By Thomas Lambrecht
One would not think that bishops upholding the United Methodist Book of Discipline would be worthy of a headline, but such are the times in which we live. In the recent announcement of rulings on questions of law coming before this fall's Judicial Council meeting, it was encouraging to see even some bishops one would not expect to rule in a positive way to live by the Discipline.
The October Judicial Council meeting will consider a number of rulings by bishops on questions of church law arising from their annual conference meetings this spring. Some of those rulings relate to resolutions passed by annual conferences opposing the Traditional Plan, which was enacted into the Discipline by the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.
Several bishops ruled that resolutions were invalid because they negated the requirements of the Discipline. Annual conferences are permitted to pass resolutions in which they disagree with actions by the General Conference. However, they are not able to legally "negate, ignore, or violate" the provisions of the Discipline. Sometimes, that becomes a very fine line to walk in the language of a resolution.
Bishop Laurie Haller (Iowa) ruled that part of a resolution passed by the Iowa Annual Conference illegally limited or eliminated funding for "background investigations, complaints, just resolutions, or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQ+ ordination and marriage." Quoting Judicial Council Decision 1340, she ruled, "The Discipline does not 'authorize annual conferences to impose financial controls or eliminate funding for fair process proceedings based on the nature of the charge.'" That portion of the resolution was therefore ruled out of order.
Bishop Mark Webb (Upper New York) ruled that part of a resolution passed by the Upper New York Conference recommending a similar limitation on funding for fair process proceedings is both contrary to the Discipline and unconstitutional under the Discipline. The offending language stated, "Be it further resolved, that we strongly recommend that UNYAC refrain from expending funds or monies (either directly through payments or indirectly through the time of employees of the conference) for the purpose of background investigations, complaints, just resolutions, or clergy trials pertaining to LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage." This language not only negated the Discipline's requirements for certain expenses to be paid on these matters, it unconstitutionally usurped the General Conference's power to provide for and define the judicial process of the church.
Bishop Webb also ruled part of another resolution null and void. The resolution would have encouraged the bishop, Board of Ordained Ministry, and conference leadership team to "impose an immediate moratorium on any punitive action related to LGBTQ clergy and same-gender weddings." Webb ruled that this provision would tend to ignore, negate, or violate the Discipline and would therefore be unlawful.
Bishop Grant Hagiya (California-Pacific) ruled an entire resolution unlawful. The resolution (passed by 82 percent in legislative committee and then on the plenary consent calendar) was a wholesale rejection of the actions of the 2019 General Conference. Entitled, "Action of Nonconformity with the General Conference of the UMC," the resolution would have committed the annual conference to:
"Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any provisions of the Traditional Plan"
"Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any provisions of the Book of Discipline ... that discriminate against LGBTQIA+ persons"
"Not conform to, comply, or cooperate with any other provisions relating to minimum penalties or the composition ... and responsibilities of the Board of Ordained Ministry, among many others"
Expend "no funds, resources, or monies" for the purposes of "just resolutions, background investigations, or the process of complaints against clergy because of gender or sexual identity or their ministry with LGBTQI+ persons of faith"
Bishop Hagiya ruled, "It is not lawful for the California-Pacific Annual Conference to adopt RES 19-07 because it violates the principle of legality and the fair process rights of clergy persons. The resolution is, therefore, unconstitutional, null and void."
Bishop Karen Oliveto (Mountain Sky) ruled that parts of a resolution passed by the Mountain Sky Conference were invalid. The parts ruled out stated:
The members of the Mountain Sky Conference "cannot and will not comply with the strict requirements of the Traditional Plan"
The members "reject and will not enforce the punitive and exclusionary policies in The Book of Discipline focused against gay and lesbian persons, their partners, allies, or their friends"
The members will support clergy who "choose to conduct same-sex unions and will take no disciplinary action against them on this matter"
Of course, Bishop Oliveto's consecration as bishop was ruled "unlawful" by the Judicial Council in 2016 because she is married to another woman. (The Western Jurisdiction has not taken action to remove her from office.) Yet despite her vested interest, she ruled "with sincere regret and shared pain" that the above provisions "are contrary to the Book of Discipline and out of order."
These rulings are notable because three of the four bishops involved favor changing the Discipline to allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Yet they rightly ruled that annual conferences cannot negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline. In their rulings, the bishops demonstrated the proper way to address the conflict in our church: compliance with the decisions made by General Conference while continuing to disagree and advocate for change.
If this had been the approach taken by bishops and clergy over the past eight years, The United Methodist Church would not be in crisis today. It is not the disagreement within the church that is the problem, but the decision by many to ignore and violate the decisions of General Conference, thus disrespecting the constitutional decision-making process of the only body empowered to speak on behalf of the whole church.
We pray and believe that the Judicial Council will uphold these rulings in its October meeting, lending much-needed stability and certainty to our church's governance.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.