The United Methodist Church, the predecessors of which grew up during the rise of the United States of America, parallels the American government in that we have three branches: the legislative (General Conference), the judicial (Judicial Council) and the executive (the Bishops and the General Boards).
As a court system goes, our Judicial Council is pretty solid. It seems that once in a while, though, there’s a decision by the Judicial Council that is a head-scratcher or an outright farce (see JC1032). Then again, the same decisions that I think were 100% right-on were called an error by others (see the dueling PlanUMC dissolution arguments pro and con). So it goes with the judicial system in any arena, I guess.
This most recent round of court decisions had not a huge blow-up but really a head-scratcher: Decision 1254 was about a Western annual conference that passed a resolution that affirmed a Western Jurisdictional Resolution that called for conferences to operate as if ¶ 161F did not exist (the paragraph that calls homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching). So in short, like a concentric circle, the smaller conference affirmed a decision made by a larger conference.
The Judicial Council did not comment on the merits of the resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction for technical/process reasons. They did, however, issue the following commentary:
The focus of the Bishop’s decision of law is upon the statement in the portion of the 2012 Discipline(p. 103), which states that the Social Principles are “not to be considered church law” but rather “are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation…” While it may be regrettable if any United Methodist individual or body were to choose to ignore some portion of the General Conference’s summons to “prayerful and thoughtful” consideration of important public issues, such an action is not in itself a violation of church law…
Okay. So the Bishop said the Social Principles are not church law, and the Judicial Council agreed and said that ignoring the Social Principles is not a violation of church law. Interesting. But like the TV informercials say: but wait, there’s more!
In Decision 833, the Judicial Council did find that some matters in the Social Principles may have the force of law.
Wait, what? May have the force of law? So are the Social Principles Law (meaning mandatory for United Methodists) or not?
Yes, they are church law. Well, one of them is.
Some review is in order. At the 1996 General Conference, five different petitions were submitted hoping to declare the Social Principles as church law. They were all voted down. Then in 1998, in JC833, the Judicial Council overturned the five-time repeated vote of General Conference and said that, actually, the Social Principles were church law (note: these are quotes from the 1998 verdict, not the 2013 one)
Under ¶ 15, the General Conference has the authority to speak on connectional matters, and, when this authority results in a legislative enactment stated in mandatory language, it is the law of the church, notwithstanding its placement in theDiscipline…
…The prohibitive statement in ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches,” has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in ¶ 65.C and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office.
While that seems pretty clear that the JC in 1998 saw the Social Principles as church law, the closing paragraph of this decision shows what’s really at stake in this decision:
The request from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference for a declaratory decision on whether the Social Principles are to be understood as law for United Methodists and the relationship between the Social Principles and chargeable offense, the council is unable to render a definitive decision on all of the specific provisions of the paragraphs under the section designated as Social Principles without a reference to a specific paragraph. This is especially true when the request includes relating these matters to chargeable offenses.
In short, my reading is that the Judicial Council is responding only to what is precisely before them.
- In 1998, they were affirming that a particular paragraph in the Social Principles had the effect of church law, not that the entire Social Principles were church law.
- In 2013, they were affirming that the Resolution was legal for the annual conference, but only because they have not examined the jurisdictional decision for its legality (and they have no standing to do so…yet).
So while we still don’t know if the Social Principles are legal, or if the action taken by the Western Jurisdiction to operate as if the anti-gay section of our church law is legal, we apparently don’t even have the mechanisms to know the answers to these pertinent questions. There is no way to send the whole Social Principles up for review, and there is no way to review a Jurisdictional decision unless the Conference itself sends it.
The lesson I take from this exercise is that to exist in the United Methodist Church is to be comfortable with ambiguity. And the Judicial Council, while a steady voice in a polarized Church, is also a source of ambiguity even as they deal with specific issues within the UMC.
Thoughts? Anyone else have a more informed take on this particular question: are the Social Principles church law?