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Decision No. 1220

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October 26 2012
In Re: Review of a Bishop’s Decision of Law in the California-Pacific Annual Conference Regarding the “Resolution in Response to General Conference 2012”

Digest of Case

The bishop’s decision of law is modified. A declaration by an annual conference to renounce a legislative act of the General Conference is not legal. But a declaration by an annual conference to express aspirations for full implementation of a legislative act by the General Conference is legal. The first stipulation in the resolution is not legal, but the ensuing three stipulations are legal. The invitation in the fourth stipulation applies only to those items in the resolution that are legal.

Statement of Facts

During the 2012 session of the California-Pacific Annual Conference, a clergy member presented Resolution12-12 for consideration by the conference. The text of the resolution reads:

Whereas the 2012 General Conference of the [sic] United Methodist church [sic] hurt and condemned members of the LGBTQ community and their friends, and painted United Methodists as universally exclusive and judgmental, Therefore Be It Resolved: • We renounce the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and declare that it is itself incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ; • We affirm the sacred worth of all persons including members of the LGBTQ community; • We commit to continuing to build inclusive Christian communities in our churches where LGBTQ lay people and clergy are loved and welcomed as they are; • We invite churches and individuals to adopt this statement and join us in living out its principles.
The Minutes of the conference session report that the resolution was adopted on June 15. On the following day, a clergy member submitted a written request for a decision of law by the bishop “on the legality of Resolution 12-12.” The bishop ruled as follows:
It is my determination that the resolution is legal because it is “merely aspirational” in nature and does not constitute an endorsement of conduct that is in direct violation of the Book of Discipline or the Constitution of The United Methodist Church.
JURISDICTION
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2609 of the 2008 Discipline.
ANALYSIS AND RATIONALE According to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church (Division Four, Article II, ¶ 56.3) the Judicial Council has authority “To pass upon decisions of law made by bishops in annual conferences.” Legislatively, the General Conference has determined that, when the Judicial Council “shall pass upon” such decisions of law, it “shall…affirm, modify, or reverse” them. From time to time, members of annual conferences use this procedure to invite the Judicial Council into debates about the social policies of the church or into disputes about the church’s theological positions. However, the Judicial Council is authorized only to pass upon the decisions of law made by bishops as matters of church law. See Decision 59. Indeed, as ¶ 2609.6 of the 2008 Discipline states, after such a decision has been passed upon by the Judicial Council “it shall become the law of the Church to the extent that it is affirmed by the council.” Therefore, the Judicial Council reviews a bishop’s decision of law not only with an eye toward the existing law of the Church but also with an eye toward the proposition that whatever is affirmed about a bishop’s decision will thereby “become the law of the Church.” In light of this, the Judicial Council must pass upon a bishop’s decision of law in the narrow terms of Church law. For the immediate matter of a bishop’s decision of law in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, the bishop ruled that entire resolution was “merely aspirational” and, therefore, that it was “legal.” See Decision 1044. In three of the four statements that are resolved by the action of the annual conference, the resolution draws upon existing language in the Discipline and aspires to see that language implemented in particular ways. Those three statements are the following:
• We affirm the sacred worth of all persons including members of the LGBTQ community; • We commit to continuing to build inclusive Christian communities in our churches where LGBTQ lay people and clergy are loved and welcomed as they are; • We invite churches and individuals to adopt this statement and join us in living out its principles.
However, in the first stipulation of the resolution, where the annual conference acted to “renounce the statement that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” the annual conference claimed for itself an authority to “renounce” language that was not in its legal authority to “renounce.” That language, in ¶ 161F of the 2008 Discipline, was adopted by the General Conference under the constitutional authority that grants to the General Conference “full legislative authority over all matters distinctively connectional.” (¶ 16) What the General Conference has adopted legislatively cannot be renounced by another body that has no legal authority to do so. See Decisions 96, 232, 544, 886, 1111. In using the word “renounce,” the annual conference took an action that exceeds its authority. A body can “announce” its support of, or opposition to, a proposition or idea and thereby publicly declare a point of view. A body can “denounce” a proposition or idea and thereby express a critique of that point of view. But, when a body takes action to “renounce” a proposition, it is setting aside an action that it had authoritatively taken in some previous decision and that it subsequently chooses to set aside. In this instant case, the annual conference took an action to “renounce” something that had been previously taken by another body, namely the General Conference, which is the only body in the church that has authority to make such legislative enactments. The invitation that is expressed in the concluding stipulation of the resolution by the annual conference resolution can only apply to those portions of the resolution that are both legal and aspirational. Soliciting other bodies to take an action, which an annual conference itself does not have legal authority to take, is itself an endorsement of illegal conduct, rather than an aspiration to achieve nobler aims. Inviting other bodies to take an action that is legal and aspirational is, however, entirely within the bounds of church law. The bishop’s decision of law in this matter correctly viewed the second, third, and fourth stipulations of the resolution to be “merely aspirational” and consistent with the law of the church. However, the bishop’s decision of law was not correct when it viewed the first stipulation of the resolution in the same way.

Decision

The bishop’s decision of law is modified. A declaration by an annual conference to renounce a legislative act of the General Conference is not legal. But a declaration by an annual conference to express aspirations for full implementation of a legislative act by the General Conference is legal. The first stipulation in the resolution is not legal, but the ensuing three stipulations are legal. The invitation in the fourth stipulation applies only to those items in the resolution that are legal. Beth Capen was absent. Sandra Lutz, first lay alternate, participated in this decision.

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