Judicial Council decisions
stir up strong reactions
Reinstates pastor who denied membership to gay man

By Neill Caldwell

The United Methodist Judicial Council, holding its regular fall meeting Oct. 26-29, issued two decisions related to the case of Rev. Ed Johnson, who was serving as senior pastor at South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church until he was placed on involuntary leave of absence in June.

In Decision 1031, the council dealt with the due process problems in how Johnson was disciplined. Decision 1032 was the more sweeping ruling, saying that the church's Book of Discipline "invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make determination of a person's readiness to affirm the vows of membership."

The result of both decisions is that Johnson is to be immediately reinstated to the status he held before being placed on involuntary leave of absence, with all salary and benefits retroactive to July 1, and is entitled to receive an appointment.

The council deliberated over several cases related to homosexuality, including the case of the Rev. Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud (see related story), whose credentials for ordained ministry were again withdrawn as the Judicial Council overturned an appellate court's decision that had reinstated her.

The denomination's top clergy leaders, holding their weeklong fall meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C., spent more than an hour in executive session Oct. 31 reflecting on the Judicial Council's decisions.

"Because there were so many decisions, (the bishops) felt it important to look at them and reflect on them," said Stephen Drachler, spokesperson for the Council of Bishops. "They expect to be issuing a more comprehensive response during this meeting."

In particular, the bishops discussed the ruling involving the Virginia church. "One thing is clear," Drachler said on behalf of the bishops. "The Constitution and Social Principles of the United Methodist Church have not changed. Our Book of Discipline has not changed. All persons are of sacred worth. Our communion table is open to all persons who profess their belief in Jesus Christ and are seeking forgiveness for their sins. God's love is unconditional."

The Virginia case involved an openly gay man who was participating in the South Hill church in a variety of ways, including singing in the choir. The man wanted to transfer his membership from another denomination, and Johnson began a series of meetings with him. The man's sexual orientation was a significant part of the discussions. Johnson refused to receive the man into membership because the man would neither repent nor seek to live a different lifestyle.

The church's associate pastor, who disagreed with Johnson, contacted the district superintendent, and a disciplinary process began that eventually resulted in Johnson being placed on involuntary leave by a vote of his fellow ministers at the 2005 clergy session of the Virginia Annual Conference.

In the decision dealing with the authority of a pastor, the council's ruling states that Paragraphs 214 and 225 of the Book of Discipline are "permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows." The operative word in both paragraphs, the ruling says, is that persons "may" become members. "Decision 930 established the premise that 'shall' cannot be used to replace 'may' in the Discipline. Thus the General Conference has determined that any person 'may' become a member of any local church in the connection." This also applies to people who want to transfer into the United Methodist Church from another denomination, as was the case in Virginia, the council ruled.

The ruling also cites Paragraph 340.3(a), which includes among responsibilities of pastors as being the "administrative officers of the local church."

"As part of these administrative responsibilities, the pastor in charge of a United Methodist Church or charge is solely responsible for making the determination of a person's readiness to receive the vows of membership," the decision says. "... The pastor-incharge is entrusted with discretion in the exercise of this responsibility."

The ruling continues that "since the pastor is not required by the Discipline to admit into membership all persons... and since the Discipline designates the pastor to be 'the administrative officer of the local church,'... a pastor in charge cannot be ordered by the district superintendent or bishop to admit into membership a person deemed not ready or able to meet the requirements of the vows of church membership. ... The appointed pastor in charge has the duty and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into membership of a local church."

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, a council member, said in a dissent that the decision "compromises the historic understanding that the church is open to all. The Judicial Council cannot interpret something that is not stated in the Discipline. Nothing in the Discipline gives pastors discretion to exclude persons presenting themselves for membership in the church. "Council members Beth Capen and Jon R. Gray also filed their intent to write dissenting opinions to Decision 1032.

In the due process case, the council ruled that "rules and procedures were not followed" and said it "found several errors in the process." Primarily, the ruling stated that the Virginia Annual Conference's board of ordained ministry transformed an administrative complaint into a chargeable offense - a judicial complaint - and therefore did not have the authority to consider the complaint.

The original complaint, "unwillingness to perform ministerial duties," is an administrative complaint as covered in Paragraph 362.2 of the Book of Discipline. The council said the bishop rightly ruled that it was an administrative complaint. "While the Discipline gives the bishop the right to choose whether to refer as an administrative or judicial complaint," the ruling says, "the Discipline places parameters around the bishop's right to choose. Paragraph 362.2 states, 'If the bishop determines that the complaint is based on ... unwillingness or inability to perform ministerial duties, he or she shall refer the complaint as an administrative complaint."

However in its presentation to the clergy session, the conference's board of ordained ministry changed the complaint to a charge of disobedience, the court said. The board of ordained ministry and conference relations committee have no authority to consider a judicial complaint, the court said.

Oral arguments in the case were heard Oct. 27, in a public session at First United Methodist Church of Houston's Westchase campus. Johnson attended the hearing but did not address the council. The Rev. Tom Thomas of Virginia and attorney Pat Meadows of Alabama spoke on his behalf. "Rev. Johnson rejects not the Discipline but the interpretation of the Discipline," Thomas said. "He drew the line not at the homosexual person but at homosexual practice."

"United Methodist bishops have considerable authority," Thomas said. "They tell elders where to go and they go. Ed Johnson has gone for 24 years. But bishops and district superintendents are not authorized to take charge of the issue of membership. There is no authority to tell pastors who to bring in as members."

The two cases related to Johnson resulted from requests for rulings of law from Virginia Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer. All bishops' decisions of law are examined by the Judicial Council. In both cases, the Judicial Council reversed Kammerer's decisions. At the oral hearing, Kammerer said the language of the Discipline stresses that "all people" can become professing members in the connection. "The emphasis in our Constitution is on inclusiveness, not exclusiveness," Kammerer said. "I believe the Book of Discipline requires membership for this gay man. Rev. Johnson singled out one sinful behavior. Offering only participation in church amounts to second-class citizenship."

"What will this mean," she asked, "for the hundreds and hundreds of pastors, hundreds and hundreds of churches, who have already accepted gay persons into membership? We should err on the side of grace."

The Rev. Jeffery Mickle, chairman of Virginia's board of ordained ministry, and Clark Williams, chancellor for the Virginia Conference, also spoke. "While the United Methodist Church refuses to bless the practice of homosexuality," Mickle said, "we will not say to a homosexual person that your practice is so objectionable as to exclude you from membership in this body of Christ."

"Membership is not reserved for the worthy," Williams said. "It is a means of grace for all of us to become worthy."


Bishop's Column

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