as “another evangelical denomination” under Par. 2548.2. That recognition can only be extended by the General Conference.
Traditional Views Affirmed
The Mississippi Annual Conference passed a resolution affirming a traditional view of marriage and sexuality, “stand[ing] on the authority of God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, declaring that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God’s standard of holy behavior.” The resolution acknowledges that “we are all sinners who face different temptations, in need of God’s grace, mercy, and strength through Jesus Christ’s redeeming work on the Cross.” The resolution further resolves “that we join with our homosexual brother and sister, who struggle as we all do with our own sinful acts of rebellion that we pray and help each other to commit our lives fully to the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
After being adopted, the resolution was challenged by a question of law asking if “an annual conference can unilaterally establish theological statements or is the establishment of theology reserved to the Book of Discipline voted on by the General Conference.”
The Judicial Council affirmed (Decision 1467) that the resolution was valid. The resolution itself was deemed “aspirational,” which allows annual conferences to express their opinions and desires. It carried out the theological task assigned to annual conferences and, indeed, all Christians to flesh out our beliefs (Par. 105). The theological statements adopted in the resolution did not contravene any of our United Methodist doctrinal standards. In fact, the resolution was congruent with the church’s official position on marriage, sexuality, holiness, repentance, and grace.
On the other hand, a resolution passed by the Indiana Annual Conference was ruled null and void (Decision 1468). The resolution encouraged “clergy to choose which weddings they officiate and congregations to choose which weddings they host, so long as they are between two consenting, committed adults.” The Judicial Council held, “This is a clear deviation from General Conference’s definition of marriage.”
The Indiana resolution also committed the conference to “embrace and encourage God’s call to ministry in diverse persons and will seek to not restrict God’s calling solely on the basis of a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” The Judicial Council ruled the resolution was “a call to ignore human sexuality in the candidacy process. It is a departure from previous decisions in which the Judicial Council held that ‘the duty of the Board [of Ordained Ministry] is to conduct a careful and thorough examination and investigation, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope … including those provisions set forth in paragraphs that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, integrity, indebtedness, etc.’”
The Judicial Council found that the Indiana resolution “is a call to action that contradicts and runs counter to The Discipline and is, therefore, null and void and of no legal force or effect.”
Finally, the Judicial Council considered a resolution, “Covenant to Build BeLoved Community,” passed by the North Central Jurisdiction (and the other four jurisdictions, as well). The Council ruled that the resolution in general was aspirational and did not call for a violation of the Book of Discipline. However, they did rule “the sentence ‘We will not restrict God’s calling based solely on a candidate’s sexual orientation or gender identity’ crosses the line between aspirational and prescriptive as it is a declaration of non-compliance, namely an ‘action that ignores Church law and encourages a violation of Church law.’” That sentence was therefore ruled null and void.
Unfortunately, the Judicial Council declined to rule on a request for a declaratory decision from the Burundi Annual Conference regarding the retirement of several bishops in Africa. At least three of the bishops have passed the mandatory retirement age for elders of 72 by several years. The Africa central conferences declined to call special central conference meetings last fall to elect new bishops and allow existing bishops to retire. All the U.S. jurisdictions and the Philippine and Southern Europe central conferences met to elect new bishops. Only Africa failed to do so.
Burundi requested a decision on whether the African bishops were required to retire and therefore whether they were required to call a special central conference to elect new bishops. The Judicial Council ruled (Memorandum 1465, with three members dissenting, including two of the African members) that Burundi did not have standing to request such a decision because it did not relate to the work of the annual conference (even though Burundi is presided over by a bishop in Africa and is slated to receive one of five new bishops to be voted on at the 2024 General Conference).
This lack of a decision points out another gap in the accountability of our church’s leaders. The African bishops can decide to hold on to power and position past the time they are required to retire, yet no one can hold them accountable or force them to follow the Discipline.
Likewise, the Judicial Council declined (Memorandum 1466, with three members dissenting) to rule on a case coming from Virginia, where the previous bishop processed a complaint against a pastor who performed a same-sex wedding. Although no just resolution has been reached, the bishop refused to take the complaint to the next level, arguing that she could wait until the statute of limitations was about to expire before bringing formal charges. The Council ruled it could not interfere in an ongoing judicial process.
Here again, there is no accountability for failure to follow the Discipline and bring wayward leaders to account for disobedience.
Yet to be decided is the question of whether disaffiliating clergy can be required to surrender their credentials. The Wisconsin Conference and some others state in their disaffiliation process that such clergy must surrender their credentials of ordination upon disaffiliating. This is despite the fact that Par. 360.1 gives clergy the right to withdraw from membership in the UM Church and keep their ordination credentials. The Judicial Council asked for more legal briefs on this issue before ruling as part of its spring docket.
The Judicial Council has also not yet ruled on whether the postponement of the 2020 General Conference to 2024 means that some new delegates can be elected to fill openings where there are not enough alternates. Since the delegates were originally elected in 2019, some have died, some have resigned from the delegation, and some have disaffiliated from the UM Church. We await a determination whether annual conferences can hold new elections to fill such openings.
In this recent spate of rulings, the Judicial Council has kept the status quo on the ground, regardless of what the Discipline may prescribe. Annual conferences and their trustees are given great latitude to set and administer terms of disaffiliation, resulting in pronounced inconsistency from one conference to another. Par. 2553 is the only disaffiliation route available. Aspirational resolutions are permitted, while resolutions that encourage disobedience to the Discipline are not. Existing bishops can serve as long as they like, despite mandatory retirement rules. Some bishops cannot be held accountable for not following the Discipline. Nothing new, just continuing the way things have been going, while the UM Church breaks up.