2:30 P.M. EST July 23, 2010
The United Methodist Judicial Council is being asked to revisit a decision allowing a pastor to bar a gay man from joining his congregation.
When the denomination’s top court meets Oct. 27-30 in New Orleans, seven of the 31 docket items revolve around membership issues, including the right of pastors to decide who is worthy of membership.
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 (Va.) United Methodist Church until he was placed on an involuntary leave of absence by the Virginia Annual (regional) 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.
In a related decision, the council also found that “rules and procedures were not followed" by the conference when taking action against Johnson.
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.
The 2008-2012 Judicial Council members (from left) are Ruben Reyes, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, the Rev. Kathi Austin-Mahle, the Rev. Belton Joyner, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, Jon Gray, Angela Brown, Beth Capen and the Rev. Bill Lawrence. A UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell
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Revisiting the decision
On this fall’s agenda, the Northern Illinois Annual Conference is asking Judicial Council to reconsider Decision 1032, and is requesting declaratory decisions on four other matters related to membership and sexual orientation, including an action by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body. The Minnesota and Arkansas conferences also are requesting that Judicial Council reconsider Decision 1032.
In 2005, reaction was immediate. Several days after the decision was announced, the United Methodist Council of Bishops declared that sexual preference was not an obstacle to church membership.
“While pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership, homosexuality is not a barrier,” the bishops said in their pastoral letter to the people of The United Methodist Church.
Kammerer and the Virginia Conference Board of Ordained Ministry appealed the decisions. Judicial Council received briefs from the principals in the case and numerous friends of the court, but declined to reconsider. General Conference legislation filed in response to the case did not pass in 2008.
The new court voting in October about reconsideration of Decision 1032 still includes three members -- Jon R. Gray, Beth Capen and the Rev. Susan T. Henry-Crowe -- who dissented from the majority opinion in 2005. The Rev. Dennis Blackwell also was on the council at that time, but the other five members were elected in 2008.
Gray declared then that Judicial Council “should resist the urge to interpret provisions that do not exist” and not attempt to do the job of General Conference.
“The majority’s decision now condones the denial of the fellowship of the church to persons in need of its ministry and guidance who are homosexual,” Gray wrote in his dissent. “The decision eviscerates our statement that God’s grace is available to all and reduces it to an empty platitude.”
In an opinion concurring with the majority, the Rev. Keith Boyette wrote that the decision “was not a statement that homosexuals should be barred from membership” and did not address ways in which local churches could minister to homosexuals or others. “Thankfully, God’s grace has never been dependent upon membership to be imparted,” he added.
The Rev. Ed Johnson
Reconsiderations from April
The court also is being asked to reconsider two decisions from its April meeting. If reconsideration is granted on either or both cases, the Judicial Council would place them on the April 2011 docket.
Jimmy J. Montgomery is asking the council to review the decision that upheld his dismissal as a United Methodist clergyman in the South Carolina Annual Conference. He was accused of having an ongoing affair with a married woman.
Although Judicial Council affirmed the verdict, some members raised questions about the handling of DNA evidence and frequent use of off-the-record conferences at the minister’s trial.
Reconsideration also is being requested for Decision 1152, which said that United Methodist bishops in the Philippines have the authority to handle a complaint against one of their own. A second docket item involves a request for a declaratory decision “from a majority of the bishops of the Philippines Central Conference” on actions taken by the committee on investigation for that complaint.
The complaint was filed against Bishop Lito C. Tangonan -- who began a four-year term as leader of the Manila Episcopal Area in 2009 -- accusing him of misconduct under Paragraph 2702 of the Discipline. No details were provided by the council when its decision was released.
Other docket items
Other petitioners on the Judicial Council’s fall docket include the:
- New York Conference, seeking a declaratory decision about whether an annual conference policy affirming a church law that allows ministers to marry supersedes the church’s prohibition against same-sex marriage for clergy.
- South Carolina Conference, requesting a ruling on the authority of the secretary of General Conference to determine the number of delegates to General Conference.
- Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference Council, seeking a decision about the establishment of a provisional annual conference.
- Kentucky Conference, for the review of decisions of law by Bishop Lindsey Davis about a complaint against a retired elder, contained in five docket items.
The complete docket for the October Judicial Council meeting will soon be available online at http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=9412.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.