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Court voids new policy on clergy marriage


4:00 P.M. EST May 3, 2011 | DETROIT (UMNS)

The United Methodist Judicial Council has upheld the church’s current prohibition against same-sex marriage, found in Paragraph 2702 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The United Methodist Judicial Council has upheld the church’s current prohibition against same-sex marriage, found in Paragraph 2702 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
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A policy adopted but not yet implemented by United Methodists in New York and Connecticut that essentially would have allowed clergy to marry someone of the same sex has been declared “null, void and of no effect” by the denomination’s top court.

The United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled that the New York Annual (regional) Conference resolution and policy allowing clergy “to marry at their own discretion” is “neither valid nor constitutional.”

Meeting April 27-29 in Detroit, the council upheld the church’s current prohibition against same-sex marriage and pastors who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” found in Paragraph 2702 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The Judicial Council also acted on other items, including requests for reviewing past decisions.

While an annual conference can adopt rules and regulations for its own governance, the council wrote in Decision 1185, the conference “may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree even when the disagreement is based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.”

The rationale for the New York policy, adopted in 2010, is that same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut; that such unions performed legally elsewhere “are legally recognized by state agencies in New York”; and that the church’s Articles of Religion – doctrinal standards found in Paragraph 103 of the Book of Discipline – state that it is “lawful” for clergy “to marry at their own discretion.”

Contending that the Articles of Religion take precedence over other church laws outside the church’s constitution, the New York Conference declared that “we believe that any… provision (in the Discipline) denying marriage to some clergy is unconstitutional and contrary to the Articles of Religion…” In particular, Paragraph 103 would take precedence over Paragraph 2702, the conference said.

Seeking ‘declaratory decision’

Before enacting the policy, however, the New York Conference resolution asked the Judicial Council to make a “declaratory decision” about its validity.

Council members initially considered the New York petition at its October 2010 meeting in New Orleans, but deferred a decision to the April meeting. Implementation of the policy was stayed pending the court’s decision.

Because the petition appeared on both the October and April dockets, supporters and an opponent of the policy appeared before the council during oral hearings at both meetings.

During the oral hearing in October, J. Ann Craig and Nehemiah Luckett — New York lay members who identified themselves as gay — argued that Article XXI of Paragraph 103, declares marriage is “a moral structure available to all.”

At the April oral hearing in Detroit, Kevin Nelson, a New York lay member who identified himself as “a straight person who supports full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons,” argued that when John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote the Articles of Religion, he did not define marriage as heterosexual.

Both Craig and Nelson noted that Wesley was well aware that issues of class, race and status could be used by society as an attempt to block marriage. “Although John Wesley may not have considered marriage for same-gender couples in Article XXI, the discretion of clergy to marry whom they choose can be understood on the face of it as a challenge to arbitrary social categories and prejudices,” Craig said at the October hearing.

Nelson declared that allowing other parts of the Discipline to supersede Article XXI is “anti-Wesleyan” and ignores the ministry of Jesus to the marginalized, “a marginalization that in today’s world and in the case of gay and lesbian persons is all too often perpetuated by the very Christian churches that have been charged by God with opposing it.”

Noting that “there is no acceptable place between humiliation and respect,” Nelson asked council members to “take a controversial but clearly proscribed stand” to uphold the church’s constitution and affirm the New York Conference policy.

Opposing the policy

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a Wisconsin pastor representing Good News, an unofficial United Methodist evangelical caucus, spoke in opposition of the policy at both the October and April hearings.

In April, he called the New York petition one “in a string” of actions over the years by various annual conferences to urge Judicial Council to circumvent General Conference, the church’s top legislative body, and change the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.

The Book of Discipline already has defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and an annual conference “does not have the right to legislate on the duties of clergy,” Lambrecht added. Nor can it unilaterally change the definition of marriage in Article XXI to include same-gender marriage without General Conference action, he said.

Supporters of the New York Conference policy mainly use experience and cultural tolerance as the basis for their support, he contended. “Such arguments may be somewhat persuasive in a legislative arena, but they show how weak the legal standing of this policy is,” he told council members.

Because marriage between one man and one woman was the norm in Wesley’s time, there was no need for him to define marriage in the Articles of Religion, Lambrecht argued.

While heterosexual marriage was the norm then, Nelson replied, Wesley was well aware of other restrictions on marriage related to class and race. “Wesley did not set a definition in Article XXI, he set a principle,” he said.

Attempt at immunity

In its ruling, the Judicial Council found that Paragraph 2702.1 does not “revoke, change or alter” the Articles of Religion or establish new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to established doctrinal standards.

The New York Conference policy, however, is in conflict with the Discipline and “could arguably be advanced as some safe haven from the complaint process for those clergy who choose to enter into a same-sex marriage at their discretion…,” the court said. A conference has no authority to offer such immunity by adopting a policy “that is clearly contrary to the Discipline.”

Judicial Council does not consider state recognition of same-sex marriage to be a factor in this case. “The church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority,” the decision said. “The church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman.”

In a concurring opinion, four council members – the Rev. Katherine Austin Mahle, the Rev. F. Belton Joyner Jr., Angela Brown and the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe -- wrote that the council’s decision does not comment “on the appropriateness of the disciplinary language related to marriage being between one man and one woman. We only say that there is no constitutional block to such language.”

The Articles of Religion came about when Wesley “revised, redefined, and adapted” the 39 Articles of the Church of England to fit the context of the newly formed Methodist church in the United States.

“It is possible to change and interpret the Articles of Religion in light of the Christian mission for our times,” through votes requiring specific majority approvals by General Conference and the denomination’s annual conferences, the opinion noted.

Decisions from the April Judicial Council meeting, Nos. 1182-1189, can be found here.

*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, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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