Judicial Council Decisions

Decision No. 1185

In Re: REQUEST FROM THE NEW YORK ANNUAL CONFERENCE FOR A DECLARATORY DECISION REGARDING AN ANNUAL CONFERENCE POLICY THAT AFFIRMS THAT ARTICLE XXI OF THE ARTICLES OF RELIGION IN ¶ 103 TAKES PRECEDENCE OVER ¶ 2702 THAT PROHIBITS SAME SEX MARRIAGE FOR CLERGY

DIGEST OF CASE

Paragraph 2702.1 does not violate the First Restrictive Rule contained in ¶ 17 of the Constitution, nor does it revoke, change, or alter the Articles of Religion contained in ¶ 103 or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. An annual conference, for its own government, may adopt rules and regulations; however, an annual conference may not legally negate, ignore or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions. The New York Annual Conference resolution and policy allowing same sex marriage for clergy is neither valid nor constitutional and is hereby declared null, void and of no effect.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

The 2010 session of the New York Annual Conference adopted resolution # 2010-305 declaring a new conference policy regarding the ability of all clergy members of the Annual Conference to marry at their own discretion. The text of the resolution and policy included in the request for a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision is as follows:

RESOLUTION #2010-305

POLICY CONCERNING MARRIAGE OF ALL CLERGY AND ARTICLE OF RELIGION XXI
“The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion [see ¶ 103, Section III, Article I of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church] or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (see ¶ 17, 2008 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church).
“The ministers of Christ are not commanded by God’s law either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage; therefore it is lawful for them, as for other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.” [¶ 103, Article XXI]
WHEREAS, the Articles of Religion take precedence over all other sections of the Book of Discipline outside the Constitution, we believe that any Disciplinary provision denying marriage to some clergy is unconstitutional and contrary to the Articles of Religion and the first Restrictive Rule (see ¶ 17); and,
WHEREAS, interpretation of scriptures that relate to issues outside the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and John Wesley’s Notes and Sermons does not rise to the level of doctrine (see ¶ 102, pp. 58-59); and,
WHEREAS, same-sex marriage is legally permitted in the state of Connecticut; and,
WHEREAS, same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions are legally recognized by state agencies in New York;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) adopts a policy effective January 1, 2011 that all clergy in the NYAC may be legally married at their own discretion, as permitted by Paragraph #103 of the Articles of Religion. We direct that all Conference Boards and agencies conduct their business consistent with this policy; and,
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, given that our policy is consistent with ¶ 103, which states, “Therefore it is lawful for [the ministers of Christ] to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best in godliness,” but it is in conflict with ¶ 2702.1 (a) & (b), which bar clergy from any form of marriage other than heterosexual marriage and bar them from self-avowed practicing homosexuality, even in the context of marriage, the NYAC requests a Declaratory Decision from the Judicial Council (see ¶ 2601.1 and ¶ 2610.2j) as follows.
Is our policy valid in light of the apparent alteration and change of ¶ 103 of the Articles of Religion by General Conference when they established the provisions of ¶ 2702.1 (a) & (b), in violation of the First Restrictive Rule in ¶ 17 of the Constitution, which states that, “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion…or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine”?
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we request a Declaratory Decision from the Judicial Council concerning the validity and constitutionality of our conference policy, set forth above, as follows:
Given that ¶ 2702.1 commands some of our clergy to remain single, it violates Article XXI (¶ 103) and is therefore an alteration and change of our Articles of Religion which is prohibited by the First Restrictive Rule in ¶ 17 of the Constitution of the UMC; and
Given that our policy is consistent with ¶ 103, which states, “Therefore it is lawful for [the ministers of Christ] to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness,” but is in conflict with ¶ 2702.1 (a) & (b), which commands some of our clergy to remain single and removes their discretion to marry, is our policy valid and constitutional?

The Judicial Council initially considered the New York Annual Conference request at its October 2010 session. A decision on the request was deferred to its April 2011 session. Implementation of the Annual Conference policy was stayed pending further consideration. See Memorandum 1155.
At an Oral Hearing in Detroit, Michigan, on April 28, 2011, Home Missioner Kevin Nelson spoke on behalf of the New York Annual Conference. The Rev. Tom Lambrecht spoke on behalf of himself personally and on behalf of Good News: A Forum for Scriptural Christianity, Inc.

Jurisdiction

The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2610 of the 2008 Discipline.

