United Methodists to revisit Judicial Council gay-exclusion ruling
July 30th, 2010
See Update below
In 2005, Ed Johnson, pastor of South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, refused church membership to a gay man that would not promise to live celibately. This exclusion based on solely sexual orientation was unacceptable to Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who put pastor Johnson on unpaid leave until such time as he recanted and accepted the man as member.
Anti-gay activists within the United Methodist (and without) saw this as defying a holy man’s stand for God and righteousness and sued before the Church’s Judicial Council. On October 30th of that year, the Judicial Council, controlled by conservatives, ruled that Edward Johnson had rightfully used his pastoral discretion in refusing to accept an openly gay man as a member of his church and reinstated Johnson as the head of South Hill UMC.
This proved to be a pyrrhic victory. Rather than quietly accept the decision, the Council of Bishops was infuriated. First it challenged the authority of Bishops to administer the flock in their region, and secondly (and more importantly) it sent out a message that the UMC was exclusionary and that it did not welcome worshipers unless they fit a certain criteria.
Within a week the Council of Bishops unanimously voted to issue a letter saying that, contrary to the Council’s decision, homosexuality was not a barrier to membership in the United Methodist Church. This letter had the support of both liberals and conservatives including some African Bishops (the part of the international church that is most conservative).
Shortly thereafter Johnson was relocated to another church and his replacement quickly invited the gay man to become a member of South Hill UMC.
In 2008, there was much hope that the United Methodist Church would adopt theological revisions that would be more welcoming to gay Methodists. Some UMC divisions, like those in California, are fierce advocates for gay Christians and sought a more inclusive gospel. However, conservatives Americans reneged on brokered deals by committees and banded together with African and Asian UMC representatives and blocked most progress.
However, one thing that was changed was the makeup of the Judicial Council. Prior to the 2008 convention it had a 6 to 3 conservative majority, but it left that meeting with a 7 to 2 liberal control. This newly comprised Judicial Council has decided to revisit the 2005 decision. (AP)
The highest court in the United Methodist Church will review its 2005 ruling that allowed a clergyman to bar a noncelibate gay man from joining a congregation.
The Judicial Council will take up the issue when it convenes Wednesday, Oct. 27, through, Saturday, Oct. 30, in New Orleans, according to United Methodist News Service.
UPDATE: Neill Caldwell, editor of the Advocate, a UMC publication, has provided some correction and clarification:
Rev. Ed Johnson first declined for the gay man to officially take membership in the congregation at South Boston, even though the man was already an active participant in the life of the church. Because of that refusal Johnson had charges filed against him by his immediate supervisor, called a District Superintendent, and the charges were then reviewed by his clergy peers at what’s called the Executive Clergy Session. Johnson’s clergy brothers and sisters overwhelmingly approved his being placed on involuntary leave of absence, which means that he was replaced as pastor of the South Boston church he’d been serving and suspended without pay. Bishop Kammerer then upheld the decision of the Executive Clergy Session when she was asked to review it at the Virginia Annual Conference by a question from the floor. No matter the subject, all such bishop’s “Decisions of Law” are automatically reviewed by the Judicial Council, which acts much like the denomination’s “supreme court,” so there was no “appeal” to the Judicial Council by anti-gay forces.
The Judicial Council, in a decision that was immediately and has continued to be very controversial, overruled the bishop and the action of the Executive Clergy session, and said that Johnson must be reinstated to his previous appointment. He was, but was soon appointed to another church in a different part of the state. The case has come before the Judicial Council at several times since in various ways, and each time the Council has reclined to revisit the case.
These latest appeals come from three other annual conferences (Minnesota, Arkansas and Northern Illinois) with a different tactic: At the 2008 session of the General Conference, the United Methodist Church’s official (and only) legislative body which meets every 4 years, the phrase in our Constitution was changed from “… a person may become a member …” to “… a person shall become a member…” to remove (hopefully) any ambiguity. The Judicial Council has a rule that a ruling may be revisited of the language in our Book of Discipline has changed that the council’s decision specifically dealt with. So these three conferences are appealing through that specific rule.
It’s a complex case that is not easily outlined!
There is also a “political” component: The Judicial Council is a panel with a 5-4 clergy/laity or laity/clergy split which is elected by the delegates of the General Conference. When the Judicial Council made its original decision, it had a 5-4 conservative majority. Then in 2008, four of the most conservative members were not re-elected, but were replaced by persons who would be considered much more progressive. This almost certainly was pushback due to the Ed Johnson decision by members of the general church.
Thank you, Neill. As you said, it is complex and I appreciate your willingness to share your knowledge of the case with us.