"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
That is the law, not a suggestion. So ruled the nine-member Judicial Council-the supreme court of the 8.5-million-member United Methodist Church-following two days of deliberation in Dallas last month. Clergy who violate the law can be brought up on charges and be reprimanded or defrocked. (In the UMC, any church member can begin judicial proceedings against a pastor or bishop for violating church law.)
Many UMC leaders across the country heaved a collective sigh of relief at the news out of Dallas. If the decision had gone the other way, by all accounts the denomination would have been thrown into turmoil. Some congregations and pastors were poised to bolt, others aimed to cut headquarters funding, and many more were making battle plans.
The disputed sentence had been inserted into the Book of Discipline, the laws by which the UMC governs itself, by a vote of 553 to 321 at the 1996 General Conference, the UMC's top legislative body. But it was placed in a section of the Discipline known as the Social Principles, at least parts of which long have been considered advisory and not binding. Citing the advisory aspect, some UMC ministers who had been performing same-sex unions continued to do so. When Omaha pastor Jimmy Creech faced charges for performing a union ceremony for two lesbians last March, his defense team played the advisory card. It worked: A clergy jury failed by one vote in May to convict him of violating church law. A storm of protest ensued (WORLD, July 25).
The council, composed of six men and three women, five of them clergy and four of them lawyers, acted on a specific query from the bishops of the UMC's largely conservative eight-state South Central jurisdiction: "Is the performance of a ceremony celebrating a homosexual union or a same-sex covenanting ceremony by a United Methodist pastor in a United Methodist Church a violation of the Discipline ... and therefore a chargeable offense... ?" Similar requests from regional conferences were folded into that one. Thirty groups filed briefs. The council heard oral arguments from representatives of both sides: Mr. Creech, his church lawyer, and a professor friend on the "advisory" side; two bishops on the "binding" side.
In its decision, the council said it reviewed the history of the legislation, the intent of the General Conference delegates, and the language of the measure itself. When the conference speaks in "mandatory language," it is the law of the church, regardless of its placement in the Book of Discipline, the panel concluded. So, yes, "conduct in violation of this prohibition renders a pastor liable to a charge of disobedience to the order and discipline" of the church, the council ruled.
Reaction came swiftly. Conservatives hailed the verdict. "If General Conference takes clear action that cannot then be enforced, we are in real trouble; this will help," said James V. Heidinger II, head of Good News, the UMC's oldest evangelical caucus. At the fast-growing three-year-old Confessing Movement, committed to restoring the "doctrinal and moral integrity" of the church, President John Ed Mathison welcomed the decision as a "great encouragement in our work for renewal." And in Bakersfield, Calif., Pastor Robert Kuyper, founder of the Transforming Congregations movement, said: "I hope this means we can get back to doing ministry with people who want to leave the homosexual lifestyle and move on from the debate." However, he added, he fears many will ignore the decision and keep the pot boiling. (As of this month, 249 UMC clergy had signed a statement saying they will ignore the prohibition.)
Mr. Creech bitterly branded the ruling as "an act of institutional violence [that] cannot be tolerated." He called on UMC pastors to "protest this decision through ecclesial disobedience by defying the prohibition and publicly celebrating same-sex covenants." The UMC's leadership must then decide whether to devote energy and resources to "prosecuting pastors" who violate the ruling, he said. He also called for a campaign to purge "anti-gay language" from the Book of Discipline at the 2000 General Conference in Cleveland. (Mr. Creech, whose appointment as pastor of Omaha's First UMC was not renewed, now lives in Okracoke Island, N.C. He cleans cottages part-time for a living.)
Mark Bowman, executive director of the gay-friendly Reconciling Congregation Program, denounced the decision as "deplorable and theologically unsound." Leaders of Affirmation, a homosexual advocacy group in the UMC, called the decision "a tragedy." They indicated they will work to have it set aside along with "the underlying perspective" also adopted by the 1996 General Conference: "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
Cecil Williams, who says he has been performing same-sex unions for more than 30 years as pastor of Glide church in San Francisco, said he wanted to talk with his lawyer before commenting. Mr. Williams is one of 10 UMC ministers among 150 Protestant, Jewish, and Buddhist clergy in northern California who have signed a declaration stating: "I have officiated or would be willing to officiate at the religious marriage of a same-gender couple."
Bishop Melvin Talbert of the UMC's California-Nevada regional conference and immediate past president of the National Council of Churches said he was "saddened" by the ruling. He and his cabinet earlier this year had expressed support of clergy who participated in same-sex unions. Although he disagrees with the ruling, as a bishop he will enforce it, he said. He added that no action would be taken against pastors for signing petitions of support for same-sex unions. "Church law doesn't say anything about signing statements; it's about performing a same-sex union," he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Pastor John Christie of Santa Clara, Calif., president of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship in Bishop Talbert's conference, said ERF members feel "vindicated." They now will keep an eye on the bishop to see if he enforces the General Council ruling. Said Mr. Christie: "He needs to get back in line and be held accountable."
In what could be a last-gasp effort, Bishop Talbert's conference has petitioned the Judicial Council to rule on whether the prohibition on same-sex unions is constitutional: Did the General Conference have the right to impose such a restriction in the first place? That question is to be considered at the council's next session, Oct. 28-30 in Hershey, Pa. However, the council in explaining its Dallas decision said the General Conference has wide constitutional authority for legislating any matter related to the UMC "connectivity," including the powers and duties of the ordained ministry. When the General Conference so speaks, the council said, "it is the law of the church."