Analysis and Rationale

We are asked to determine whether the General Conference violated the Articles of Religion contained in ¶ 103 and the First Restrictive Rule contained in ¶ 17 of the Constitution by adopting ¶ 2702.1 and whether ¶ 2702.1 is a rule of doctrine contrary to the Articles of Religion. The request also seeks a determination of whether the New York Annual Conference policy that purports to permit conference clergy to marry at their own discretion is a valid and permissible policy. For reasons discussed hereinafter, we find and conclude that the General Conference did not violate the Articles of Religion or the First Restrictive Rule in adopting ¶ 2702.1 and that the New York Annual Conference policy as adopted is neither constitutional nor valid and is declared null, void, and of no effect.
Under ¶ 2610, the Judicial Council has jurisdiction to make a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of the Discipline or any portion thereof or of any act or legislation of the General Conference. An annual conference may request a declaratory decision on matters relating to the annual conference or the work therein. The Judicial Council has repeatedly held that in order to have proper jurisdiction, a request for a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision must relate to the business of the conference session. This principle has been interpreted to mean that a request for a declaratory decision must relate to some action taken or to be taken by the annual conference that has a real and tangible effect on the business of the conference session. In many instances, requests for a declaratory decision are presented without factual context and without some action taken that is part of the business of the annual conference session. We have routinely found such requests insufficient to confer jurisdiction. The New York Annual Conference resolution stated its intention after January 1, 2011, to institute the resolution and policy and to conduct its affairs in accordance with the legislation adopted. The resolution relates to the business of the Annual Conference and constitutes action taken by the Annual Conference. Although the resolution asks the Judicial Council to rule on the validity and constitutionality of the Annual Conference policy, its clear import requests a declaratory decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of ¶ 17, ¶ 103 and ¶ 2702.1 of the Discipline, and whether the policy as adopted violates the Discipline. But for the stay ordered in Memorandum 1155, the adopted policy would have gone into effect on January 1, 2011.
The Discipline is the law of the Church that regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. Decision 96 made clear the principle that the Discipline is the only authoritative book of law of the Church. In Decision 886, the Judicial Council announced the principle that annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based on conscientious objections to those provisions. All entities of the church are bound by its provisions. All actions of an annual conference must be faithful to and consistent with the Discipline. An annual conference may express disagreement with other bodies of The United Methodist Church, but it is still subject to the Constitution, the Discipline, and the decisions of the Judicial Council. This principle has been re-affirmed most recently in Decision 1120.
In reviewing a request for a declaratory decision concerning action of an annual conference, we are charged to determine the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of the Discipline, or any portion thereof, or of any act or legislation of a General Conference. Judicial review of an annual conference resolution requires an intensive fact specific examination of the text of the resolution and a clear understanding of the context of the annual conference debate. Three facets of this case are present for judicial consideration. First, there is the matter of the Articles of Religion and the role they have in the Constitution and law of the Church. Second, there is the matter of the appropriateness of legislative action by the General Conference to define terms that appear in the Articles of Religion. Third, there is the matter of the role that annual conferences have in exercising their authority to establish policies and regulations within the laws of the Church for the conduct of their business.
In Decision 358 the Judicial Council ruled that the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and the General Rules, while not specifically a part of the Constitution, are basic documents in the life and structure of our Church. The Judicial Council further ruled that amending these three basic documents requires the same process used to amend the Constitution, except that the threshold for an amendment to be adopted may be higher than the threshold for amending the Constitution itself since the Articles of Religion are covered by the Restrictive Rules. As Decision 358 notes, any change in the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith would require a two-thirds majority vote of the General Conference present and voting and a three-fourths majority vote of all of the members of the annual conferences present and voting. See ¶ 59. A change in the General Rules requires a two-thirds affirmative vote of the General Conference and a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate members of the annual conferences present and voting. Therefore, for the purposes of this case, it is consistent with our precedent to treat the Articles of Religion as “constitutional” in importance and application. Consequently, Article XXI of the Articles of Religion (¶ 103) must be respected as having the weight of a constitutional provision regarding the “marriage of ministers.”
Article XXI uses terms that it does not define. In this case, the terms at issue involve the freedom of ministers to “marry at their own discretion.” Article XXI concludes with a clause that declares of clergy, “…therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christians, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness.” Although the word “lawful” is not defined in Article XXI, all parties to this case concur that the word “lawful” refers to Church law. In various national, provincial and state jurisdictions, civil laws define what a “lawful” marriage is, and the definitions may differ. However, the Church universal and The United Methodist Church in particular are neither circumscribed by nor set free for affirming activities that are considered “lawful” in various civil jurisdictions. Hence, in Article XXI, the term “lawful” refers to Church law. The undefined phrase “to marry” in Article XXI is at the center of the constitutional facet of this matter. The Constitution establishes the basis of the whole connectional Church. The General Conference has legislative authority for all matters that are distinctly connectional and is the only body authorized to define legislatively the words “lawful” and “marry.” The General Conference is the only body empowered to adopt legislation; the General Conference has done so including ¶ 161B in defining marriage by limiting it to “the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, shared commitment, and fidelity between a man and a woman.” This definition is within the power and authority of the General Conference to define “marriage” for the entire Church.
When interpreting the Discipline, our task is to determine whether the act of the General Conference in ¶ 2702.1 is consistent with or contrary to the Constitution, the Articles of Religion, and the Restrictive Rules. We cannot sustain any legislative enactment that is contrary to the Constitution, the Articles of Religion, and the Restrictive Rules. The General Conference of 1808 provided the First Constitution of The Methodist Episcopal Church and established the Articles of Religion as the Church’s explicit doctrinal standard. This First Restrictive Rule of the Constitution enacted in 1808 prohibited any change, alteration, or addition to the Articles of Religion themselves and stipulated that no new standards or rules of doctrine could be adopted by the General Conference that were contrary to the present existing and established standards of doctrine. In reviewing the historical development of the Constitution, the Articles of Religion, and the Restrictive Rules, we find no indication that the standards of doctrine that were present and existing as of the General Conference of 1808 considered or contemplated that ministers of that era desired or sought to enter into same sex marriages. Such was the rule and doctrine extant from which we begin our analysis.
Almost every marriage performed in the United States is a civil marriage because it must be performed by a person authorized by state law to solemnize marriages. Exceptions are the traditional marriage rite of the Religious Society of Friends, and a few states that still recognize common law marriages. The ceremony of holy matrimony performed by United Methodist clergy is also a religious ceremony which joins a man and a woman in Christian marriage as part of a covenant with God.
We recognize that some clergy marry while others do not for a variety of reasons. Though not explicitly stated, the New York Annual Conference resolution and policy is aimed at permitting clergy who wish to enter into a same sex marriage to do so at their discretion. Paragraph 604.1 provides that an annual conference, “for its own government, may adopt rules and regulations not in conflict with the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.” The action of the New York Annual Conference in adopting Resolution 2010-305 is a violation of ¶ 604.1 of the Discipline. This resolution and policy could arguably be advanced as some safe haven from the complaint process for those clergy who choose to enter into a same sex marriage at their discretion under the auspices of the proposed resolution and policy. An annual conference has no authority to offer clergy immunity from administrative or judicial complaint processes by adopting a resolution and policy that is clearly contrary to the Discipline. Judicial Council jurisprudence has long held that an annual conference may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions. See Decisions 96, 886, and 911. The adoption of ¶ 2702.1 by the General Conference does not revoke, change, or alter the Articles of Religion and does not establish new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.
The recognition or non-recognition of same sex marriage by civil authorities has no effect on our analysis. The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.
We hold that the enactment of ¶ 2702.1 by the General Conference did not violate the Constitution, the Articles of Religion, or the First Restrictive Rule. The New York Annual Conference policy as adopted in Resolution # 2010-305 is neither constitutional nor valid, violates ¶ 604.1 of the Discipline and is therefore null, void, and of no effect.


