Church Court to Address Apportionments, Sexuality

October 29, 2009

Pension rates for retired clergy in the California-Nevada Annual Conference to be addressed.

By Linda Bloom
Oct. 23, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
The United Methodist Church's highest court will consider whether regional church groups have any latitude on payment to general church funds when it meets Oct. 28-31 in Durham, N.C.
The Judicial Council also will discuss what language is acceptable for statements on sexuality and whether clergy can fill local church positions reserved for laity. Those are among the issues raised from decisions made by United Methodist bishops during the 2009 annual conference season, which compose the 21 docket items before the denomination's nine-member court.
Five years ago, United Methodists in Western North Carolina decided they wanted to choose which churchwide programs to support financially rather than follow the denomination's practice of mandated contributions.
The Western North Carolina Annual Conference approved a "Choice Empowerment" plan that allows each local church to decide which apportionments, or general church funds, they will pay. But Bishop Larry Goodpaster, who assumed leadership in September 2008, ruled that the plan violated church law.
Goodpaster declared the "choice" plan was not in accord with the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which states "payments in full of these apportionments by local churches is the first benevolent responsibility of the church."
The Discipline also states that apportioned funds "shall not be subject to reduction" by either the conference or local church.
One of the duties of clergy is leading congregations to the fulfillment of their mission through full and faithful payment of 100 percent of all benevolences and apportioned funds, Goodpaster pointed out in a letter to the conference.
"For an annual conference to adopt a policy that gives permission to local churches to choose not to pay, or to choose to shift payments from one item to another, is a violation of the letter and spirit of our church law," he wrote.
Language on homosexuality
Another item the Judicial Council will consider relates to language in the Discipline on human sexuality. Such language is painstakingly considered and debated at each quadrennial meeting of General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body.
Delegates to the 2008 General Conference rejected proposed changes to the United Methodist Social Principles that would have stated that church members disagree on homosexuality.
A legislative committee majority report had recommended that delegates delete the reference that the church "does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching" and adopt the statement, "Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness."
The revision also would have asked United Methodists and others "to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices as the Spirit leads us to a new insight."
In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Bishop John Schol was asked to rule whether a human sexuality-related resolution was properly before the conference session because it established "a new and different standard on sexuality from the Discipline."
Both the conference resolution and the church's Social Principles acknowledge that "sexuality is God's good gift to all" and that responsible stewardship of this gift is required.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference's resolution goes further to state that people "may be fully human" only when the gift of sexuality "is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church and society."
Schol ruled that the resolution was in order and declared the paragraph in question was a statement of belief and did not contradict the Discipline or establish "a new and different standard on sexuality."
"The Social Principles are not church law and encourage prayerful, studied dialogue," the bishop said.
Reconciling Ministries
In another sexuality matter, the council will review a Detroit Conference decision concerning the Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial organization promoting the full participation of people of all sexual orientations in The United Methodist Church.
During the conference session, an individual asked a question about local churches identifying themselves as reconciling congregations. Bishop Jonathan Keaton ruled that he was not going to address the question because the matter did not deal with conference business.
Paul Thomas, the conference director of communications, characterized the situation as "an attempt to call out people and churches involved in the Reconciling Ministries Network."
An item from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference raises the issue of whether retired pastors should serve in local church positions usually allocated to lay people. A retired pastor who had been chairperson of a local church finance committee since 2002 was told in the fall of 2008 that his occupying that position violated the Discipline. Church officials had "determined that an elder, active or retired, may not serve the local church as chair of finance or in another position designated for lay persons."
Although Bishop Peggy Johnson, the current bishop, made no ruling, she asked the pastor to step down. When the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference met in 2009, the members adopted a resolution requesting that the Judicial Council make a declaratory decision on the matter because there are retired clergy serving as chairpersons of local church finance committees across the connection.
Other docket items include a question about the legality of the Northwest Texas Conference's vote on constitutional amendments; a ruling regarding adjustments in the number of delegates to the denomination's General Conference and a decision about pension rates for retired clergy in the California-Nevada Conference.
A full list of the Judicial Council's fall docket is available in PDF format.