Use of ‘incompatible’ language on court agenda
The United Methodist Judicial Council will consider two petitions arguing that the issue of homosexuality does not fall under the denomination’s doctrinal standards.
The petitions are among the 12 docket items for deliberation when the denomination’s top court meets Oct. 24-27 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles Airport. As usual for the council’s fall agenda, most items are related to bishops’ decisions of law or petitions for declaratory decisions from recent annual conference sessions.
Both the Denmark and California-Pacific annual conferences approved motions asking the Judicial Council to make a declaratory decision on whether the “incompatible” language violates the denomination’s constitution.
The denomination’s Social Principles, which are in both the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions, state that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
But the motion from the Rev. Jørgen Thaarup, submitted by the Denmark Conference, argues that “Christian teaching” is synonymous with “Christian doctrine” and that the church constitution prohibits General Conference, the church’s lawmaking body, from changing or adding to church doctrine as elaborated in church law.
“The question of homosexuality is not addressed in the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church,” the motion said. “Therefore, the question of homosexuality is not a question of doctrinal standards or standards of faith.”
A similar motion was sent to the court from the California-Pacific Conference, citing the “restrictive rule” against General Conference establishing “new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
Public proclamations by a clergywoman about her sexuality and the handling of a complaint against her were cited in a petition on a decision of law from Iowa.
Craig Scott, a lay member, made a request to Bishop Laurie Haller for a decision of law related to the Rev. Anna Blaedel. Citing her public disclosure during the 2016 Iowa Annual Conference that she is “a self-avowed, practicing homosexual,” the five questions in his request focused on both the effect of Blaedel’s public statements and the review process of a complaint filed against her.
The request questions whether the dismissal of the complaint by then-resident Bishop Julius Trimble was handled properly in accordance with church law.
“If Rev. Blaedel has not retracted her public statement that she is ‘a self-avowed practicing homosexual’ and her statement has not been disproven by any proper review process, may her ministerial office be subject to further review…?” the request asked.
In her decision of law, Haller’s response was that she, as a bishop, had no authority to review or rule on action in a judicial or administrative process. Some of the questioning also was hypothetical, she wrote.
A decision by the Baltimore-Washington Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry to not include Tara C. Morrow, a certified candidate, on the approval list for ordination resulted in a call for a decision of law from Bishop LaTrelle Easterling during the 2017 annual conference clergy session.
The board’s actions also prompted the Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman — about to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his elder’s ordination — to turn in his clergy credentials. Wogaman said then that his “heart breaks” for Morrow, a lesbian who also was not approved for ordination as a deacon in 2016, and for “others like her” excluded by church law.
After the board’s chair explained that Morrow’s recommendation was deferred to allow time to review the implications of a decision from the Judicial Council’s spring meeting, the Rev. Charles Parker asked for a decision of law from Easterling.
Parker wanted to know “whether the board was within its rights to create a new category of candidates who are approved by the requisite three-fourths majority of the board, but not brought forward for a vote of the clergy session.”
Easterling ruled that the use of the word, “shall,” in Paragraph 324 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline meant “there is no requirement for her to be voted on at this time.”
Two items from the Greater New Jersey Conference on the court’s fall agenda are related to the Rev. Jisun Kwak, a district superintendent suspended from duty in 2016.
On May 21, during the 2017 Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, the clergy session turned down the Board of Ordained Ministry’s recommendation for an involuntary leave of absence for Kwak. That leave had started last fall. Kwak received a new appointment, effective July 1, as pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Fair Haven, New Jersey.
After the action by the clergy session, the Rev. Robert Costello asked for a decision of law from Bishop John Schol about Kwak receiving back salary and benefits “at the level she was receiving as of Oct. 22, 2016.” Schol agreed the vote nullified the involuntary leave but ruled that equitable compensation would be made to her as an elder, not a district superintendent.
Costello also requested a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on whether Kwak was afforded fair process by the conference during the handling of the complaint against her.
Among other items on the docket, the College of Bishops of the denomination’s Africa Central Conference is asking the Judicial Council to order the General Council on Finance and Administration to restore housing and office expenses for East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula, as required by Decision 1298 in 2015.
The Africa Central Conference said only the bishop’s salary had been restored and that the finance agency’s lack of payment for the other expenses has resulted in the office rent being 24 months in arrears.
One item that is not on the fall docket is a request for reconsideration of its ruling in the case of a gay bishop.
The United Methodist Judicial Council was unanimous in rejecting a motion by the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, which contended that Decision 1341 unlawfully changes the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
That decision, which drew widespread attention, and several other sexuality-related docket items dominated the court’s spring meeting in Newark. A public hearing before deliberations began drew a crowd, including Bishop Karen Oliveto and the cabinet of the Western Jurisdiction
Athough she was not named in the petition asking for a ruling from Judicial Council, the focus was on Oliveto, episcopal leader of the Mountain Sky Area and the denomination’s first openly gay bishop.
The entire October 2017 docket can be found on the Judicial Council website.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.