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Transgender issue on Judicial Council's fall docket

A UMNS Report
By Neill Caldwell*

Aug. 6, 2007

The United Methodist Church’s top judicial authority will again be considering questions about sexuality — including the case of a pastor who switched gender from female to male — when it tackles a full docket at its fall meeting.

The Judicial Council, the top court for The United Methodist Church, is scheduled to meet Oct. 24-27 in San Francisco.

At this year’s Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference in late May, Bishop John R. Schol reappointed the Rev. Drew Phoenix as pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore. Phoenix, 48, had been minister at St. John’s for five years as the Rev. Ann Gordon. After surgery and hormone therapy in the past year, the pastor changed his gender to male and adopted a new name.

"My transition to live fully as the male I know myself to be is very personal and deeply spiritual," Phoenix told the annual conference. "As I continue to transition, to fully claim myself as a male, I find myself coming home to the child God created me to be. I find myself joyful, whole, and peaceful. And I find myself even more effective as a pastor."

Though the United Methodist Church bars self-avowed practicing gay clergy from appointment and does not support gay unions, the Book of Discipline says nothing about transgender clergy.

During discussion around Phoenix in the Baltimore-Washington executive clergy session, two requests were made for the bishop’s decision of law. The first asked whether a name change based on a change of gender identity should be listed in a category which requires no discussion or approval, or whether it should be placed under another disciplinary area that requires consent and recommendation by the conference Board of Ordained Ministry. The second asked whether transgender persons are eligible for appointment in The United Methodist Church.

In his ruling, Bishop Schol wrote that "There are no paragraphs in the 2004 Book of Discipline that prevent transgender clergy from serving in an appointment."

Both of these questions are docket items for the council’s fall meeting. The Judicial Council automatically reviews all bishops’ decisions of law, as is required by the Book of Discipline.

Three resolutions from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference that deal with the openness of the church to all people are also on the fall docket. The resolutions — "Affirming All Families," "Conference Affirming Article IV of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church" and "Affirming Inclusiveness of the Church Concerning Membership and Participation in Accord with the Constitution of The United Methodist Church" — all address inclusiveness. One states a desire to "make it clear that the definition of ‘status’ in Article IV of the church's constitution includes heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and transgender status of single persons and persons who avow they are in committed, loving relationships."

The paragraph in the denomination’s constitution deals with the idea that all people "are of sacred worth" and are fully eligible for participation and membership in The United Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council will review the Minnesota Annual Conference's approval of adding domestic partners of lay people to the conference’s health insurance plan. (Asked to rule on a similar plan for the West Michigan Annual Conference, the council in Decision 1030 simply stated that each conference has the responsibility to make sure no church funds are being used to promote homosexuality as stated in Paragraph 612.19 of the Book of Discipline.)

Two annual conferences — Western North Carolina and Pacific-Northwest — have bishop’s decisions of law questions related to Paragraph 612.19 in the Discipline, which forbids annual conferences from giving church funds to "promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

Other items on the fall docket relate to more traditional issues within the church including:

  • A question from the Committee on Nominations of the 2004 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference on the allocation of membership on general boards and agencies of the denomination by the secretary of the General Conference;
  • A request from the Memphis Annual Conference as to whether or not candidates for election as delegates to general and jurisdictional conference can be compelled to disclose their views on issues;
  • A question from the Memphis Annual Conference in regard to a conference policy entitled "Identifying and Strengthening Effective Clergy Leadership;"
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference concerning the constitutionality of its plan of organization;
  • A request from the West Michigan Annual Conference concerning the procedure for a vote for continuance of a local pastor’s licensing;
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference concerning whether procedures used by the annual conference with respect to complaints comply with the Discipline;
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the Iowa Annual Conference concerning a paragraph in the Book of Discipline that deals with conference benevolences;
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the South Carolina Annual Conference Concerning the legality of the standing rule for the election of the conference secretary;
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the New England Annual Conference concerning the legality of the conference policy on parsonages shared between local church clergy and conference staff;
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the California-Nevada Annual Conference dealing with "involuntary leave of absence, administrative and judicial process, and voluntary or involuntary retirement;"
  • A review of a bishop’s decision of law in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference concerning the confidentiality of supervisory files.

The Judicial Council’s spring meeting will be held during 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

*Caldwell covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service and is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate of the Virginia Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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