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Decision No. 920

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October 25 2001
In Re: Request from the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision on the Perceived Conflict Between the Last Sentence of ¶ 325.1 and ¶ 304.3 of the 2000 Discipline.

Digest of Case

A statement by a clergy woman that she is “living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman” is a sufficient declaration to subject such person’s membership in her ministerial office to review under ¶ 359.1 of the Discipline. If, in the course of such review, such person affirms that she is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender, she would have openly acknowledged to one or more of the persons enumerated in footnote 1 to ¶ 304.3 that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Par. 304.3 sets forth minimum standards for a clergy person to remain in good standing and to be appointed. However, the prohibition of appointment contained in ¶ 304.3 must be exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership. The last sentence of ¶ 325.1 and ¶ 304.3 are not in conflict. The annual conference must annually review the character and conference relations of all clergy persons holding membership in the annual conference. Absent a change in conference relation, elders in full connection remain in good standing and shall be continued under appointment. ¶ 325.1. Where a clergy person makes a declaration such as that quoted above, a bishop may not take unilateral action not to appoint such a person. The annual conference must be informed of the declaration, and the annual conference, and/or the resident bishop or district superintendent must initiate proceedings to subject her membership in her ministerial office to review under ¶ 359.1. While proceedings are conducted to address the issues of character and conference relations according to fair and due process, the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry, shall place the clergy person on suspension under ¶ 359.1(c). The clergy person shall be relieved of all clergy duties, but not from appointment during such suspension. If the process is not concluded within the period of suspension, then the clergy person should be placed on an involuntary leave of absence under ¶ 352.1. At all times, the constitutional right of the clergyperson to trial by a committee and an appeal shall be preserved, ¶¶ 18 and 56, and fair and due process shall be observed. The annual conference, in reviewing and acting upon the conference relation of such person, may not legally negate, ignore or violate the provisions of the Discipline, including, but not limited to, the provisions of ¶¶ 304.3, 359.2 and 2701.

