Decision Number 1406

SUBJECT TO FINAL EDITING


April 16, 2021

IN RE: Review of a Bishop ruling on a question of law in the Michigan Annual Conference regarding the legality of the Resolution “Aspirations for the Michigan Annual Conference”

Digest


The Bishop’s ruling is affirmed in the portion of the resolution that is aspirational, but it is not affirmed in the portion of the resolution that states that the annual conference is not to provide resources for investigations and church trials.

Statement of Facts


On Saturday, June 1, 2019 during the plenary session of the Michigan Annual Conference, the following resolution, duly submitted to the conference in accord with our rules was debated and voted upon:

Faced with the uncertainty after the 2019 Special Session of General Conference, United Methodists in Michigan look to Jesus’ model of gracious welcome and evangelical inclusion to guide us. As we look forward to how the global church restructures and new Methodism emerge, the Michigan Annual Conference aspires to live into an expression of Methodism that:

  • includes LGBTQIA people in the full life and membership of The United Methodist Church
  • creates time and space for reflection, forgiveness, and reconciliation among our siblings who believe differently as we move into the future
  • organizes itself in faithful, just, and equitable structures that resist oppression, while acknowledging and undoing its complicity in systems of racial and economic inequity; and
  • spends our time and financial resources on mission for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially with vulnerable communities in Michigan and around the world, and not on church trials, investigations, or bringing charges against clergy based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression or related actions.

A vote was taken to approve the resolution: 819 in favor and 377 opposed.

Rev. Keith Lenard was later recognized and made the following request for a ruling of law:

I would like a Rule of Law on the ‘Aspirations for the Michigan Annual Conference’ (GCR 2019-2) to know if it violates Paragraphs 2702 a, b, d, e, 304.3, 310.2d and Judicial Council Decisions 1120, 1292, and the understanding of paragraphs 103 and 104 which this resolution disseminates doctrine contrary to Article XXI in light of Decision 1185, Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament: Romans 1:27-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:8-10, and 2 Peter 2:7, John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” which states “These monsters might almost make us overlook the works of the devil that are wrought in our own country. But alas! we cannot open our eyes ever here, without seeing them on every side. Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves [sic], robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land?” This alludes to “Do no harm” in the General rules which links to this sermon “by avoiding evil of every kind especially that which is most seriously practiced.” This resolution disseminates by aspirational cause a false doctrine and is contrary to United Methodism, historical Methodism since its beginning, and the first General Conference of 1808.

The Presiding Bishop in response to the clergy person’s request for a ruling of law on the resolution entitled Aspiration for the Michigan Annual Conference made the following ruling:

Judicial Council decision 886 clearly states that annual conferences “may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline. However, the Judicial Council in decision 1052 stated that “Annual Conferences are free to express their ideas and opinions as long as they do not attempt to negate, ignore, or contradict the Discipline,” and in decision 1120 affirmed that “an annual conference may adopt a resolution on human sexuality that is aspirational in nature.” In subsequent decisions (e.g., 1340), the Judicial Council has continued to affirm that annual conferences may adopt resolutions that are aspirational in nature.

Aspirational statements are future oriented. They look to and express a yearning for something new or different. By their very nature, then, aspirational statements may express a hope for a United Methodist Church different from the current church as defined by The Discipline. As long as aspirational statements are forward-looking, and do not encourage an abrogation of the current Discipline as a means to creating something new, citing Disciplinary paragraphs as an argument against the adoption of such statements seems contradictory. To adopt a future-oriented statement looking toward a United Methodist Church that includes LGBTQIA people in its full life and membership and in which resources are not spent on church trials, investigations, or bringing charges against clergy based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression or related actions in ways perhaps currently precluded by The Discipline, that does not in any way negate or encourage the negation of the current Discipline, is the very essence of an aspirational statement. Paragraphs 2702.1 a, b, d; 304.3; 310.2d are not violated by the adoption of this resolution. As the nature of this adopted resolution is aspirational, there is no violation of Judicial Council decisions 1120 or 1292.

Does this resolution disseminate doctrines contrary to the established standard of doctrine of The United Methodist Church (¶2702.1e)? Having argued that aspirational resolutions, by their very nature, look toward a different future, one might simply contend that the same principle applies to doctrinal statements. Furthermore, “While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum” (¶105). However, one can conceive of an aspirational resolution whose intent and language are so contrary to core Wesleyan theological convictions, as understood in ¶103 and ¶104, that ¶2702.1e could be appropriately invoked. The resolution, “Aspirations for the Michigan Annual Conference” is not such a resolution.

Article XXI, cited in the request for a ruling of law, is not germane to the resolution. This section of our Articles of Religion is clearly intended to distinguish churches in the Wesleyan movement from those Christian traditions in which abstinence from marriage is a requirement for all clergypersons.

