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Church court takes up membership, marriage


1:30 P.M. EST February 4, 2011

Delegates consider legislation during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
Delegates consider legislation during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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The United Methodist Judicial Council again is being asked to re-consider a 2005 decision allowing a pastor to bar a gay man from joining his congregation.

During its April 27-30 meeting, the denomination’s top court will look at a request from the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference “for the Judicial Council on its own motion to reconsider Judicial Council Decision 1032.” The location of the April meeting is yet to be determined.

The council also will take up a request from the New York Annual Conference, deferred from its October meeting, for a ruling on the validity of a policy related to clergy and same-sex marriage.

In October, the court declined reconsideration requests on Decision 1032 from several of the church’s annual conferences seeking a reversal of the decision. Through individual concurrences, Judicial Council members expressed hope for an end to the controversy stirred within the denomination over the decision and the continued attempts to resolve the issue on the judicial level.

“The General Conference is the only body authorized and able to resolve the issue for the Church,” wrote Jon R. Gray in a concurring opinion on one of the October cases. General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, will next meet April 24-May 4, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.

Judicial Council Decision No. 1032 related to the case of the Rev. Ed Johnson, who had been the senior pastor at South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church until he was placed on an involuntary leave of absence by the Virginia Annual (regional) Conference. Bishop Charlene Kammerer upheld the action.

Johnson had refused to admit a self-avowed, practicing gay man into membership in the church. The pastor was returned to the pulpit following the court’s action.

Decision 1032, based on Paragraphs 214 and 225 of the denomination's law book, The Book of Discipline, said the paragraphs are “permissive, and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows.” The ruling meant that the pastor in charge of a local church has authority to determine a layperson’s readiness for membership.

Clergy marriage

The New York Conference request asks for a declaratory decision about the validity of a policy that it adopted in 2010, effective this year, allowing any of its clergy members to be “legally married at their own discretion, as permitted by Paragraph 103 of the Articles of Religion.” The policy is based on the premise that Paragraph 103 takes precedence over Paragraph 2702 prohibiting same-sex marriage for clergy.

During an oral hearing at the October meeting, J. Ann Craig and Nehemiah Luckett — New York lay members who identified themselves as gay — argued that Article XXI of Paragraph 103, declares that marriage is “a moral structure available to all.” Same-sex marriage is now a legal option in Connecticut, a state that is part of the conference.

In her presentation, Craig said that the denomination’s ban on same-gender marriage is contrary to Paragraph 103, which states that it is “lawful” for pastors, “as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.”

She added that the church’s doctrinal standards, of which the Articles of Religion are a part, take precedence over changes to The Book of Discipline.

At the same hearing, the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a Wisconsin pastor representing Good News, an unofficial United Methodist evangelical caucus, called that reasoning a misinterpretation of Paragraph 103.

“It unilaterally changes the definition of marriage to include same-gender marriage” without the action of General Conference, he said.

Reconsideration on Baltimore-Washington case

Also on the spring docket is a request from officials in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference for reconsideration of Judicial Council Decision 1156.

In that case — also the subject of an oral hearing in October — the council ruled the Baltimore-Washington Conference violated the rights of a suspended pastor and ordered it to restore compensation and benefits to the Rev. Helen Steiner Smith “until she receives another appointment or is declared ineligible for appointment.”

Smith had been suspended from her position as pastor of Benevola United Methodist Church in Boonsboro, Md., in May 2009 after allegedly failing to carry out pastoral duties by not fully disclosing her husband’s status as a registered child sex offender. According to news reports at the time, David Alvin Smith pleaded guilty the previous year to a sex offense charge after his adult daughter told authorities he had sexually abused her as a child.

Smith was placed on a voluntary leave of absence by the conference, an action “reversed and vacated” by the court, which found the case to have been mishandled by the bishop, superintendent and conference board of ordained ministry and “replete with errors, omissions, flaws and disciplinary violations.”

The entire April 2011 docket is available at umc.org.

Briefs or comments on any of the April docket items are due by Feb. 26. An electronic copy should be sent to judicialcouncil@umc.org and 13 paper copies mailed to F. Belton Joyner, Jr., Secretary, 1821 Hillandale Road, Suite 1B, PMB 334, Durham, NC 27705.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe

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

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