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Decision No. 1120

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October 30 2009
In Re: Review of a Decision of Law by Bishop John R. Schol of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference as to Whether a Resolution on Human Sexuality Was Properly Before the Conference in Light of ¶ 161 F

Digest of Case

An annual conference may adopt a resolution on human sexuality that is aspirational in nature; however, an annual conference may not negate, ignore or violate the Discipline, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.

Statement of Facts

During the 2009 regular session of the Baltimore – Washington Annual Conference, the conference considered and adopted a Resolution on Human Sexuality. The relevant text of the resolution is recounted here for context and background:

The Baltimore-Washington Conference, in searching its collective heart, and in responsibility to our calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, affirms the statement known as The Majority Report, adopted by the Human Sexuality Sub-Committee and the larger Church & Society II Legislative Committee of the General Conference on April 27, 2008, in keeping with Wesley’s General Rules to do no harm, and to do good for the glory of God. This statement was and is a product of honest and genuine holy conferencing and represents a reflection of both grace and truth of which United Methodists throughout our connection can be proud. The spirit of this statement is clearly the heart of our future and a reflection, we believe, of the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. We will follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit and affirm language that communicates a more authentic and truthful representation of The United Methodist Church, acknowledging that we disagree yet all seek a faithful witness and remain in love with God and in minister together.
The record of proceedings supplied by the secretary of the annual conference reflects that during the debate, a clergy member made the following request for a ruling of law from the presiding bishop:
I rise to request a ruling of law whether the resolution on pp 69-70 [of the pre-conference booklet] is in order and properly before us, in that the language of lines 29-32 on page 69 lacks the qualifying language of Disciplinary ¶161 F on Human Sexuality, and thereby establishes a new and different standard on human sexuality from the Discipline.
The bishop took the request under advisement and has reported his decision of law to the Judicial Council in accordance with ¶ 2609 of the 2008 Discipline. For clarity, we include the full text of the bishop’s decision of law:
Bishop’s Ruling
The resolution is not out of order based on the paragraph questioned in the request for a decision of law. Rational This ruling is based on four factors: 1. The request for a ruling does not state specifically the clarifying language to be included and therefore it cannot be determined what other language may have been included. 2. There is nothing in this paragraph that contradicts the Discipline or establishes a new and different standard on sexuality from the Discipline or the teachings and beliefs of Social Principles. 3. The paragraph in question is a statement of belief: We recognize that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift. An annual conference may without contradicting the Book of Discipline state what it believes. 4. The Social Principles are not church law and encourages prayerful, studied dialogue. This paragraph was a part of the prayerful studied dialogue of the Church (opening paragraph of 161G of the 2004 Book of Discipline) and the Baltimore-Washington Conference may continue to use the paragraph in question in their prayerful studied dialogue in keeping with the intent and spirit of the Social Principles. The preamble of the Social Principles states: The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.
Jurisdiction
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2609 of the 2008 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
The bishop’s decision of law initially determined that the resolution before the annual conference was not out of order. Questions of order are parliamentary in nature. The Judicial Council has no jurisdiction to review parliamentary rulings made by a presiding bishop in an annual conference session. However, the request for a decision of law must be read in its entire context and how the context of the question supplies meaning to the answer embodied in the bishop’s response. The clear import of the question sought the bishop’s determination as to whether the resolution as adopted violated the Discipline. Additionally, the scope of the bishop’s decision of law referred only to a single paragraph of the resolution. There is no clear indication that the bishop conducted a thorough review of the resolution as a whole document. Although the record supplied is less than clear in those respects, we will assume jurisdiction and err on the side of conducting a thorough review of the bishop’s decision of law. The resolution as finally adopted by the Annual Conference relied heavily upon and was patterned after proposed legislation that was considered by the Human Sexuality Subcommittee of the Church & Society II Legislative Committee at the 2008 General Conference. The legislative history of the General Conference action reveals that the Church and Society II Legislative Committee sent majority and minority reports to the General Conference plenary session. The Baltimore–Washington Annual Conference resolution contained language that borrowed heavily from the majority report of the Church and Society II Legislative Committee. After perfection and debate of both reports in the plenary session, the 2008 General Conference adopted the minority report as the main motion. (Daily Christian Advocate, May 3, 2008, Vol.4. No 11 pp 2578-2579) The language of the minority report is now embodied in the language of ¶ 161G of the Discipline. The Discipline is the law of the church that regulates every phase of the life and work of the church. Decision 96 made clear the principle that the Discipline is the only authoritative book of law of the church. All entities of the church are bound by its provisions. All actions of an annual conference must be faithful to and consistent with the Discipline. An annual conference may express disagreement with other bodies of The United Methodist Church, but is still subject to the Constitution, the Discipline and the decisions of the Judicial Council. In Decision 886 the Judicial Council announced the principle that annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based on conscientious objections to those provisions. Judicial review of an annual conference resolution requires an intensive fact specific examination of the text of the annual conference resolution, and a clear understanding of the context of the annual conference debate. The context of the debate is normally supplied by a complete and comprehensive record of annual conference proceedings. The Judicial Council has reviewed numerous resolutions adopted by annual conferences concerning the issue of human sexuality. Judicial Council jurisprudence on this issue is not a model of clarity. Nevertheless, the current state appears to be that a resolution may express disagreement with the current language of the Discipline and may express its aspirational hopes, but an annual conference may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objection to those provisions. In Decision 913 the Judicial Council affirmed a bishop’s decision of law that was requested after the Desert Southwest Annual Conference adopted a resolution entitled “We will not be silent.” The resolution was determined by the Judicial Council to be permissible because it did not contain language that negated, ignored or violated the Discipline. In Decision 1021, the Judicial Council affirmed a bishop’s decision of law regarding a resolution in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference that pledged to engage in respectful dialogue regarding differences of opinion. The decision was based on the fact that the resolution was an historical statement, was without prescriptive force and that it did not negate, ignore or violate the Discipline. In Decision 1044, the Judicial Council affirmed a bishop’s decision of law regarding a previous resolution adopted by the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference that pledged to model inclusive behavior in the acceptance of members into local congregations. The Baltimore-Washington resolution in that case was determined to be aspirational in nature and did not violate the Discipline. In Decision 1111, the Judicial Council considered a resolution from the California-Nevada Annual Conference that commended retired clergy who were willing to make themselves available to perform ceremonies that celebrate same sex unions and directed the Annual Conference to distribute the list of clergy to all local churches in the Annual Conference. Such a resolution was determined to be impermissible because it constituted an endorsement of actions that are prohibited and that constitute liability for a chargeable offense under the Discipline. We affirmed the bishop’s decision of law that determined the resolution to be void and of no effect. In Decision 1115, we reversed a bishop’s decision of law and determined that a resolution adopted by the California-Pacific Annual Conference was impermissible because it supported the need for pastors to offer ministry of marriage for same gender couples in ways that violate ¶ 341.6 of the Discipline. Applying these guiding principles, the Baltimore–Washington resolution is impermissible because it purports to communicate a “more authentic and truthful representation” of The United Methodist Church. For the Annual Conference to state that its resolution is a “more authentic and truthful representation of The United Methodist Church” implies that it believes the present language of the Discipline is a less authentic and truthful representation of The United Methodist Church. In that respect, the resolution goes beyond a permissible statement of mere disagreement. The effect of the Baltimore-Washington resolution is to negate the church’s clearly stated position as reflected in current disciplinary language. 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. The Baltimore – Washington Annual Conference resolution is a statement that not only expresses disagreement with the action of the General Conference, but attempts by revision to articulate a new and different standard of belief that negates, ignores and violates the Discipline. The bishop’s decision of law is reversed, and the Annual Conference resolution is held void and of no effect.