In reading the sections of Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament cited in the request for a ruling of law, one does not see Wesley highlight for special attention words or phrases related to human sexuality.

Furthermore, citing individual texts from Wesley’s Explanatory Notes or Standard Sermons in the manner of the request for a ruling of law, raises significant issues. In Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, for example, Wesley, in commenting on Revelation 13 writes, “This beast is the Romish papacy, as it came to a point six hundred years since, stands now, and will for some time longer.” We would not consider such a statement part of our core doctrinal convictions. In the sermon referenced in the request for a ruling of law, “A Caution Against Bigotry,” just prior to the section cited in the request, Wesley offers a portrait of “the natural religion of the Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and all other Indians bordering on our southern settlements” that includes torture and the killing of old and young. We would not consider such statements part of our core doctrinal convictions.

To be sure, “Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing established standards of doctrine” (¶103). However, these documents are not doctrinal statements in the way the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith are doctrinal statements. Wesley himself “was not a systematic theologian” (Robert W. Burtner and Robert E. Chiles, John Wesley’s Theology, 8). “He seems never to have felt the impulse to produce anything resembling a comprehensive exposition of his theological ideas” (Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, 27). The use of Wesley’s Sermons and Notes as doctrinal standards, then, might best be in continuing to define and refine distinctive Wesleyan emphases in our United Methodist theology (¶102) and to use these as living sources for engaging in our theological task as encouraged in ¶105.

In conclusion, the resolution, “Aspirations for the Michigan Annual Conference” is not a violation of ¶2702.1e.

Jurisdiction


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2610.2​ of the 2016 Book of Disciple​.

Analysis and Rationale


In its longstanding jurisprudence, the Judicial Council declared that Annual Conferences are free to adopt resolutions that are aspirational in nature, and to express their ideals and opinions so long as they do not attempt to ignore, negate, or contradict The Discipline. See JCD 1044, 1052, 1111, 1404.  The Council also ruled that an Annual Conference may not pass a resolution if “the action ignores Church Law and encourages a violation of Church Law” (JCD 1262).

The resolution entitled “Aspirations for the Michigan Annual Conference” does not ignore, negate, or contradict the Book of Discipline nor encourage churches to violate or disobey the law of the United Methodist Church as described in JCD 1052, 1120, or 1340 as it states:

As we look forward to how the global church restructures and new Methodism emerge, the Michigan Annual Conference aspires to live into an expression of Methodism that:

  • includes LGBTQIA people in the full life and membership of The United Methodist Church
  • creates time and space for reflection, forgiveness, and reconciliation among our siblings who believe differently as we move into the future
  • organizes itself in faithful, just, and equitable structures that resist oppression, while acknowledging and undoing its complicity in systems of racial and economic inequity; and
  • spends our time and financial resources on mission for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially with vulnerable communities in Michigan and around the world.

Decision


The Bishop’s ruling is affirmed in the portion of the resolution that is aspirational, but it is not affirmed in the portion of the resolution that states that the annual conference is not to provide resources for investigations and church trials.

Concur In Part and Dissent In Part


Concur in Part and Dissent in Part

I join with my colleagues in affirming the Bishop’s ruling that the resolution is aspirational, but I disagree with the determination that the last half of the final portion is not aspirational. When read in pertinent part:

...  As we look forward to how the global church restructures and new Methodism emerge, the Michigan Annual Conference aspires to live into an expression of Methodism that:

organizes itself in faithful, just, and equitable structures that resist oppression, while acknowledging and undoing its complicity in systems of racial and economic inequity; and

spends our time and financial resources on mission for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, especially with vulnerable communities in Michigan and around the world, and not on church trials, investigations, or bringing charges against clergy based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression or related actions.  [emphasis added]

It is apparent that this is a resolution that inspires its members to envision a future to which they can hopefully one day aspire. The above resolution is certainly distinguishable from those resolutions that are deemed impermissible the Discipline. For example, the impermissible resolution in Decision 1398 specifically stated:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, no funds, resources or monies of the ... Annual Conference (either through direct or indirect payments through the conference) shall be expended for the purpose of just resolutions, background investigations, or the process of complaints against clergy because of sexual or gender identity or their ministry with and for LGBTQI+ persons of faith.

That resolution required the annual conference to immediately cease expenditures in judicial processes within the conference, and as such was impermissible because it negated, ignored, and violated the Discipline.

In keeping with past Decisions of the Judicial Council, I read this resolution as falling squarely within the framework of an aspirational resolution and as such I must respectfully dissent from the majority’s interpretation and decision concerning the last portion of the resolution whereupon they reverse the Bishop’s ruling in part. See, e.g., JCD 913, 1021, 1045, 1052, 1392.  I affirm the Bishop’s ruling that the resolution is aspirational and does not negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline.

Beth Capen

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