Statement of Facts

At the 2001 meeting of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, the clergy session adopted a motion on June 13 recommending that the Conference petition the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision under ¶ 2610.2(j) of the Discipline with respect to the following questions: If a clergy woman writes a letter to her bishop on February 14, 2001, stating that she is “living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman,” is that a sufficient declaration that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to make her ineligible for an appointment under the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” in the footnote to Paragraph 304.3 and Judicial Council Decision 702? What are the meaning, application and effect of Paragraph 304.3 as that paragraph relates to Paragraph 325.1? More specifically, does Paragraph 304.3, with its explanatory footnote, constitute a modification of the last sentence of Paragraph 325.1, so that an elder in full connection who is also a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” (according to the definition in the footnote in Paragraph 304.3) is not entitled to an appointment under Paragraph 325.1 (last sentence), and in fact cannot be appointed by virtue of the provisions of Paragraph 304.3? What then is the status in the annual conference of such person if not eligible for an appointment? More specifically, if she is not eligible for an appointment because Paragraph 304.3 constitutes a modification of the last sentence of Paragraph 325.1, then must some action be taken to change her status so that she is not an elder in good standing? On June 14, 2001, the annual conference adopted a motion seeking a declaratory decision on these three questions from the Judicial Council. An oral hearing was held in Nashville, Tennessee on October 25, 2001. Appearing before the council were Susan Griffin, Mark Williams and Jon Olson. Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2610 of the 2000 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale Question 1 The question posed by the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference sets forth the factual situation that “a clergy woman writes a letter to her bishop on February 14, 2001, stating that she is ‘living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman’. . . .” Such a statement made under such circumstances is sufficient under ¶ 359.1 of the Discipline to subject the membership of her ministerial office to review. Par. 359.1 provides: Ordination and membership in an annual conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust. The qualifications and duties of local pastors, associate members, probationary members, and full members are set forth in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, and we believe they flow from the gospel as taught by Jesus the Christ and proclaimed by his apostles. Whenever a person in any of the above categories . . . is accused of violating this trust, the membership in his or her ministerial office shall be subject to review. Par. 304.3 is a part of the qualifications of the persons enumerated in ¶359.1. Par. 304.3 states: While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. Footnote 1 to ¶ 304.3 states: “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. A statement such as that outlined in the petition for declaratory decision is sufficient to charge such a person with violating the trust associated with membership in her ministerial office and subject her membership in her ministerial office to review. As part of the review which must occur under such circumstances, the person making such a statement must be asked whether she is engaged in genital sexual acts with a person of the same gender. If such a person responds to that question affirmatively, she would have openly acknowledged to one or more of the persons enumerated in footnote 1 to ¶ 304.3 that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. In Decision 702, the Judicial Council held that if a person was a self-avowed practicing homosexual, “[t]he Annual Conference must make any determination which would effect a change in ministerial standing. The prohibition of an appointment must be exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership.” Par. 18 of the Constitution provides, “The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal . . . .” Par. 56 of the Constitution states, “The General Conference shall establish for the Church a judicial system that shall guarantee to our clergy a right to trial by a committee and an appeal. . . .” Questions 2 and 3 The last sentence of ¶ 325.1 and ¶ 304.3 are not in conflict. The last sentence of ¶ 325.1 states, “Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop.” The Judicial Council has repeatedly held that the annual conference must make any determination which would effect a change in ministerial standing or conference relations. See, e.g.,Decisions 544 and 702. Under our polity, clergy, once ordained and admitted to membership in full connection, remain in good standing until some action is taken which affirmatively removes the clergy person from that status. Nevertheless, while the annual conference makes any determination which would effect a change in ministerial standing and conference relations, it is the General Conference which establishes the minimum standards for the ordained ministry of the church. The Constitution, ¶ 15, gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry. Par. 304.3 of the Discipline was enacted by the General Conference pursuant to the power invested in it by the Constitution. As the Judicial Council stated in Decision 544, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere.” Par. 304.3 of the Discipline is such a minimum standard, not only for ordination, but also for good standing and appointment. The annual conferences, under ¶ 31 of the Constitution, apply the standards, conditions, and qualifications established by the General Conference. The annual conferences decide whether the standards, conditions, and qualifications have been met. Our polity reserves to the annual conferences the right to vote on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members and on the ordination of ministers. See Decision 542. The actions of the annual conference must be in compliance with the mandates of the General Conference. Par. 324 establishes that elders in full connection in an annual conference “by virtue of their election and ordination are bound in special covenant with all the ordained elders of the annual conference.” The covenant relationship among elders is one of mutual trust and accountability. This obligation includes obedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Par. 324 further obligates elders to “subject themselves to the process of clergy discipline . . . .” This requirement includes a commitment to fulfilling the mandates of ¶ 2701 requiring fair process. Primary in this covenant relationship is the desire to seek to effect justice, reconciliation and healing within the church. With respect to ¶ 304.3, the covenant relationship requires annual conference compliance with the mandates of the General Conference. This compliance not only applies to ordination, but also for good standing and the appointment of clergy. There are limitations on the exercise of the annual conference’s authority to determine all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members. In Decision 690, the Judicial Council held that any action by an annual conference on such matters “must conform to disciplinary requirements.” There, the Judicial Council stated: . . . [T]he clergy session may not act in violation of the Discipline. For example, no candidate may be admitted or ordained who has not met all the requirements. . . . Once [the clergy session] has determined that a candidate has not met all requirements, the clergy session may not vote to admit or ordain. The bishop has both the authority and the responsibility to rule out of order any motion which would have that effect. In the performance of their responsibilities annually, the annual conferences cannot ignore the minimum standards established by the General Conference with respect to the character and conference relations of clergy members. See Decision 536. Under ¶ 605.6 of the Discipline, one of the responsibilities of the annual conferences annually is to “make inquiry into the moral and official conduct of its ordained ministers and local pastors.” Par. 604.4 of the Discipline provides: . . . Subject only to the provisions of ¶¶ 2701-2719, the annual conference shall have the power to hear complaints against its clergy members and may try, reprove, suspend, deprive of clergy office and credentials, expel, or acquit any against whom charges may have been preferred . . . . When the annual conference becomes aware of conduct by a clergy member which violates the minimum standards established by the General Conference, it must initiate action to address the character and conference relations of that clergy member. As ¶ 359.1 of the Discipline provides, “[T]he membership of his or her ministerial office shall be subject to review.” If the annual conference does not initiate such a review, the bishop and/or the district superintendent has both the authority and the responsibility to initiate action to address the character and conference relations of that clergy member. ¶ 359.1(a). Under the Discipline, conducting such a review is not a discretionary act or an act subject to a majority vote of the annual conference. The annual conference may not ignore the law of the Church as enacted by the General Conference. As the Judicial Council held in Decision 886, the Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions. In Decision 886, the Judicial Council stated: “If annual conferences were free to violate provisions of the Discipline because they disagree with them, this would have the effect of negating or ignoring the Discipline. Such acts would leave the Church without any enforceable law, which would lead to chaos in the Church.” Thus, when a clergy person makes a statement such as that set forth in the petition for declaratory decision, a bishop may not take unilateral action not to appoint such a person. This information must be brought to the attention of the annual conference so that the membership of his or her ministerial office is subjected to review. The annual conference may not ignore the report, but must initiate action to review the membership of his or her ministerial office, including filing a complaint. If the annual conference does not initiate such action, then the bishop and/or the district superintendent must initiate such action. Under our polity, a presumption of innocence is to be maintained until the conclusion of the administrative or trial process. See, e.g., ¶ 2701. While proceedings are conducted to address the issues of character and conference relations according to fair and due process, the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry, shall place the clergy person on suspension under ¶ 359.1(c). The clergy person shall be relieved of all clergy duties, but not from appointment during such suspension. If the process is not concluded within the maximum sixty day period permitted for such a suspension, the clergy person should then be placed on an involuntary leave of absence under ¶ 352.1 pending completion of the review which should be conducted expeditiously, according fair and due process to the clergy person, and giving effect to the provisions of the Discipline with respect to the minimum standards for clergy persons. If at the end of the process, the conference relation of the clergy person is not changed, then the clergy person remains in good standing and, if an elder in full connection, shall be continued under appointment by the bishop. See ¶ 325.1.

