|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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
*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 email@example.com.
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