A United Methodist pastor has the right to determine local church membership, even if the decision is based on whether the potential member is gay or lesbian. Annual conferences cannot limit that right or ask the church’s top court to set policy, the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled during its Oct. 27-30 meeting. (See Decision No. 1179.)

“The General Conference is the only body authorized and able to resolve the issue for the (United Methodist) Church,” wrote Jon R. Gray in a concurring opinion on one of the October cases. The General Conference is the denomination’s top legislative body and meets every four years.

The council declined several requests to revisit a decision allowing a pastor to bar a gay man from joining his congregation. In one case, the denomination’s top court ruled that the Northern Illinois Conference did not have the authority to interpret constitutional language to prohibit pastors from denying membership based on a person’s sexual identity.

When the court denied requests for reconsideration at this meeting made by the Northern Illinois and Arkansas conferences, Judicial Council member Ruben T. Reyes noted in a concurrence that the council had previously taken “a second hard look” at the decision in April 2006, based on 12 briefs and more than 2,000 pieces of communication. “There should be an end to a controversy,” he wrote.

But the issue has been an unceasing source of debate within the church for the past five years.

Defining church law

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 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.

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. General Conference legislation filed in response to the case did not pass in 2008.

Reconsider decision

The Northern Illinois, Arkansas and Minnesota conferences asked the Judicial Council to reconsider the decision. What annual conferences cannot do, the court ruled, is define church law, as the Northern Illinois Conference did when it passed legislation this year on church membership and sexual identity based on its interpretation of the church’s constitution.

During the Judicial Council’s Oct. 28 oral hearings, representatives for the Northern Illinois Conference argued that other parts of church law – namely Article IV of the denomination’s constitution – supersede the previous Judicial Council decision when it comes to matters of membership.

The Judicial Council decided that the Northern Illinois Conference did not have the authority to take such actions. “An annual conference is not permitted to devise and define its own policies or rules relating to the conditions, privileges and duties of church membership,” the council said. “Such efforts violate the Discipline and are unlawful.”

The council also ruled it did not have the authority to answer another Northern Illinois request to decide whether an action by the 2008 General Conference “supersedes” Decision 1032 because it does not relate directly to business of the Northern Illinois Conference.

The full story can be read at www.umc.org, click on NEWS.

The full decisions from the Judicial Council’s October 2010 meeting can be found online at www.umc.org/jcd. This case is in Decision No. 1179.

Linda Bloom serves as a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.

A UMNS photo

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.

The pastor in charge of a local church has authority to determine a layperson’s readiness for membership.