Court maintains stand on ministerial candidates
October 29, 2017
By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service
In an Oct. 27 ruling on the duties of a conference board of ordained ministry, The United Methodist Church’s top court re-stated its earlier opinion that all qualifications of ministerial candidates must be examined.
The new ruling, on a bishop’s decision of law in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, was one of several decisions from the United Methodist Judicial Council’s fall session related to the topic of sexual orientation. The council met Oct. 24-27 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles Airport.
In Decision 1352, Judicial Council affirmed a decision of law by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling that there was no requirement in denominational policy to vote on a certified candidate for the ministry.
The issue arose during the 2017 Baltimore-Washington clergy session when the board of ordained ministry did not include Tara C. Morrow on the approval list for ordination.
The Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman — about to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his elder’s ordination — decided to turn in his clergy credentials because Morrow, a lesbian, and “others like her” were excluded by church law.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s lawbook, prohibits “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or given church appointments.
In its decision, the top court noted that a certified candidate must be recommended in writing by a three-fourths majority vote of the board of ordained ministry, saying it was the board’s duty “to conduct careful and thorough examination of a candidate, not only in terms of depth but also breadth of scope to ensure that disciplinary standards are met.
“The board is not required to present to the clergy session a candidate who is not eligible,” the Judicial Council decision stated. “The clergy session may not elect a candidate who does not meet this requirement.”
In a statement from Foundry UMC, issued before the ruling was announced, Morrow said: “At about same the time as my own confirmation in a small town United Methodist Church in sixth grade, I began to understand that I am a lesbian. As I pray for grace every day to continue responding as faithfully as possible to God’s call on my life, I know that no number of delays in my candidacy process for ordination in the UMC halts Christ’s call to follow him into a world that desperately needs to know God’s transformative power and love. I continue to answer now. I know God sees me. I ask the Church to see me and many others, not an ‘issue’ but integral members of the body of Christ also called into ordained ministry.”
In other action, the council labeled questions about a clergywoman raised in a request for a decision of law during the 2017 Iowa Conference session as “clear efforts to re-litigate a complaint procedure that was closed and completed by the previous bishop.”
In Decision 1351, the court upheld the decision by Iowa Bishop Laurie Haller that she had no authority to reopen a complaint procedure against the Rev. Anna Blaedel, who announced during the 2016 Iowa Conference that she is “a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” That complaint was dismissed on Aug. 30, 2016, by Bishop Julius C. Trimble, the presiding bishop at that time. Trimble said “a letter of reprimand” was placed in her file.
Another question in the request referred to Blaedel making a public statement about her sexual orientation. The court agreed with the bishop’s ruling that the question was hypothetical, since it saw no record of such statements since Sept. 1, 2016, or any action by the current bishop.
Two annual conferences, Denmark and California-Pacific, separately petitioned Judicial Council to issue a declaratory decision about “incompatible” language in the church’s constitution.
While the United Methodist Social Principles state that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the Denmark Conference contended that “the question of homosexuality is not addressed in the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church.”
The California-Pacific Conference cited the “restrictive rule” against General Conference establishing “new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
But the court said it could not consider their arguments because the conferences did not have the authority to ask for a ruling. “The Judicial Council has no jurisdiction to answer questions from an annual conference that does not relate to annual conferences or the work therein,” the council stated in Memorandum 1347 and Memorandum 1354.
Judicial Council also said it “has no jurisdiction” to consider a decision by the bishop during the 2017 South Carolina Conference session because it was a parliamentary ruling. The bishop’s decision had ruled out of order a “resolution for realignment and disaffiliation” from The United Methodist Church.
In addition, the council said in Memorandum 1356 that the request does not relate to the regular business of an annual conference. “It is not, it cannot be, in the regular business of an annual conference to petition the General Conference to disaffiliate or study to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church,” the memorandum stated.
Judicial Council held two oral hearings on Oct. 24. Both related to the bishop’s decisions of law from the 2017 Greater New Jersey Conference regarding the involuntary leave of absence of a clergy member, the Rev. Jisun Kwak, who had been serving as a district superintendent.
Bishop John Schol issued a decision that a vote on the interim action of the conference’s board of ordained ministry to place an elder on voluntary leave of absence was not acted on. Schol also ruled the clergywoman was to be paid equitable compensation for lost salary, housing, pension and health benefits from Oct. 22, 2016, to June 30, 2017.
During the oral hearing, the Rev. Robert Costello, representing Kwak, noted that the bishop and cabinet had the right to decide where her new appointment should be. But he argued that Kwak’s compensation for the period of involuntary leave should be made at the superintendent’s level because that was her position at the time the leave was imposed.
However, Judicial Council affirmed the bishop’s decision that her equitable compensation would be the salary of the appointment that started July 1, 2017.
In Decision 1355, the council said “there is no question” that her position as a district superintendent ended on Oct. 22, 2016, with another clergyperson appointed to lead the Delaware Bay District. In this case, the council ruled, “equitable minimum compensation is the basis for calculating compensation.”
The Greater New Jersey Conference also had asked Judicial Council for a declaratory decision about whether the involuntary leave of absence had been imposed without a fair process hearing. In Memorandum 1350, Judicial Council said the matter was still pending and “must go through the requisite judicial and appellate processes first before coming to us as the body of last resort.”
In other rulings, Judicial Council:
- Declared that a request from the Greater New Jersey Conference regarding a decision of law about a process for initiating part-time appointments “is not a valid request.”
- Said it does not have jurisdiction to review what it considers to be parliamentary rulings by a bishop regarding two petitions during the Western Pennsylvania Conference but recommended a “better way” to make a record of a parliamentary decision.
- Declared it had no jurisdiction to handle a request for a declaratory decision on a constitutionality issue raised by the Alaska Conference because there was no indication the question “was germane” to the work of the conference.
Two alternate members of Judicial Council — the Rev. Timothy Bruster, first clergy alternate, and Warren Plowden Jr., first lay alternate — participated as substitute members in some of the decisions during this session.
The full decisions from the October 2017 session can be found on the Judicial Council website.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.
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