Decision

An annual conference may adopt a resolution on human sexuality that is aspirational in nature; however, an annual conference may not negate, ignore or violate the Discipline, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.

Dissenting Opinion
If the entire resolution is considered, the majority opinion is correct in stating that this resolution is void and of no effect. However, the request for a decision of law referenced only lines 29-32 of the rosolution. Thise lines within themselves do not negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline F. Belton Joyner, Jr. October 31, 2009
Concur in Part and Dissent in Part
I concur with my colleagues that the resolution goes beyond a statement of mere disagreement and aspiration, but I do not concur with scope of the analysis contained in the majority opinion. I agree that the second paragraph of the resolution, unfortunately, crosses the line and appears to speak for the denomination with the statement “… and affirm language that communicates a more authentic and truthful representation of The United Methodist Church”; were it not for this phrase, I believe that this resolution would be an acceptable statement of the annual conference’s hopes and aspirations. I respectfully dissent from the majority decision, however, when the analysis goes beyond the above sentence. 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. There are times when General Conference has been presented with legislation that elucidates that which already exists in the Discipline but the delegates vote to reject the petition on the basis that it is redundant or unnecessary. Similarly, there are occasions when legislation has been presented on an entirely a new topic or area of concern. 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. Thus, I concur in part and dissent in part. Beth Capen October 31, 2009

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