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Top court upholds transgender pastor’s appointment

The United Methodist Judicial Council ruled that the Rev. Drew Phoenix, a transgender pastor in Baltimore, can continue to serve as a clergy member in good standing. A UMNS file photo courtesy of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.

By Neill Caldwell*
Oct. 30, 2007 | SAN FRANCISCO (UMNS)

The United Methodist Church’s supreme court has upheld a bishop’s decision that a pastor who changed gender from female to male remains eligible to serve the church.


In combining two separate docket items related to the Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore, the Judicial Council stated that it was not ruling on whether changing gender is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards set by the church’s legislative body, the General Conference. Rather, the court said "a clergyperson’s standing cannot be terminated without administrative or juridical action having occurred and all fair process being accorded."

"The adjective (in this case, 'transgender') placed in front of the noun 'clergyperson' does not matter," the court states in Decision 1074. "What matters is that clergypersons, once ordained and admitted to membership in full connection, cannot have that standing changed without being accorded fair process."

Because Phoenix is a clergy member in good standing, the ruling means Phoenix will continue to serve his church. But the subject of whether transgender clergy are eligible for appointment is likely to be among issues debated when the church’s General Conference convenes next April in Fort Worth, Texas. The United Methodist Church bars practicing homosexuals from being ordained but has nothing in its polity about transgender persons.

In other decisions related to sexuality issues, the council ruled that a Minnesota Annual Conference plan for providing health benefits for domestic partners does not violate the church’s Book of Discipline.

The council would not take jurisdiction in challenges to three Northern Illinois Annual Conference resolutions affirming inclusiveness in the church. The council also remanded a case questioning whether Western North Carolina Annual Conference funds were being used to promote homosexuality. It upheld a bishop’s decision in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference that two campus ministry groups receiving conference funds were not part of any network that promotes homosexuality.

Notable absence

The Judicial Council meeting also was notable for the absence of its president, Dr. Jim Holsinger. As President George W. Bush’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general, Holsinger said his participation could become an "unnecessary and unproductive distraction" to the court's proceedings.

Holsinger is awaiting confirmation as the country's top doctor as the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee awaits answers to follow-up questions posed to him in August on his views on homosexuality. His nomination has drawn opposition from gay rights groups, among others.

In a statement issued just before the start of the meeting, Holsinger said the "work of the council is too important in the life of The United Methodist Church to have its work distracted. While I remain dedicated to fulfilling the role to which I was elected, I believe this is a time in which my service to the Council can best be demonstrated by my absence."

Sexuality-related cases

During the 2007 executive clergy session of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, a change of name was recorded for Phoenix, from the Rev. Ann Gordon, who was ordained in 1989 and had led the St. John’s congregation for five years. Bishop John R. Schol confirmed that, following surgery and hormone therapy, the pastor had changed gender and adopted a new name.

Two requests were made for a bishop’s decision of law: one on a technical question about how to categorize the pastor’s name change for the conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and the other on whether a transgender person is eligible for appointment in The United Methodist Church. Schol said there is nothing in the church’s polity that prevents a transgender person from serving as a pastor, and that the name change was handled correctly.

All decisions of law made by a bishop are automatically sent to the Judicial Council for review, as required by the Book of Discipline. While combining the two questions into one ruling, the Judicial Council affirmed both of Schol's decisions. A clergyperson in good standing is "required to be continued under appointment," the council ruled. In regard to the name change, the council said all name changes "regardless of the reason … are to be placed in minute question 91."

In the Minnesota domestic partner benefits case, the council ruled the plan did not violate Discipline paragraphs listed in the request for a decision because no United Methodist Church funds were being used to supply the benefits. The plan offers benefits to lay employees of the conference and their families, including domestic partners, and the cost of the health care coverage is borne by the employee.

In the question on whether money from the Western North Carolina Conference budget was being used to promote homosexuality through the North Carolina Council of Churches and by the campus ministry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the council ruled that it is up to the individual conferences to determine whether money is being used in violation of Paragraph 612.19 of the Book of Discipline, which blocks funds from being spent in such a manner. The decision directs the conference’s Council for Finance and Administration to perform its own investigation and report to the council within 60 days.

In the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference decision, the council upheld the bishop’s decision that the conference’s Council for Finance and Administration had properly investigated two ministries at the University of Washington and the University of Puget Sound and determined that they were not affiliated with groups promoting homosexuality.

