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.


California-Nevada Conference Defines Sexual Orientation as a Status

The California-Nevada Conference of the United Methodist Church passed a resolution June 17 defining sexual orientation as a status. (See here also.)

The exact wording of the resolution is: "The California-Nevada Annual Conference hereby defines the word 'status' as including sexual orientation such as heterosexuality, homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and transgendered."

The conference also passed another resolution explicitly refusing to define the word "practicing." This resolution states: "The California-Nevada Annual Conference hereby specifically refuses and declines to define the words 'practicing' or 'practicing homosexual.'"

According to the California-Nevada Conference record of the daily proceedings for June 18, a member of the conference requested that the presiding bishop, Beverly J. Shamana, make a ruling of law on the following questions:

"Does our adoption of Item 26 defining 'status' void, violate or otherwise pre-empt the force of law of para. 304.3 in the 2004 Book of Discipline?" [Para. 304.3 states that "self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church."]

"Is the definition of 'status' as adopted in Item 26 sufficiently overbroad as to render it ambiguous, unenforceable and/or violation of the principles of due process?"

"Does our refusal to define 'practicing' in Item 27 void and/or violate the enforcement or enforceability of para. 304.3 in the 2004 Book of Discipline in the California Nevada Annual Conference."

"Since 'self-avowed practicing homosexual' is defined in footnote 1 on page 197 in the 2004 Book of Discipline, is Item 27 legal?" [The footnote defines "self-avowed practicing homosexual" as meaning that "a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual." The definition defines "self-avowed," but not "practicing."]

Bishop Shamana has up to 30 days after the close of the conference session to rule on questions of law, so her ruling will be due no later than July 18. It will surely be interesting to read her ruling when it is issued. Decisions of law made by bishops have to be reported to the Judicial Council annually. The Judicial Council, then, has the authority to "affirm, modify, or reverse" a bishop's ruling of law. (2004 Book of Discipline, Para. 51)

Although Bishop Shamana has to issue her ruling by July 18, if I read the Discipline correctly, she really has up to a year to submit it to the Judicial Council for review. It is likely, however, that she will send it in this summer --why wait?-- which means the Judicial Council will consider her ruling during its next session scheduled for October 27 in Houston -- the same meeting during which the council will rule on the Committee of Appeals verdict in the Beth Stroud case. (See here.)

Strictly speaking, the Stroud appeals verdict and the California-Nevada resolutions have nothing to do with one another (Stroud is a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference which has defined neither "status" nor "practicing"), except that they both deal with the same concern.

The Constitution of the United Methodist Church states clearly that: "In the United Methodist Church 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." (2004 Book of Discipline, para. 4, Article IV)

The Constitution also charges General Conference with the responsibility "to secure the rights and privileges of membership in all agencies, programs, and institution in The United Methodist Church regardless of race or status." (2004 Book of Discipline, para. 16, Article IV.14)

If sexual orientation is a status, we have a conflict between church law and the Constitution that needs attention. If sexual orientation is a status, there is a serious question whether para. 304.3 is constitutional.

However, the logic of the Committee on Appeals decision in the Stroud case is even narrower than constitutionality. The committee's decision is very precisely written and deserves to be read carefully and thoughtfully. It is based significantly on Judicial Council decision 702.

Judicial Council decision 702 says: "[I]n order to do that" --that is, in order to ensure that "the prohibition of an appointment . . . is exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership"-- "the words 'status' and 'self-avowed practicing homosexual' must be defined by either the General Conference or the various Annual Conferences."

The simple point made by the appeals committee in its decision is that neither the General Conference nor the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference has defined either "status" or "practicing homosexual."

The Judicial Council has wisely recognized that it is not its role to make such definitions. The Judicial Council said in decision 702: "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."

The point the appeals committee decision makes is that neither the General Conference nor the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference has defined the terms under which the trial court found Stroud guilty. It is a violation of due process to find someone guilty based on undefined terms which anyone is free --no, forced-- to interpret subjectively.

The following paragraph from the Committee on Appeals decision is important:

"The Committee stresses that its decision on this point says nothing about the wisdom or theological soundness of ¶ 304.3. The Committee recognizes and respects that the General Conference is the supreme lawmaking body of the Church and that all are bound to live by, and may not legitimately act to nullify, that law. The Committee also appreciates that its decision may frustrate the will expressed by a majority at several General Conferences. On this issue, however, that frustration is a product of the fact that the Committee is obliged to follow the rulings of the Judicial Council when applying the Discipline. The Committee's narrow holding is simply that binding Judicial Council precedent continues to require that ¶ 304.3 cannot constitutionally be applied to prohibit an appointment unless either the General Conference or the Annual Conference has first defined both 'practicing homosexual' and 'status.' Since neither phrase has been defined by either of the requisite bodies in this case, the verdict and penalty must be set aside."

