Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


What are the bishops trying to tell us about the Stroud appeal?

Last week the executive committee of the Council of Bishops issued a statement about the appeals court decision in the Beth Stroud case that surprises me. The pronouncement includes three surprising statements:

1) The bishops on the executive committee encourage "all United Methodists to be patient;"
2) The bishops say the appeals committee has reversed the trial verdict "based upon some technicalities;" and
3) They say the appeals court decision "does not in any way reverse the standards in our Book of Discipline."

What are the bishops trying to tell us? How should we interpret their pronouncement?

Let's begin with their second affirmation: that the verdict has been reversed based on "some technicalities." Technicalities seems to me a word that suggests matters of little substance or significance. The "legal" section of
urban folklore newsgroup uses heavy irony to capture the way this term is usually used:

Question from the urban folklore newsgroup:
"The po-lice had arrested a serial murderer. Caught him red handed so to speak. He was released by a commielib, bleeding heart judge on a 'technicality,' seems his 'rights' were violated during the arrest. ... It occurred to me that this kind of thing has become an UL [Urban Legend]. Everyone's heard of cases like this one. Is there any basis in fact for these UL's?"

Answer: "The 'technicality' in question usually turns out to be some really obscure point of law like the Fifth Amendment." (Notice the irony?)

What are the "technicalities,"as the bishops on the executive committee put it, that caused the appeals court to reverse the trial verdict in Beth Stroud's case?

One is that the trial's presiding officer or judge did not allow Beth Stroud to argue that sexual orientation is a status and that the Constitution of the United Methodist Church says that "no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition." ("The Constitution," Division One, article IV, 2004 Book of Discipline, p. 22) This is reinforced in Division Two, Section I, Article IV.13 of the Constitution which charges General Conference with the responsibility "to secure the rights and privileges of membership in all agencies, programs and institutions of The United Methodist Church regardless of race or status." (p. 26)

If sexual orientation is a status (as many of us believe), then it is highly likely that current church laws are structured so as to unconstitutionally exclude some members from certain organizational units , such as the Order of Elders, because of status and/or so as to deny some members rights and privileges on the basis of status. This question, at the very least, ought to be considered before taking away someone's ordination credentials.

Ruling out of order any consideration of the constitutionality of the law Beth Stroud was charged with seems to me a serious matter. The Book of Discipline (Paragraph 2715.9) says that "questions of church law may be carried on appeal, step by step, to the Judicial Council." Without actually saying "Duh!" out loud, the
appeals court ruling points out the obvious: "It goes without saying that questions of Church law cannot be 'carried on appeal, step by step,' if they cannot be presented in the first instance during the trial proceedings." (p. 9)

Further, the question of whether sexual orientation is a status has not been an obscure matter within the United Methodist Church. It has been an open question since at least 1993 when the Judicial Council issued
Decision 702 stating clearly that it would be difficult to evaluate and enforce certain church laws unless General Conference, or annual conferences, determined whether sexual orientation is a status.

In fact, the decision makes it clear that sexual orientation may well be a status:

"In regard to the definition of the word 'status' in the Constitutional Amendment, the following observations must be made in the light of its legislative history:

1. There is no evidence that the word 'status' was intended to include the clergy status of a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

2. There is no evidence in the legislative history that the word 'status' does not include the clergy status of a self-avowed practicing homosexual.

3. It is obvious that if the normal definition of 'status' is used, it would be all-inclusive.

4. The word 'status' is not defined either in the legislative process or in the Discipline."

The Judicial Council recognizes that the "normal definition" of the word "status" would be "all inclusive."

Decision 702 challenges General Conference to define the word "status" as well as to define the phrase "self-avowed practicing homosexual." The difficulty of applying church laws, as well as the difficulty of deciding their constitutionality, unless terms are defined was stated clearly by the Judicial Council in Decision 702 more than three General Conferences ago:

"It is not the task of the Judicial Council to legislate the meaning of words passed by the General Conference. It is clear that either the General Conference or the Annual Conferences must define for their own use, the words 'self-avowed practicing homosexual.' It might be observed that the latter may not be very successful unless there is a considerable degree of uniformity.

Likewise, it is obvious that the term 'status' needs to be defined. At this point we do not know whether the Constitution Amendment passed. Status must be defined in any event.

We are aware, and can be nothing more than aware, that similar cases out of similar situations have been ruled on or acted upon by the various Annual Conferences. We know this is a volatile, sensitive subject.

Therefore, we would say even more explicitly it is the obligation of the General Conference to define these terms or the obligation of the various Annual Conferences to define these terms."

General Conference has failed to define the meaning of status (as well as the meaning of the word "practicing"). Yet, the question of whether sexual orientation is a status is at the very heart of the important issue our church has to discern. I am surprised the executive committee of the Council of Bishops sloughs off such a critical concern, as well as other issues raised by the appeals court, by labeling them "technicalities."

To paraphrase the Urban Folklore website: "The 'technicalities' in question usually turn out to be some really obscure points of law like articles of the Constitution of the United Methodist Church."

The third statement in the bishops' pronouncement says that the appeals court decision "does not in any way reverse the standards in our Book of Discipline." How do they know this? It would seem obvious that there is no way to know yet whether or not the issues raised by the appeals court reverse any standards in the Book of Discipline.

If sexual orientation is determined to be a status, it certainly may change some standards. Have the bishops already decided for the Judicial Council that the appeals court's concerns are invalid? Is the executive committee of the council trying to tell the Judicial Council how they should respond to the appeals court's concerns?

The bishops' statement is unbelievably absolute. They say that the appeals court decision does not reverse standards "in any way." "In any way!" This is a remarkable conclusion for the bishops to have reached. They have presumed, it seems, to take upon themselves the roles of the Judicial Council and perhaps even General Conference.

If there are not enough problems already with how the trial against Beth Stroud has been handled so far, does not the fact that the executive committee of the Council of Bishops has appeared to instruct the Judicial Council about how to decide on issues raised by the appeals court contaminate the process even further?

It is the first part of the executive committee's statement that shows clearly that the bishops have come to a conclusion about the validity and significance of the appeals court decision. The bishops encourage "all United Methodists to be patient." Who is impatient? Certainly not those of us who believe the appeals court decision raises significant issues and questions. I guess those who do not want to consider issues of constitutionality or inclusiveness or justice may be impatient. Perhaps they are the ones whom the bishops seek to reassure. The executive committee of the Council of Bishops has apparently taken sides, and it has done so without respecting the judicial processes of our denomination.

There are two possibilities, or maybe three. Either the executive committee of the Council of Bishops has already judged the work of the appeals court and overturned it in their minds, or else they are scared and want to pacify United Methodists they fear will be upset, or maybe both. None of these options are very encouraging.

If the executive committee's statement is motivated by fear, the message it sends is that the bishops are insecure and overly reactive to criticism. It suggests that those of us working for inclusion should stop being reasonable and thoughtful and become antagonistic. This is an unfortunate message for the bishops to be communicating.

Finally, because the full Council of Bishops has met since their executive committee issued this statement, and because no other statements have been forthcoming from entire council, I must ask whether the executive committee has spoken for the whole council? Otherwise wouldn't the council itself would have issued its own statement? Wouldn't individual bishops who disagree with the executive committee have spoken out to clarify their own positions? Isn't this a reasonable assumption?


Anonymous the_methotaku said...

Hi. I found your blog through Locusts and Wild Honey's Weekly Methodist Blog Roundup. I think (from what I can understand- I'm a layman and I a college junior) you've given us very good analyises of both the Appeals Comittie decision and the bishop's response.

I must confess that sometimes I wish the RMN was more confrontational then it is.

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