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Briefs crystallize debate points over Judicial Council decisions

April 19, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Neill Caldwell*

The United Methodist Judicial Council is hearing from parties across the church eager to weigh in on the issue of pastoral authority, which the court will consider when it meets next week.

Briefs filed with the Judicial Council highlight both sides of the debate over whether or not the church court should reconsider two decisions that it made regarding a pastor's authority to deny someone membership in a congregation. The denomination's supreme court will discuss those questions as non-docketed items during its April 26-29 spring session in Overland Park, Kan.

The two rulings – Decisions 1031 and 1032 – stirred much debate in the denomination when they were handed down last fall. Both deal with the case of the Rev. Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church, who blocked a practicing homosexual from joining the congregation. While the United Methodist Church holds gay people to be persons of sacred worth, it also officially states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

On recommendation by the Virginia Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, Johnson was placed on involuntary leave by his clergy peers last June, and his advocate asked for a bishop's decision of law on the action. Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who leads the conference, affirmed the suspension. The case went to the Judicial Council, which ruled in Johnson's favor in October, and the pastor was returned to his pulpit.

In a nutshell, here's what the rulings said:

  • Decision 1031 — "Rules and procedures were not followed" by the conference. The conference's errors included the board of ordained ministry transforming an administrative complaint into a judicial complaint without the proper authority.
  • Decision 1032 — Paragraphs 214 and 225 of the denomination's law book, The Book of Discipline, are "permissive, and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows." In other words, the pastor in charge of a local church has authority to determine a layperson's readiness for membership.

Virginia Conference filings

The Judicial Council has received briefs from the active participants in the Virginia case, including Johnson, Kammerer and the conference board of ordained ministry. In addition, a number of "friend of the court" briefs have been filed.

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Bishop Charlene Kammerer

Kammerer describes three reasons for reconsideration of each ruling. For Decision 1031, she wrote that the ruling's Statement of Facts contained errors, that a chargeable offense not listed in Paragraph 2702 of The Book of Discipline was used by the council in making the decision, and that "a statement of 'background information' was used as if it were a decision of law and the case was treated as a matter of appeal of fair process instead of a decision of law."

For Decision 1032, Kammerer says the United Methodist Constitution, specifically Article 4 on inclusiveness, takes precedence over the paragraphs cited in the ruling, which deal with the administration and order of the church. The Constitution, the bishop writes, also includes a "strong declaration that the UMC is part of the church universal, which is one body in Christ," and since the layperson in question was already a member in good standing of another denomination and the "church universal," he only needed to affirm his loyalty to the United Methodist Church.

The bishop also challenges the council's ruling that The Book of Discipline gives the pastor the discretion to determine a person's readiness for membership. She says the book only grants that kind of discretion in two specific instances (Paragraphs 216.3 and 224), which deal with the age of potential confirmands and people who are physically unable to stand before a congregation to affirm a vow of membership.

A brief filed by the Virginia Board of Ordained Ministry, led by the Rev. Jeffrey Mickle, includes a detailed narrative of the events leading up to Johnson being placed on involuntary leave by the clergy executive session at the 2005 annual conference.

"The council … stated that the process for a judicial complaint must be followed," the brief says. "That process involves investigation in a complex method of fact finding. The council has, with no fact finding and with virtually no facts, reached a conclusion on this matter. … The manifest injustice is that the council has taken upon itself the role of prosecutor, judge and jury, and without the benefit of facts, rendered an irrevocable verdict.

"Decision 1031 crosses the historic line of demarcation between authority of the Judicial Council and that of an annual conference," the brief adds.

The board of ordained ministry also says "the reasoning of 1032 comes close to blurring the legislative and judicial powers of the connection. The legislative power of the General Conference has consistently upheld the principle of exclusivity in church membership. At stake in this decision is the connectional definition of membership as opposed to a congregational definition."

Johnson's brief

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The Rev. Ed Johnson

The brief submitted by Johnson, his clergy advocate, the Rev. Tom Thomas, and advocate Pat Meadows responds specifically to those submitted by Kammerer and the board of ordained ministry. Johnson's brief states that the arguments by the bishop and conference are "mere legal quibbling largely based on alleged technicalities and contentions that change nothing regarding the meat and substance of the rulings."

"Decisions 1031 and 1032 have generated widespread interest and renewed hope across the denomination," the Johnson/Thomas/Meadows brief says. The decisions "have provided clear assurance that the fair process rights of clergy persons who are made subject to the complaint provisions of the Discipline must be observed with integrity by those holding supervisory authority, and have also upheld in straightforward fashion the pastor's unique and historical role in discerning a person's readiness for church membership without hindrance or dictation by episcopal officers. …

"Unfortunately, in certain quarters, misrepresentations and disciplinary ignorance have been used to generate controversy about the decisions," the brief continues. "The noise and stir this evidenced over Decisions 1031 and 1032 appear to be confined to certain groups whose recent aims have been to radically change the Discipline. …

"Common sense suggests that the 'law of the church' is not intended to be a minefield, full of procedural pitfalls, which are virtually impossible to negotiate," the brief states. "The playing field for these very serious matters must always be a level one and the mocking cry of 'gotcha' must never be felt or heard by those who find themselves exposed to the process."

The Johnson brief concludes: "The first sentence of Paragraph 2609.10 of The Book of Discipline reads 'All decisions of the Judicial Council are final.' Now is the time for this decision to be final. Steadiness and firmness must be watchwords during these times."

Additional views

A number of additional briefs include a filing by the Council of Bishops in support of reconsideration. The bishops' brief cites several "serious problems of law" in both decisions. Regarding Decision 1031, the Council of Bishops argues that "grounds for the complaint being treated administratively may overlap considerably with grounds for it being treated judicially. The fact that both routes are available does not indicate that only the judicial route is correct."

With Decision 1032, the bishops state that it is "essential to underscore and affirm a pastor's amenability to the district superintendent and the bishop. Decision 1032 undermines the authority of the district superintendent and the bishop to provide oversight and supervision of clergy and congregations."

A brief filed by the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns examines the decisions for "adverse effects" on ecumenical issues for the United Methodist Church. The question of a member of another denomination transferring into a United Methodist Church, as was the case in the Virginia situation, is tied to the church's policy of "universality of membership" and the recognition of one baptism, the brief says.

Lonnie Brooks, a layman in the Alaska Missionary Conference and a member of the Christian Unity commission, and five co-signers note that The Book of Discipline gives pastors discretion in specific areas, such as whether or not to perform a wedding, but not in admitting members. "General Conference has shown clearly where it has provided discretion, and, by necessary implication, where it has not."

As to the debate over the meaning of the phrase "shall be eligible" in Paragraph 4 of the Constitution, the Brooks brief uses the analogy of a fishing license: "If one is eligible for a fishing license, if one wants a fishing license, and if one makes proper application for a fishing license, then there is nobody who has the authority to deny the applicant a fishing license. Those persons who are charged with the responsibility to issue fishing licenses must issue the applicant a license. The discretion … lies solely with the applicant."

*Caldwell is a freelance writer in High Point, N.C.

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

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