So, even though its resolution doesn't apply to Beth Stroud because she is not a member of the California-Nevada Conference, this particular conference has taken the bull by the horns. The California-Nevada Conference has said that sexual orientation is a status. If a complaint were to be brought against a clergy member of the California-Nevada Conference based on para. 304.3, there would be no way to avoid a discussion about the constitutionality of this particular law -- the very discussion the presiding officer in the Stroud case chose to squelch.

The California-Nevada Conference's decision to refuse to define "practicing" or "practicing homosexual" is equally significant. The introduction to the California-Nevada Conference resolution questions the propriety of defining "practicing."

It says: "It is inherently subjective and speculative to define the word 'practicing' as regards sexual acts. To define 'practicing' as related to homosexual acts without also having to explain 'practicing' as it differentiates in some instances from heterosexual acts is discriminatory and confusing. Further, to define 'practicing' creates the unseemly and humiliating necessity of questioning clergy about their intimate and private sex acts ..."

In other words, the California-Nevada Conference has refused to participate in asking clergy about the mechanics of their sexual relationship, as though (excuse me, I don't like discussing this either) what goes where were the point.

I appreciate this particular resolution because, during the Stroud trial, when the prosecutor asked Beth Stroud whether her relationship with her partner included "genital contact," I suddenly realized that there were certain intrusions into people's dignity and privacy that I hope I will never participate in, even if I thought to justify it by saying that I was merely fulfilling a necessary function in church governance. There are questions we should be embarrassed to ask.
So, the logic is clear:

1. We cannot prosecute people based on undefined terms;

2. It is not the job of the Judicial Council to define General Conference's terms;

3. If General Conference has not defined terms, annual conference definitions should apply;

4. If neither General Conference nor annual conferences have defined the terms, disciplinary rules cannot be fairly enforced.

The Judicial Council, it seems to me, has no choice but to accept the conclusions of the Committee of Appeals in the Stroud case. And it has no choice but to allow the California-Nevada Conference to establish its own definitions. If we are a church of order and due process, how could the Judicial Council decide otherwise?

The other option is to choose popular opinion over reason ... mob rule over order and due process.


Blogger John said...

The other option is to schism.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

dean, great post, and great outlining of the issues.

10:48 AM  
Blogger ColeWake said...

There yoy are again with schism John! I swear your obsessed.

11:50 AM  
Blogger John Wilks said...

Obsessed or not, that is where this is heading if both sides keep playing word games instead of bringing legislation to General Conference and abiding by the result until the next General Conference.

When an Annual Conference skirts the will of the GC by such actions, they are in fact breaking our communion, no matter what verbage they toss out to the contrary.

It is not fair to endorse actions which will cause a schism and then pile on people for pointing out the obvious.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


You are right that General Conference's will in Pittsburgh was pretty clear. Yet, if the will of a legislative body violates the Constitution, the body has to change the Constitution to legislate its will.

The question is whether para. 304.3 is constitutional or not. This depends on whether sexual orientation is a status. The Judicial Council has said it is the role of General Conference or annual conferences to define status. California-Nevada has done this. It was appropriate for them to do it, especially since General Conference has not offered a definition.

If Congress passed a law which you believed violated the US Constitution, would you say that the will of Congress was clear and that the law should be followed no matter what the Constitution says and should not be challenged? Why would you want this to happen in Church, which has even a higher obligation to be fair and deliberate than the secular state does?

12:50 PM  
Blogger John Wilks said...


To use your hypothetical, if Congress passed an unconstitutional law, it would not be the job of any stae assymbly to fix what congress had done. The Congress trumps the state legislature. It is a matter for the courts.

Likewise, even if you are right about the constitution issue, it is not the job of any Annual Conference to contradict the General Conference. So my point remains, Cal-Nevada has behaved like a rebelious state and it is out of line. Period.

If you and others of like mind are so righteous in your cause, then work the system correctly as a sign of good faith. What has transpired in this instance is not the act of a body with a good faith intention. Rather, this could well be the Ft. Sumter of a denominational civil war.

Someone as serious about working this whole thing our with peace and dignity as I know you are should recognize the very dangerous move this represents.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


You are arguing with the Judicial Council, not me. Here are the opening sentences of descision 702

The Annual Conference must make any determination which would effect a change in ministerial standing. The prohibition of an appointment must be exercised in compliance with the rights of all persons who are in full membership.

In order to do that, the words "status" and "self-avowed practicing homosexual" must be defined by either the General Conference or the various Annual Conferences.

