By Linda Bloom*
Nov. 2, 2009 | DURHAM, N.C. (UMNS) - There is an official position in The United Methodist Church on gay and lesbian sexuality, and that position states that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
The Judicial Council, the denomination's highest court, in a ruling released November 2, said that the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference went too far in adopting its own statement declaring "a more authentic and truthful representation of The United Methodist Church" is that "we disagree" on gay and lesbian issues.
"The effect of the Baltimore-Washington resolution is to negate the church's clearly stated position as reflected in current disciplinary language," the council wrote. "Moreover, the Baltimore–Washington resolution attempts to articulate a new and different standard of church belief using language that has been specifically rejected by the General Conference."
Meeting October 27-31, the nine-member court considered the statement during a review of a decision of law by Bishop John Schol. The court's ruling reverses his decision that the resolution of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference was in order.
The court said that while such statements can be "aspirational in nature,' an annual (regional) conference "may not negate, ignore or violate" the Book of Discipline, "even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections."
General Conference upholds teaching
Delegates to the 2008 General Conference rejected proposed changes to the United Methodist Social Principles that would have acknowledged that church members disagree on homosexuality, and instead adopted a report retaining language that describes homosexual practice as "incompatible with Christian teaching."
In its 2009 annual meeting, the Baltimore-Washington Conference affirmed the rejected statement, declaring that it was prompted by the Holy Spirit to acknowledge "that we disagree yet all seek a faithful witness."
Those words went beyond permissible language, according to the Judicial Council, which noted that the Baltimore-Washington statement was patterned after the proposed legislation rejected by the General Conference.
In previous decisions, the council had determined the statements of beliefs on sexuality from the Desert Southwest and Pacific Northwest conferences - and even an earlier Baltimore-Washington resolution calling for inclusive behavior in the acceptance of congregational members - were permissible because they did not negate, ignore or violate the Discipline, but that a California-Nevada resolution directing the conference to distribute a list of retired clergy willing to perform same-sex union ceremonies was considered an endorsement of actions prohibited by the Discipline.
Applying guiding principles from such previous decisions, the Judicial Council found that the Baltimore-Washington statement's claim to communicate a "more authentic and truthful representation" of the church implies the denomination's position is less than authentic.
Council member Beth Capen added an opinion that both concurred with and dissented from the ruling. While she agreed the resolution's second paragraph "crosses the line," she said she did not concur with the entire analysis.
"Specifically, I am concerned that the denomination may be left with the mistaken impression that the council has ruled that any language that has been presented to the General Conference and has been specifically rejected is therefore, by definition, in conflict with the Discipline. Such is not the case," Capen wrote.
At times, General Conference delegates have rejected language considered redundant or unnecessary. "Similarly, there are occasions when legislation has been presented on an entirely new topic or area of concern," she wrote. "The legislation may not conflict whatsoever with that which is in the Discipline, but General Conference decides that it does not want to have the proposed legislation set forth in the Discipline for any one of a number of reasons."
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.