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On the Pastoral Letter of the Council of Bishops following Judicial Council Decision No. 1032

On the Pastoral Letter of the Council of Bishops following Judicial Council Decision No. 1032

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

On the Pastoral Letter of the Council of Bishops following Judicial Council Decision No. 1032

July 21, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0521}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

At the 2006 Florida Annual Conference I made extemporaneous remarks regarding a pastoral letter of the Council of Bishops that was issued following Judicial Council Decision No. 1032.

Judicial Council Decision No. 1032 pertained to a decision of law of Bishop Charlene Kammerer, the resident bishop of the Richmond Area. Her decision of law was in response to questions raised at the 2005 Virginia Annual Conference. The questions essentially asked if a pastor has “the right and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into church membership of a local church.” Bishop Kammerer’s decision was in the negative. The Judicial Council reversed her ruling. In its analysis and rationale the Judicial Council stated “the pastor in charge of a United Methodist church or charge is solely responsible for making the determination of a person’s readiness to receive the vows of membership.” The Judicial Council added “a pastor-in-charge cannot be ordered by the district superintendent or bishop” to admit a person into membership.

The case has received much attention because the pastor in Virginia refused to admit into membership a person because of his “sexual orientation and practice.” In other words, the person is homosexual; his manner of “practice” is not explained.

In my remarks to the Florida Annual Conference I attempted to provide some perspective on the pastoral letter of the Council of Bishops. I shall attempt to repeat what I remember saying and perhaps add other thoughts.

For one thing, I sought to explain the different roles of the Judicial Council and the Council of Bishops. There is a perception that the Judicial Council is our “supreme court” that “interprets The Book of Discipline” in the same way the Supreme Court of the United States interprets the U. S. Constitution. On the basis of this perception many people assumed the Judicial Council had made a ruling that interpreted the Discipline in such a way that bars homosexual people from membership in the church.

The authority and function of the Judicial Council is more narrow than that of “interpreting The Book of Discipline.” The role of the Judicial Council is to rule on the ecclesiastical constitutionality of acts of the General Conference and to determine any appeal of a bishop’s decision of a question of law and other legal matters. Actually, it is the bishops’ who are the normal “interpreters of The Book of Discipline” in our role as teachers, overseers and officials who make decisions of law.

In light of the above, the bishops looked at Judicial Council Decision No. 1032 primarily as a decision about a pastor’s authority to determine readiness for membership. The bishops did not disagree with the Judicial Council’s essential ruling, which is that “pastors have the responsibility to discern readiness for membership,” as the pastoral letter acknowledged.

The bishops were unanimous in our collective opinion that Decision 1032 was poorly written. Our objection was that the reference to a pastor being “solely responsible” for determining readiness for membership neglected the ecclesiology and polity of The United Methodist Church. According to our understanding of our covenant with Christ and one another, all clergy are under the supervision of their superintendents, and they are also accountable to the clergy session of the annual conference. In its decision the Judicial Council also stated a pastor should “exercise responsible pastoral judgment.” Of course, our question is, who determines whether or not there is “responsible pastoral judgment” if it is not the district superintendent and bishop who are the supervisors of clergy? That is why the pastoral letter of the Council of Bishops stated, “We also affirm our Wesleyan practice that pastors are accountable to the bishop, superintendent, and the clergy on matters of ministry and membership.” When Bishop Kammerer requested that the Judicial Council reconsider Decision 1032 (along with Judicial Council Decision No. 1031), the Council of Bishops entered a brief supporting her request, and the brief dealt only with our concern that the supervisory authority and role of superintendents should be affirmed and clarified by the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council did not grant the request for reconsideration.

Of course, this was a sensitive case since it involved the issue of homosexuality, which is a controversy in the church. The Council of Bishops’ pastoral letter addresses this underlying issue. Why did the Council of Bishops speak to the church about this issue and state “homosexuality is not a barrier” to membership? Primarily, the bishops were exercising our responsibility to “interpret the Discipline.” The bishops were explaining what is in The Book of Discipline. Specifically, Paragraph 161g was quoted. It states: “God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”

There was also a concern the media would present the decision of the Judicial Council as a decision that all homosexual people are barred from membership in The United Methodist Church, which would be an interpretation of the decision that is different from what the decision is, namely a ruling on a pastor’s authority to determine readiness for membership and different from what is presently in The Book of Discipline.

At the 2006 Florida Annual Conference I was asked if the bishops were, in effect, giving direction to the church about what should be the church’s discipline on membership (at least, that is how I understood the question). I answered, “No.” In our deliberations, we did not attempt to address this complex issue, nor did we even have time to do so. When the Council of Bishops meets it has a heavy agenda, and it does not have the opportunity to think through all the aspects of a larger issue that may emerge as a result of a suddenly announced Judicial Council decision. There are a number of questions that are now emerging as people think about our church’s discipline of membership. For example, is it really wise to invest authority to determine readiness for membership in the pastoral office without the involvement of laity, such as the role of lay elders in a Presbyterian congregation? Regarding the church’s pastoral ministry to persons who identify themselves as homosexuals, should this pastoral judgment be left to pastors (and perhaps some laity) who know all the persons and factors in a particular situation, or should there be some rule in The Book of Discipline? The Council of Bishops did not address the kinds of questions that can only be determined by the General Conference. Our intention was only to state what we believe is the present position of the church, even if that position is not satisfactory to some or is surrounded by ambiguity.

In its pastoral letter, the Council of Bishops sought to fulfill its role to interpret what is in The Book of Discipline regarding both our ecclesiology and polity and also the church’s statements regarding homosexual persons.

I will add that it is not unusual for individuals or caucuses to be highly critical of statements from the Council of Bishops because a statement did not express exactly the critics’ perspective, or place the emphasis where the critics believe it should be placed, or use certain kinds of language, or even give a critical evaluation of what the church’s position should be, etc. People’s expectations are not very practical when one considers certain facts. For one thing, the Council of Bishops is a large global institution with 68 active bishops from all over the world and many more retired bishops who have voice without vote. There is much diversity in perspective and experience among its members. This makes issuing a statement of consensus a kind of art. Moreover, the agenda of the Council of Bishops is very heavy during its biannual meetings. Any pastoral letter or statement is drafted by a writing team appointed by the Council of Bishops’ president. Under these circumstances most members often vote for a statement that conveys their basic judgment even if they would have written it differently if they were the author. It is not practical to devote unlimited time to trying to wordsmith or rearrange clauses and sentences. Finally, the bishops issue statements that are consistent with the statements of the General Conference in The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions. Adhering to the statements of the General Conference is an expression of the Council of Bishops’ respect for the authority of that body. It is not surprising if particular individuals or caucuses are often disappointed when this large and diverse council that is reflective of the diversity in the global church does not say what individuals or caucuses want it to say in the way they want it to be said.


This article relates to Homosexuality and Judicial Council Decision No. 1032.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.