Prayers for The UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s clergy session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference.

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference decisions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case in setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

Judicial Council Book Pic

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The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

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