DECISION

Paragraph 2702.1 does not violate the First Restrictive Rule contained in ¶ 17 of the Constitution, nor does it revoke, change, or alter the Articles of Religion contained in ¶ 103 or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. An annual conference, for its own government, may adopt rules and regulations; however, an annual conference may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions. The New York Annual Conference resolution and policy allowing same sex marriage for clergy is neither valid nor constitutional and is hereby declared null, void and of no effect.

Beth Capen recused herself and did not participate in any of the proceedings related to this memorandum.

Jay Arthur Garrison, first lay alternate, participated in the proceedings related to this memorandum.

Friday, April 29, 2011.

Concurring Opinion


The Judicial Council, in making this decision, is not commenting on the appropriateness of the disciplinary language related to marriage being between one man and one woman. We only say that there is no constitutional block to such language.
Historically considered, the Articles of Religion were supplied by John Wesley to the fledgling Methodist Church in America. He revised, redefined, and adapted the 39 Articles of the Church of England to fit the context of the newly formed church in the United States. A review of “Our Doctrinal History” (¶ 102 Section 2, p. 50, 2008 Discipline) is instructive. As it states, “The challenge to United Methodists is to discern the various strands of these vital movements of faith that are coherent, faithful understandings of the gospel and the Christian mission for our times” (p. 55). As noted in the decision before us, Decision 358 notes any change in the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith requires a two-thirds majority vote of all the General Conference present and voting and three-fourths vote of all the members of the annual conferences present and voting. Therefore, it is possible to change and interpret the Articles of Religion in light of the Christian mission for our times.

Katherine Austin Mahle

F. Belton Joyner, Jr.

Angela Brown

Susan Henry-Crowe

April 29, 2011

SUBJECT TO FINAL EDITING


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