Cal-Nevada has done nothing to contradict the General Conference. They have done what the General Conference has not done, which is to define "status." The Judicial Council has said you need to do this before you take someone's ministerial standing or ordination away.

I assume that if General Conference were to pass legislation defining "status," this would trump an annual conference's definition.

But it is the Judicial Council that has said it needs to be defined by either General Conference or the various annual conferences before you take away someone's ordination.

If General Conference does not act, it is leaving it up to annual conferences to decide, as Cal-Nevada has done.

Cal-Nevada's definition applies only to their own conference. They can not act for the whole church. But if the General Conference does not act, it is totally appropriate for an annual conference to take such action for its own conference -- in fact, it is almost mandated to do so, so that it has a basis upon which to base its decision should a complaint be brought against a clergy member of the conference.

One of the reasons that Beth Stroud's appeal was in her favor is because the Judicial Council has been clear that you can not decide whether sexual orientation is a protected status until you have defined status, and that the only people who can define status are the General Conference or the various annual conferences.

Again, using the Congress illustration. If Congress does not pass a national speed limit, this does not mean that states can't either. If states don't pass a state-wide speed limit, this does not prevent counties from doing it.

Matter of fact, unless someone defines the speed limit, you couldn't give anyone a ticket for speeding.

Say an annual conference had passed a resolution saying sexual orientation is not a status. I might have disagreed with them, but I wouldn't be out-of-sorts about them having done it. Until General Conference acts, annual confereneces have every right --and perhaps even a mandate-- to do this.

Really, folk are upset with Cal-Nevada because they disgree with the particular conclusion a majority of the delegates reached. Folk say theyb are upset with Cal-Nevada for having passed a resolution. But if they had concluded otherwise and said sexual orientation is not a status, the same people would be applauding. Am I wrong?

Let's discuss the real question -- Is sexual orientation a status?

This is the question Cal-Nevada has challenged the whole church to pray and talk about together. It is a question the church has been trying to avoid, but we really can't avoid it any longer. Cal-Nevada is helping us understand that we can't keep putting off this discussion. So good for them.


11:10 AM  
Blogger azeotroper said...

Honestly, do we really not know what status means? Did we not know what "practicing" meant?

Everyone knows what the intent of GC was. Everyone doesn't agree with it, so ridiculous lawyering must be resorted to. I'm with John, why not split the church. The liberals will not be happy until the Bible is rendered totally irrelevant by the learned intellectuals who know that the Bible was written in a culture different from our own, and so obviously can't be trusted to apply to us now.

Why would schism be so bad. We are NEVER going to agree.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...

Azeotroper seems to want to honor the truthfulness of the Bible, and then he/she places all the blame for the problems in the UMC on "the liberals" who appear to be making schism inevitable - since conservatives would never do that; it would violate Jesus' prayer in John 17 that his followers might "all be one."

Whatever happened to "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"? Whatever happened to "we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part"? Whatever happened to "do not judge, so that you may not be judged"? And countless other passages that remind us all to come to the cross, which is the great equalizer among us fallible human beings. It's important to remember that Jesus was most condemnatory of the Pharisees, who thought they had the Torah parsed so well that they could comprehend the mind of God, and yet many of them missed the Messiah.

The "lawyering" that goes on around questions such as the meaning of "status" or what that meaning has to do with the life of the church must be resorted to only in order to function on the temporal level. But that "lawyering" always must be done in light of the implications of eternity, which calls into question all human certainty beyond the certainty of the mercifulness of God, and even there, the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom makes our certainty of even God's mercy too precarious for us to believe we could ever have the final word on the interpretation or application of God's Word. So we here work out our salvation with fear and trembling, liberals and conservatives alike, all hopeful because of the witness of Jesus the Christ that there is room for the sinner, even me, at the banquet table, not because I am worthy in myself, but because he was gracious enough to have me declared worthy through his shed blood.

12:26 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Dear azeotroper

In 20 years people will not understand why we had such serious disagreements. If we schism --and it is not just a small group splintering off but a real schism--in 50 years the two churches will be trying to figure out how to reunite.

My real concern with your comment is that you don't seem to think these matters, such as whether sexual orientation is a status, are substantial issues. I think they are.


Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Without lawyering African-Americans might still be part of a segregated confernece structure.


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Blogger jeffA said...

Jesus did not cause schism. Sin did (an upopular word, even in the church today). But the Bible (John Wesley's rule of faith, and God's) is clear. Sin is a condition and an act, not a status. If I choose adultry, polygomy, or engage in an adult-consensual incestuous relationship (or am simply oriented toward such lifestyles), then am I merely given a status? HA! There is simply no way around Romans 1, is there?

12:41 PM  

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