ANSWERING A MOOT AND HYPOTHETICAL QUESTION
I’m sorry this decision was not held over to the spring 2015 session of the Council. Technically, I agree with the decision that the questions of law were hypothetical. I will address that in a moment.
What I find in this decision is hasty and abrupt language not typical of this Judicial Council. Usually, it bends over backward to clarify and teach. In this case, it provides faint praise for the work of the bishop who responded to the questions respectfully but then makes it sound as though her work was incorrect and that there was something wrong with her for even bothering to answer the questions. Had the Council had more time, it might have ruled something like this:
“The questions of law, while mentioning in passing a resolution on same sex issues, did not refer to anything in the text being discussed on the floor of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. Nor were they related to past or present events where the Discipline was allegedly violated. Nor were specific Disciplinary passages listed by the questioner allegedly violated. Hence. both questions are hypothetical. Therefore the bishop’s rulings are technically not required and therefore have no weight of law.
“However, despite JCD 33’s admonition to not answer moot and hypothetical questions, the bishop was in a position, based on the dynamics of her annual conference, to provide a response to clarify the effect of a resolution the conference had just passed. The heart of the matter she faced was to be sure that everyone understood that the resolution was aspirational, non-binding, non-specific, and most importantly, did not prescribe specific behaviors that would violate the Discipline. For example, in the eyes of some,’support’ may conceivably include violating the Discipline on the matter being supported, such as conducting a same sex marriage. In the eyes of most, ‘support’ primarily includes so many more things that are pastoral and compassionate.
“Further, bishops are sometimes instructed by the Judicial Council to answer the questions (see JCD 1244). The first question in this case appears to be asking what “effect” the resolution would have. Paragraph 2610 allows for requests for declaratory decisions to seek answers to questions about the effect of proposals or rules passed by a church body. While that is something that the Judicial Council is directed to do, not the bishop, there is still confusion over what has to be answered and what does not within the rules, practices, and precedents related to church law. Any thoughtful bishop is left in the position of feeling responsible to answer. The pastoral and political thing required of her was to provide a reasonable response to the questioner so that no one would think she was just ignoring him or even “dissing” him. She was there and appears to have sensed an intent to test for the implications of the resolution, even though, when read in the submissions, it is clear the question relates prospectively to something not actually addressed in the resolution.
“JCD 33 concludes by saying ‘It is stated here only that all members of Annual or District Conferences may be guided in making requests for rulings which are reviewable by the Judicial Council.’ In effect, the ruling is not directed to the bishop alone but as an admonition to the ones who wish to raise questions.
“As the Judicial Council felt in JCD 33, we cannot simply support the bishop’s rulings nor reverse them. While her rulings are consistent with the Judicial Council’s previous decisions, we rule that her answers to the first question have no standing as church law if the question had not actually been hypothetical. Her recognition of the second question as moot and hypothetical correctly notes the question of law’s nature as invalid because no specific Disciplinary violation has occurred citing the resolution as authority.
“In summary, both questions were hypothetical. Her answers have meaning though no weight of law in the context of her own conference.”
I believe this is what the Council meant and might have ruled had they had more time to apply their usual tact and educational proclivities in deciding this case. For those interested in seeing her actual responses, go to the Judicial Council Docket for October, 2014 (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/who-we-are/judicial-council/judicial-council-dockets/docket-oct2014-with-supporting-docs-rev.pdf). Go to Docket 1014-15.