Court Upholds Pastor's Right to Accept Members

November 04, 2010

By Linda Bloom*

A United Methodist pastor has the right to determine local church membership, even if the decision is based on whether the potential member is gay or lesbian.
 
Annual (regional) Conferences cannot limit that right or ask the Church's top court to set policy, the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled during its Oct. 27-30 meeting.
 
"The General Conference is the only body authorized and able to resolve the issue for the Church," wrote Jon R. Gray in a concurring opinion on one of the October cases. The General Conference is the denomination's top legislative body and meets every four years.
 
The council declined several requests to revisit a decision allowing a pastor to bar a gay man from joining his congregation. In one case, the denomination's top court ruled that the Northern Illinois Annual Conference did not have the authority to interpret constitutional language to prohibit pastors from denying membership based on a person's sexual identity.
 
When the court denied requests for reconsideration at this meeting made by the Northern Illinois and Arkansas Conferences, Judicial Council member Ruben T. Reyes noted in a concurrence that the council had previously taken "a second hard look" at the decision in April 2006, based on 12 briefs and more than 2,000 pieces of communication. "There should be an end to a controversy," he wrote.
 
But the issue has been an unceasing source of debate within the Church for the past five years.
 
Defining Church law
 
Judicial Council Decision No. 1032, from Oct. 29, 2005, related to the case of the Rev. Ed Johnson, who had been the senior pastor at South Hill (Virginia) United Methodist Church until he was placed on an involuntary leave of absence by the Virginia Annual Conference. Bishop Charlene Kammerer upheld the action.
 
Johnson had refused to admit a self-avowed, practicing gay man into membership in the church.
 
Decision 1032, based on Paragraphs 214 and 225 of the denomination's law book, The Book of Discipline, said the paragraphs are "permissive, and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows." The ruling meant that the pastor in charge of a local church has authority to determine a layperson's readiness for membership.
 
The pastor returned to his pulpit after the court's decisions, but the case's impact extended far beyond Virginia. Various Annual Conferences and other groups have protested the ruling, while others have supported it. General Conference legislation filed in response to the case did not pass in 2008.
 
The Northern Illinois, Arkansas, and Minnesota Annual Conferences asked the Judicial Council to reconsider the decision.
 
What Annual Conferences cannot do, the court ruled, is define Church law, as the Northern Illinois Annual Conference did when it passed legislation this year on church membership and sexual identity based on its interpretation of the Church's constitution.
 
During the Judicial Council's Oct. 28 oral hearings, representatives for the Northern Illinois Conference argued that other parts of church law – namely Article IV of the denomination's constitution – supersede the previous Judicial Council decision when it comes to matters of membership.
 
Jennifer Soule – an attorney for the Reconciling Ministries Network, which filed a brief in support of the Conference's petition, and who described herself as a lesbian – said they believe Decision 1032 "authorized unconstitutional discrimination based on homosexual status." The network is an unofficial United Methodist organization that advocates for full inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, in the life of the church.
 
"All laws of the church are subjected to the constitution and, specifically, the guarantee of inclusiveness," she argued.
 
The Rev. Gayle Felton, the primary author of the 2004 denominational statement on Holy Communion, also argued on behalf of the Northern Illinois Conference.
 
"We believe that the Church is in the business of making Christians," Felton said about the present-day denomination. "To do this, it must baptize and then shape."
 
But the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, a Wisconsin pastor representing Good News, an unofficial United Methodist evangelical caucus, said the Conference was trying to ignore the parts of the Book of Discipline with which they disagree. "What we have here is the case of an Annual Conference deciding what the constitution means," he said.
 
Lambrecht argued that Annual Conferences are not empowered to legislate or regulate church membership or the duties of the pastor, so the Judicial Council did not have jurisdiction.
 
Judicial Council decided that the Northern Illinois Conference did not have the authority to take such actions. "An Annual Conference is not permitted to devise and define its own policies or rules relating to the conditions, privileges and duties of church membership," the council said. "Such efforts violate the Discipline and are unlawful."
 
The council also ruled it did not have the authority to answer another Northern Illinois request to decide whether an action by the 2008 General Conference "supersedes" Decision 1032 because it does not relate directly to business of the Northern Illinois Conference.
 
The 2008 General Conference amended Paragraph 225 of the Discipline, replacing the word "may" with "shall." The revised sentence reads: "A member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to unite with The United Methodist Church shall be received as either a baptized or professing member."
 
In a concurring opinion, William B. Lawrence agreed the council did not have the authority to issue an official pronouncement, but said he does believe that action of the 2008 General Conference did "at least in part" supersede the earlier Judicial Council decision. Fellow council members Katherine Austin Mahle and Susan T. Henry-Crowe joined him in that opinion.
 
Split opinion
 
The fact that the council believes it "lacks jurisdiction" for reconsideration, as ruled in a decision on a Minnesota Conference petition, does not mean that all council members support the 2005 decision. Gray, who wrote a dissent when Decision 1032 was issued, said he still believes the case "was wrongly decided."
 
But Gray does not "look favorably" on continued requests for review or reconsideration, he wrote in a concurring opinion.
 
"Efforts to nuance or explain away the meaning of Decision 1032 through Conference policies, resolutions, or sophistry do nothing to achieve the true goal of clarifying the issue of inclusive membership for the Church as a whole," he wrote.
 
Everyone has a stake in this case, said Beth Capen, a council member who originally dissented on Decision 1032. She pointed out that "the implications of the case potentially affect every Annual Conference, clergy member, and lay member in the Connection."
 
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.