Denmark Annual Conference requested a ruling on the legality of the phrase in Paragraph 161.G, “…and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In their request, they note the phrase is also repeated in the law section of the Discipline at Paragraph 304.3. They then enter into a significant theological argument which challenges the legitimacy of the phrase.
For their text, go to:
The main argument that the Council has no jurisdiction is that Paragraph 161.G is not church law. The Social Principles of which P 161 is a part is, as the Discipline itself says, “not to be considered church law.”
I have a suspicion that that point of law was outvoted after serious discussion, the liberals and moderates on the Council wanting to maintain the Social Principles, from which the phrase comes, as “a prayerful and thoughtful effort . . .to speak to the human issues . . . intended to be instructive and persuasive . . . .” I sense that this argument carries over from each quadrennium’s Council to the next and is decided somewhere early in the term. I think this was the case when that argument took place and the majority took the conservative approach that indeed, the Social Principles are church law. Their point of view is upheld in the footnote to Paragraph 161 which identifies JCDs 833 and 1254, both of which treat the passages related to homosexuality as law. -- Note: In editing this post, I have been unable to find where I saw that footnote. No recent Discipline includes them under Paragraph 161. But they are germane anyway.--
I look forward to when other Social Principles that are not related to homosexuality are tested to see if they too are church law.
The Council in this case, having settled that the phrase being challenged is church law, then applied its rules about its being moot and/or hypothetical, though they don’t use those words this time. They look to see if the issue has a local manifestation in the actions of the annual conference. Is anyone being subject to complaint or is some project of the conference directly affected by the phrase?
None was identified by the petitioners nor seen in the record by the Council so it was a hypothetical matter and therefore not under the Council’s jurisdiction.
Whenever the Council decides to not take jurisdiction, they sure love to throw in all kinds of decision number to support it, as if their own weight as the sitting Council is not sufficient. Maybe it isn’t, given how the bishops tend to ignore the Council’s rulings unless certain bishops find it to their advantage. The lists of decisions supporting their point do have the positive value of helping students and observers to research the concept. But to outsiders, it still has a tinge of self-justification. Or maybe frustration that they are not being listened to.
Let me note, as the Denmark request states, the phrase from 161.G is also part of Paragraph 304.3 and other places in the law section of the Discipline. So the question of its constitutionality is rightfully raised. Because it is in the law text, it is an imposition on all clergy, even those who, like the Denmark group, do not agree with it. So should a case arise where, for example, Denmark’s conference passes legislation that specifically negates that phrase as part of its policy toward clergy, preferably with respect to a certain person, the Council would have to take jurisdiction and might have to test what is really a theological assertion, “intended to be instructive and persuasive,” against the constitution.
Finally, let me remind everyone that a key ruling related to requests for declaratory decisions, JCD 189, says, “A request may ask for clarification or interpretation of church law about any action that is being considered or is pending before the conference.” To wait until a matter is actually before the conference may be a waste of time or may cause harm to those involved should lack of clarity lead the conference board or agency to take action. For that reason, I believe rulings on interpretation or constitutionality that are prospective are within the jurisdiction of the Council.
If I were a member of the Council, I would have written a dissenting opinion based on the above argument and agreed with the Denmark appellants. I think the phrase is an illegal attempt to change the doctrine of the United Methodist Church. While I may disagree with other Disciplinary passages added since 1972 about homosexuality, they are matters of policy over which disagreement may be legislatively handled.