The Role of Church Counsel

The news came on March 10 that Bishop Martin McLee had ratified a settlement of the complaint against the Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree for performing a same-sex wedding.  The settlement admitted no wrongdoing on the part of Ogletree, nor was there any consequence for his intentional disobedience to the Book of Discipline.  The settlement avoided a trial.  Furthermore, the bishop announced his commitment to not have any more trials for New York clergy accused of officiating at same-sex weddings.

I believe that this event takes us to a new level in the breaking of our United Methodist covenant and the disregarding of our chosen way of discipleship (as enshrined in the Discipline).  I would refer readers to the statement by the complainants and the statement by Good News for my views on where we are.

In this blog, however, I would like to address the role of counsel for the church, the person entrusted with prosecuting the charges against a respondent.  I served as the counsel for the church in the trial of the Rev. Amy DeLong, who was accused of being a self-avowed practicing homosexual and of performing a same-sex union service.  I have also been on the church’s advisory team of the Rev. Frank Schaefer trial and worked with others who have filed complaints.

What struck me about both the Ogletree case and the case in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, where two pastors agreed to one-day suspensions as punishment for presiding over same-sex weddings, is the confusion over the proper role of the church counsel.  In both cases, that confusion led, in my opinion, to faulty outcomes – settlements that did not uphold the Discipline and that were repudiated in both cases by the complainants in the case.

The role of church counsel is two-fold:

1)     To represent the church and its Discipline in holding persons accountable to their vows of membership and ordination

2)     To seek an outcome that will uphold the integrity of the Discipline as determined by the will of the General Conference, and where possible, bring about compliance with the Discipline and healing for any breach that has taken place

In my opinion, the church counsels in both the Pacific Northwest and in New York failed to fulfill either of these roles.

Both church counsels failed to adequately represent the church and its Discipline.  In both cases, the process lacked integrity from the start because the respective bishops appointed persons who did not support the church’s prohibition of same-sex marriage.  The counsel in New York, the Rev. Timothy Riss, was even on record as a signer of petitions to the annual conference opposing the church’s position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I am not saying that either church counsel showed a lack of integrity in the way they pursued the case.  But it is nearly impossible, in such a highly charged and polarized environment, for a church counsel to adequately pursue what is essentially an adversarial process when he/she does not believe in it.  One of the qualifications for a church counsel ought to be that the person supports the particular church law that he/she is entrusted with enforcing through the judicial process.  In this case, that qualification was ignored, even after protests from the complainants in the New York case.  The result was that in neither case were the pastors accused of violating their vows held accountable for their breach.  And the process appeared to lack integrity because of the bias of the church counsels against the Discipline.

Both church counsels failed to uphold the will of General Conference and bring about compliance with the Discipline.  In their settlements, both counsels justified the settlement terms by pointing to the fact that their annual conferences had passed resolutions indicating what the conference felt were appropriate penalties for those guilty of performing same-sex weddings and resolutions supporting those who perform same-sex weddings.  (The Judicial Council has ruled that no annual conference has the right under the Discipline to indicate what the penalty should be for a particular offense, but that has not stopped other annual conferences from passing such resolutions.)  In New York, the Rev. Riss went so far as to state that he was trying to represent both those who support and those who oppose the church’s prohibition of same-sex weddings.  That is a serious confusion of the role of the church counsel.

The General Conference delegates to the annual conference  dothe job of upholding and enforcing the Discipline.  In some situations, but not all, the Judicial Council can act as a backstop to rectify an annual conference’s error in not abiding by the Discipline.  However, in most cases the annual conference is trusted to do its job without outside intervention.  The church counsel, as an officer of the annual conference, has the primary responsibility for enforcing the Discipline in a judicial proceeding.  If the church counsel does not vigorously argue for such enforcement, no one else can.  It is similar to recent secular court cases, where state attorneys general have refused to defend a state law they did not agree with.  When that happens, no one else is legally in a position to defend the law.

The role of the church counsel is to represent the will of General Conference, not to be a mediator to bring about a settlement of the complaint.  The role of the church counsel is to argue for an appropriate (in his mind) penalty, not to anticipate what penalty a potential trial court (jury) might impose.   In both cases here, the church counsels said what they thought a trial court would do, and then unilaterally proposed that penalty as a part of the settlement.  That is not the appropriate role of a church counsel.  The body that represents the annual conference is the trial court (jury), which is selected to be representative of the diversity of the conference and determines on behalf of the conference what the verdict and penalty should be.  In these cases, the church counsel has usurped the role of the trial court.

The United Methodist connectional system is built on trust.  We trust that all parts of the connectional system will act in good faith to live by and uphold the Discipline as our agreed-upon way of discipleship and our way of living together.  In this way, the Discipline is like our house rules.  When annual conferences, bishops, clergy, and church counsels determine they will not live by the Discipline, but substitute their own judgment for the judgment of General Conference, our connectional system begins to break down.

Perhaps one annual conference cannot trust that another annual conference has properly determined that its ordained clergy have met all the requirements for ministry imposed by General Conference, so it cannot receive a clergy who wants to transfer into that annual conference membership without doing its own process of vetting the clergyperson.  Or a local church cannot trust that its annual conference clergy are living by the standards of theology and behavior required of clergy, so it has to do its own investigation of a potential pastor’s theology and conduct before receiving that pastor’s appointment to their local church.  Or a local church cannot trust that the annual conference or general council on finance is adequately ensuring that all church money is being spent according to the requirements of the Discipline and so may refuse to pay some of its apportionments until it can determine that the money is being properly spent.

These are just a few of the myriad consequences that begin to play out when the trust that holds our connection together is violated.  And when bishops and church counsels do not fulfill their proper roles in upholding the Discipline, we can no longer trust the system.  What we have now in our church is no longer the rule of “law” but the rule of “men.”  In other words, individuals are substituting their own opinions for the actions of General Conference.  The enactments of General Conference are becoming meaningless, because individuals and annual conferences are refusing to live by them.  In a situation like this, it becomes “every man for himself” and every local church looking out for its own interest, rather than considering itself part of a connectional body of Christ.  This course of action is dividing the church, in fact splintering it.  The sad fact of a structural separation would only recognize the “divorce” that had already taken place in the church’s internal relationships.

3 thoughts on “The Role of Church Counsel

  1. Where are the voices of the Bishops who support the historic teaching of the church and the Discipline?

  2. This effort to reduce this issue to one section of the Discipline ignores the fact that the statements in the Discipline about homosexuality are in direct conflict with just about the entire rest of the book. This dilemma is as old as trying to explain to a Sunday School class why there are two DIFFERENT creation stories. You can read one statement in the Discipline or the whole thing. If you read the whole thing, then being inhospitable cannot be deemed to be Disciplinary or, if you read the Gospel, Christian.

    1. Hi, Ted. Thanks for responding. My point in this post was not so much about homosexuality per se, but how a lack of integrity in the process has led to individuals essentially overruling what the General Conference has enacted. To your point, however, General Conference has chosen to place limits on what type of behavior is acceptable for pastors. That is not a contradiction to hospitality, but a refinement of it. After all, I’m sure you would support limits or boundaries around any pastor’s behavior, like keeping confidential information confidential, or handling financial affairs with integrity. Saying such behavior is required is not to “unwelcome” a pastor, but to place appropriate boundaries around how they are expected to carry out their ministry.

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