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Church court: Structural changes require legislation

The Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church, including five new members elected last spring by General Conference, met in Bloomington, Minn., for its first session of the denomination's new four-year period.
A UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell.

By Neill Caldwell*
Oct. 29, 2008 | BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (UMNS)

The top court of The United Methodist Church has ruled that the denomination’s legislative body would need to enact enabling legislation in 2012 to change the church's structure in the United States.

The Judicial Council, meeting Oct. 22-25 in its first session since the election of five new members last spring, also remanded two cases on key issues—church membership and same-gender marriages—back to their respective conferences, citing an absence of official documentation needed to decide the cases.

Delegates consider legislation during the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

The denomination has been studying its structure to reflect the increasing global nature of the church, and it brought proposed constitutional changes before its top legislative body last spring. The 2008 General Conference mandated creation of a regional conference in the United States as part of its efforts to make the denomination less U.S.-centric in structure and has sent the amendment to annual conferences for a vote in 2009 as part of the ratification process.

The Judicial Council, however, said the amendment does nothing to "harmonize its content" with the rest of the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law, and that enabling legislation is necessary.

In responding to a request for a ruling of law brought from the floor of General Conference about the amendment's meaning, application and effect, the council clarified that the structural changes could not take effect before 2012, even if ratified at the annual conference level in 2009.

"We conclude that the General Conference did not intend … to create a regional conference in the United States before the next General Conference," Decision 1100 states.

Holy Communion, local pastors

The council rejected two changes to the Book of Discipline approved by General Conference when the worldwide assembly met last spring in Fort Worth, Texas.

The first was designed to make it easier for laity to distribute Holy Communion in remote areas.

Responding to questions of constitutionality from the Western North Carolina Conference, the council said that amendments made to Paragraph 1117.9 create a doctrine of "reserved sacrament" and alters the Discipline without proper authority. The church’s Articles of Religion explicitly say that the sacraments are not to be "reserved" or "carried about."

In Decision 1109, the council said it would "not become the arbiter of theological debates" and that the amendments create "a fundamental shift in the way that the Church talks about the elements of the Sacrament of Holy Communion."

"It is quite permissible for The United Methodist Church to change its doctrine regarding Holy Communion," states Decision 1109. "But the means for doing so is not to act on a petition by a simple majority of the General Conference. Rather, the proper procedure is akin to that for amending the Constitution, except for the provision that a larger aggregate vote of the annual conferences—three-fourths—must be achieved. An argument from expediency, to make it easier for laity in remote areas to receive the sacrament, does not abrogate the Church’s methods for changing its doctrine."

The second General Conference change rejected by the council offered local pastors the option of choosing their status as lay or clergy if they have completed the Course of Study but are no longer under appointment. In Decision 1101, the council said the legislation is in direct violation of the Discipline, including Paragraph 32 of the Constitution, which lists the criteria for being a pastor.

"Retired local pastors are not clergy and may not vote as clergy during annual conference," the decision states. "Nowhere in the Book of Discipline does the local pastor have the opportunity to determine his or her status."

That status, the council said, is determined by the district committee on ordained ministry and the conference board of ordained ministry. Ruling the new Paragraph 320.6 null and void, the court said the original petition was "fatally flawed" because a local pastor is only considered clergy when under appointment and resumes lay status when not appointed.

Lack of documentation

Two much-anticipated decisions were deferred because the proper annual conference minutes had not been submitted to the Judicial Council.

Bishop Beverly Shamana

One involved a resolution passed by the California-Nevada Annual Conference in June commending a group of 80 retired United Methodist clergy who had offered to perform same-sex marriages in the wake of a California Supreme Court ruling legalizing such unions. The Discipline forbids United Methodist pastors from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. Responding to a request for a ruling of law on the conference action, Bishop Beverly Shamana ruled in July that the resolution "steps over a Disciplinary line" and declared the statement "void and of no effect."

The other involved a question over church membership in the Alaska Conference. While conference lay leader Lonnie Brooks offered oral arguments to the court in behalf of the conference, the council said "the record supplied is insufficient in that it fails to provide an exact statement of the entire question submitted for declaratory decision." The Alaska case will be added to the spring 2009 docket.

Under the Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Council, the secretary of an annual conference is responsible for providing the council's secretary with materials related to the matter being appealed, including a copy of the minutes where the matter arose.

The council also cited a lack of official minutes in deferring a case from the West Ohio Conference related to its inter-jurisdictional committee on the episcopacy.

Oral arguments

The council held oral arguments in a case in which members of the Kansas East Annual Conference sought to amend seven paragraphs of the Discipline by eliminating specific language related to homosexuality.

A conference task force crafted a "comprehensive petition" passed by the 2007 Kansas East Annual Conference. But the petition was later divided into five separate General Conference petitions to meet the rule in Paragraph 507.2, which states that "each petition must address only one paragraph of the Discipline, except that if two or more paragraphs of the Discipline are so closely related that a change in one affects the others."

"The church needs guidance for how petitions can be written and processed," said Barbara Luckert of the Kansas East Conference, speaking during oral arguments. "There is presently no clear mechanism available for General Conference to process petitions addressing multiple paragraphs in the Book of Discipline."

In Decision 1108, the council disagreed, saying that such a mechanism is already in place. It ruled it proper for the secretary of General Conference to determine when Paragraph 507.2 is applicable, and that a common theme or topic "will not achieve the threshold necessary to permit embracing them in a single petition. … A petitioner who seeks a 'comprehensive' approach to various legislative changes may do so by submitting multiple petitions with a rationale for each."

The Judicial Council also:

  • Ruled that a pastor who is acquitted in a church trial is entitled to restoration of all previous status, rights and privileges. The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference case involved a clergy member accused of child abuse at a church preschool. The pastor was found innocent by a church court but was not appointed because he could not provide child abuse clearance verification. Because the pastor remained an elder in good standing, he was required to be appointed, the council said in Decision 1105, and could only be deprived of an appointment by the fair process described in the Discipline. A concurring opinion signed by council members Angela Brown, Kathy Austin-Mahle and Susan Henry-Crowe supported the decision but expressed unease at the lack of a "clear, expunged record" that would compromise the pastor’s "ministry, appointability and relationship with the annual conference." Belton Joyner wrote a dissenting opinion stating, "I believe that an annual conference can establish requirements for professional responsibilities other than those delineated in Paragraph 334.2 and thus create additional conditions for continued eligibility."
  • Offered a mixed ruling on an item from the California-Pacific Conference that asked multiple questions related to procedures used to discontinue the probationary membership of a transitional deacon. The council said that a hearing before a board of ordained ministry’s executive committee does not constitute an appeal but is part of the board’s process. The council also said that Paragraph 318 of the 1996 Discipline, which was being used in this matter, calls for a three-fourths vote of the board of ordained ministry, but only a simple majority vote in the clergy session. On a third question, the council said that it did not have jurisdiction.
  • Affirmed a decision of law by Baltimore-Washington Conference Bishop John R. Schol that nominations for the board of ordained ministry come from the presiding bishop after consultation with the board’s chairperson, according to Paragraph 634.1a, and cannot be offered from the floor of annual conference or other sources.
  • Said it had no jurisdiction in two questions about decisions of law by Pacific Northwest Bishop Edward Paup and East Ohio Bishop John L. Hopkins because neither bishop actually made a decision of law.

The Judicial Council is scheduled to meet next April 22-25 in Denver.

*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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