Judicial Council sets docket for fall meeting

July 25, 2008

A UMNS Report
By Neill Caldwell*
July 25, 2008

The United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council will include five new faces when it convenes Oct. 22-25 in Minneapolis.
The meeting will be the first of the new quadrennium for the denomination’s “supreme court.” Issues covered on the 13-item docket include the ban on United Methodist clergy from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies, questions relating to who is eligible for membership in the local church, and the creation of a U.S. regional conference, which was part of the debate at the recent General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
New members are the Revs. Belton Joyner of the North Carolina Conference, Kathi Austin-Mahle of Minnesota, and Bill Lawrence of North Texas, along with lay members Angela Brown of California-Nevada and Ruben Reyes of the Philippines.
The four returning members of the council are the Rev. Susan Henry Crowe, the first woman president of the Judicial Council, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, and laypersons Jon Gray and Beth Capen. The council has nine members, lay and clergy, who are elected every four years by General Conference, the church’s legislative body.
The same-sex marriage item follows a string of actions over the course of the summer. After the state of California approved same-sex ceremonies, a group of retired clergy in the United Methodist California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference offered to perform such unions in spite of the denomination’s disciplinary prohibition on leading same-sex weddings or similar ceremonies celebrating homosexual relationships.
In June, the California-Nevada Conference approved a resolution commending those retired clergy, but following a request for a decision of law, Bishop Beverly J. Shamana issued a ruling declaring the statement "void and of no effect." All bishops’ decisions of law are automatically reviewed by the Judicial Council.
The United Methodist Church, while affirming all people as persons "of sacred worth," considers the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." Its Book of Discipline prohibits pastors from conducting such union ceremonies, and those denominational standards were again affirmed by the 2008 General Conference.
Questions on inclusiveness
The Alaska Missionary Conference is asking whether Paragraphs 214 and 225 in the Book of Discipline are constitutional under Paragraph 4, Article IV, of the church’s Constitution. Paragraph 4 states the inclusiveness of the church includes all persons; Paragraph 214 deals with the eligibility of members, saying that “all people may attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments and become members of any local church in the connection.” Paragraph 225 deals with transferring into The United Methodist Church from another denomination.
In Decision 1032, issued in 2005, the Judicial Council ruled that “Paragraphs 214 and 225 are permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows.” The pastor-in-charge of a local church has the power to determine “a person's readiness to receive the vows of membership,” the council said in Decision 1032.
Another item with far-reaching implications comes directly from the floor of the 2008 General Conference and is related to the creation of a “regional conference” for the church in the United States.
During General Conference, delegates passed nearly two dozen amendments to the Constitution of the church that would allow for creation of such a U.S. regional conference. The amendments were proposed to make the denomination’s structure more international and would combine the church’s five U.S. jurisdictions into a regional body, similar to the church’s non-U.S. central conferences. This action would separate business that relates only to the United States away from General Conference.
The item before the Judicial Council deals with a specific petition that would change language in Paragraph 10, Article III, of the church’s Constitution from “central” conferences to “regional” conferences.
One other item sent to the council at the end of General Conference referred to the meaning of Paragraph 602 of the 2004 Book of Discipline as it relates to the new Paragraph 320.6, which outlines the status of retired local pastors.
Paragraph 602 relates to clergy membership within an annual conference, while the newly passed Paragraph 320.6 would let local pastors who have completed the Course of Study choose whether to be listed as local pastor or laity upon their retirement.
Another item related to General Conference is a request from the Kansas East Annual Conference on Paragraph 507.2 of the Book of Discipline, with regard to the scope of petitions presented to General Conference. Paragraph 507.2 states that each petition must address only one issue or one paragraph of the Discipline unless two paragraphs are so closely related that a change in one affects the other.
Other docket items
Other items on the docket include:
  • A review of a decision of law by Bishop Marcus Matthews of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference regarding the mandatory appointment of a clergy member after a trial court decision declaring the clergy member not guilty of the alleged offenses.
  • A request from the California-Pacific Conference related to previous Judicial Council Decision 799 on the authority of the board of ordained ministry or its executive committee to overturn a ruling on a question of law by the chairperson of the board. Ruling 799 does mention separation of powers, but primarily states that questions of law presented to a bishop must pertain to the business being conducted by the annual conference.
  • A request from California-Pacific Annual Conference for a ruling on Paragraph 327.6 of the Book of Discipline, which deals with requests of discontinuance from probationary membership.
  • A request from the West Ohio Conference for a decision regarding Paragraph 405.2c, adopted by the 2008 General Conference, concerning the relationship between the Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and General Conference. The paragraph deals with the formula for determining the number of bishops in a jurisdiction.
  • A review of decisions by Bishop Edward Paup of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference regarding the consultation process in the appointment of pastors.
  • A request from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference to rule on whether or not Paragraph 1117.9 of the Book of Disciplineas amended by the 2008 General Conference contravenes Restrictive Rule 1 of The United Methodist Church regarding Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion. Paragraph 1117.9 deals with training laity to take communion elements to sick and homebound with a language change from “following a service of Word and Table” to “as approved by the pastor.”
  • A review of a decision of law by Bishop John Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Conference on the right of the annual conference to amend the nominations to the board of ordained ministry.
  • A review of determination by Bishop John Hopkins of the East Ohio Conference that a motion to refer a matter to the Judicial Council was not a request for a decision of law.
The deadline for submitting briefs to the Judicial Council is Aug. 22. Thirteen copies of each brief should be submitted, signed by the person submitting the brief. Rev. Joyner is the secretary of the Judicial Council. For information, e-mail judicialcouncil@umc.org.
*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service.