In the Northern Illinois Annual Conference item, the council said it did not have jurisdiction because the three resolutions were not debated separately but were handled together as part of the consent calendar. All three were related to the inclusiveness of the church and in response to the Judicial Council’s earlier Decision 1032, which supported the actions of a pastor who blocked an openly gay man from joining the church.

Other issues

The council ruled that candidates for the church’s General Conference and jurisdictional conferences cannot be compelled to disclose their view on controversial issues.

In Decision 1083, the council declared a motion adopted by the Memphis Annual Conference unconstitutional because it directed the annual conference to create a survey for prospective candidates. "Any attempt on the part of an Annual Conference to add to or change the procedures for the election of clergy or lay members to General or Jurisdictional conference is unconstitutional," the council ruled. The decision noted that candidates can choose to ignore or respond to surveys from various caucus groups.

The council also rejected as unconstitutional a new policy from the Memphis Annual Conference titled "Identifying and Strengthening Effective Clergy Leadership." The strongly worded ruling lists seven points in which the policy does not conform with the Book of Discipline, including that the "twelve-month whirlwind process … suggests that the real purpose of the proposal is to weed out ineffective clergy rather than developing the skills and abilities which would enable them to become effective."

In a review of a bishop’s decision of law in the Western Pennsylvania Conference on a report titled "Faithful, Effective and Fruitful Clergy: A Working Definition" and the relation of that report to a proposed discontinuance of a probationary member the Judicial Council ruled that the questions were hypothetical because the conference did not adopt such a report in final form. The questions related to the effort to discontinue the pastor were moot once the clergy person requests and is granted a voluntary leave of absence, the council said.

In other rulings, the Judicial Council:

  • Affirmed a bishop’s decision of law that the plan of organization for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is constitutional;
  • Determined there is no conflict in the voting requirements of Disciplinary Paragraphs 319.2 and 663.6, saying a simple majority vote is all that is required for a conference board of ordained ministry or clergy session in approving the continuance or discontinuance of a local pastor’s license. Paragraph 663.6, which requires a three-fourths majority vote, applies only to district committees on ordained ministry. The case stemmed from the West Michigan Annual Conference;
  • Ruled that questions of law put to the bishop in the Western Pennsylvania Conference were moot and hypothetical because they concerned a first draft of a report that had not yet been approved by the conference. The case also involved actions taken by the conference on the discontinuance of a probationary member, and the council said that such questions are "moot once the clergy person requests and is granted a voluntary leave of absence";
  • Said that a bishop’s decision of law in the Iowa Conference regarding a legislative question during the annual conference session was "moot and of no effect because subsequent action deleted the provision that was the subject of the question and decision of law." The final action of the Iowa Annual Conference on a substitute motion was in compliance with the Discipline, the council said;
  • Affirmed a bishop’s decision of law in the Illinois-Great Rivers Conference that a question was improper because it did not relate to the business of the annual conference;
  • Said that the standing rule of the South Carolina Annual Conference which delegates the nomination of the conference secretary exclusively to the bishop and cabinet without any input of the annual conference conflicts with Paragraph 603.7 of the Book of Discipline. The court directed the conference to correct the rule;
  • Did not affirm a bishop’s decision of law in the New England Annual Conference since questions were submitted on which a decision of law could not be rendered;
  • Would not take jurisdiction in a question regarding a petition from 11 members of the Committee on Nominations of the 2005 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference because "the record does not indicate that a duly called meeting of the Committee on Nominations was held to authorize the petition."
  • Continued a docket item from the California-Nevada Conference on an involuntary leave of absence question because the minutes were not provided in the materials sent to the council.

The council will meet next during the 2008 General Conference, set for April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth. The Judicial Council meets twice a year and is in session throughout each General Conference to respond to requests for rulings that may come from the floor.

During the council’s meeting, clergy and laypeople from across the Bay Area gathered at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf area where the council convened — for prayer vigils and worship and held a candlelight march. The activities were organized by local participants in the Reconciling Ministries Network, an independent organization favoring participation of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in The United Methodist Church.

In addition to Holsinger, Judicial Council members Jon Gray and the Rev. Paul Shamwange were absent. Participating instead were the first clergy alternate, the Rev. C. Rex Bevins from the Nebraska Conference, and first lay alternate, Dr. Solomon Christian from the Memphis Conference.

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

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

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