Decision

A statement by a clergy woman that she is “living in a partnered, covenanted homosexual relationship with another woman” is a sufficient declaration to subject such person’s membership in her ministerial office to review under ¶ 359.1 of the Discipline. If, in the course of such review, such person affirms that she is engaged in genital sexual activity with a person of the same gender, she would have openly acknowledged to one or more of the persons enumerated in footnote 1 to ¶ 304.3 that she is a self-avowed practicing homosexual. Par. 304.3 sets forth minimum standards for a clergy person to remain in good standing and to be appointed. However, the prohibition of appointment contained in ¶ 304.3 must be exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership. The last sentence of ¶ 325.1 and ¶ 304.3 are not in conflict. The annual conference must annually review the character and conference relations of all clergy persons holding membership in the annual conference. Absent a change in conference relation, elders in full connection remain in good standing and shall be continued under appointment. ¶ 325.1. Where a clergy person makes a declaration such as that quoted above, a bishop may not take unilateral action not to appoint such a person. The annual conference must be informed of the declaration, and the annual conference, and/or the resident bishop or district superintendent must initiate proceedings to subject her membership in her ministerial office to review under ¶ 359.1. While proceedings are conducted to address the issues of character and conference relations according to fair and due process, the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the board of ordained ministry, shall place the clergy person on suspension under ¶ 359.1(c). The clergy person shall be relieved of all clergy duties, but not from appointment during such suspension. If the process is not concluded within the period of suspension, then the clergy person should be placed on an involuntary leave of absence under ¶ 352.1. At all times, the constitutional right of the clergyperson to trial by a committee and an appeal shall be preserved, ¶¶ 18 and 56, and fair and due process shall be observed. The annual conference, in reviewing and acting upon the conference relation of such person, may not legally negate, ignore or violate the provisions of the Discipline, including, but not limited to, the provisions of ¶¶ 304.3, 359.2 and 2701. Supplementary Opinion We agree with our colleagues that the annual conference is required annually to review the character and conference relations of all clergy persons holding membership. We further agree that in reviewing the membership status of a clergy person that either the annual conference and/or the bishop/superintendent must initiate proceedings to address the conference relations of individual clergy. In doing so we affirm that the annual conference may not negate, ignore, or violate the provisions of the Discipline. We assert that the annual conference plays an interpretive role in determining whether the provisions applicable to ¶ 304.3 have been triggered in a particular situation involving a clergy person in good standing. Primary, is that regardless of who initiates a complaint or review of clergy relations, it is the annual conference that must ultimately determine whether ¶ 304.3 has been violated. We are a covenant people, living in a context of mutual care and accountability. This reality calls the entire church to live with faith and integrity. In maintaining the integrity of the church we must uphold the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church. This requires that annual conferences follow and implement the mandates of the General Conference. Another aspect of this integrity, however, is coming to terms with the fact that in essence The United Methodist Church has a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, with respect to gay and lesbian clergy. This reality is heightened when fair process provisions are overlooked or violated. Furthermore, while affirming that the annual conference does not function separately from the General Conference or other components of the church, it is the annual conference that is in the best position to determine whether a clergy person remains in good standing. Larry Pickens Sally Curtis AsKew Rodolfo C. Beltran Sally Brown Geis

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