FAQ on Upcoming Judicial Council Decisions

LGBTQI clergy persons will ultimately pay the price for the injustices in our church polity even if, on paper and in law, we are not named as the legal parties in these cases.

1.     What is the Judicial Council?

The Judicial Council is the highest judicial body or court of The United Methodist Church. Its nine members are elected by the General Conference. They are from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and the Philippines. They follow rules of procedure, in some ways reflecting U.S. judicial processes, that are set out in both the Book of Discipline and rules of practice that they establish and revise. They act on appeals, questions of law answered by bishops concerning matters raised in annual, central, and jurisdictional conferences, requests for declaratory decisions, and whether acts by official bodies of the church conform with the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council meets twice annually in the fall and spring, as well as during General Conference.


2.     What’s on the Judicial Council docket related to LGBTQI clergy and candidates?

There are three cases on the docket that directly impact LGBTQI clergy and candidates. One is a request for a declaratory decision relating to Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy; the other two relate to questions of law posed to the Presiding Bishops in both the Northern Illinois (NIC) and New York Annual (NYAC) Conferences related to the commissioning and ordination of openly LGBTQI clergy.  Detailed information regarding the episcopal election in the Western Jurisdiction, “Bishop Oliveto’s case” (can be found here). 

Two identical questions of law were posed at clergy session of the annual conference sessions in Northern Illinois and New York as follows:

  1.     Is the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry required to ascertain whether a candidate meets the qualifications for candidacy and ordained ministry, including whether or not she or he is exhibiting ‘fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness’ or is a self-avowed practicing homosexual?
  2.     Can the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry legally recommend to the clergy session a candidate whom they believe to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual or otherwise in violation of the fidelity and celibacy standard?

    Two additional questions were posed at the NYAC clergy session:
  3.    Are the candidates in question in fact eligible for candidacy, commissioning as a provisional member, ordination as a full elder, and appointment as a United Methodist clergy as defined by the Book of Discipline?
  4.    Is an act of commissioning and/or ordaining an ineligible candidate by a United Methodist Bishop a valid act of ministry according to the Book of Discipline, even if the candidate is approved by the clergy session?

Bishop Jane Middleton, presiding at the New York Annual Conference, initially determined that it would be inappropriate for her to answer the questions posed, and that additionally the third and fourth questions were moot and hypothetical in that no candidates were identified (see Bishop Middleton’s initial Decision of Law here).  Though the Judicial Council agreed that the third and fourth questions were hypothetical in nature, it ruled that the Bishop was required to answer the first two questions posed (see Judicial Council Decision 1330 here).  

Bishop Sally Dyck, presiding at the Northern Illinois Conference, also initially determined that it would be inappropriate for her to respond to the two questions posed to her (see Bishop Dyck’s initial Decision of Law here).  However, the Judicial Council ruled that she too must answer the questions of law (see Judicial Council Decision 1329 here).

Bishops Middleton and Dyck were required to respond to the first two questions of law by Judicial Council and did so by December 31, 2016 in preparation for the Judicial Council’s Spring Docket.  Bishop Middleton’s Decision of Law can be found here; Bishop Dyck’s Decision of Law can be found here.

The Bishops’ two decisions, though different, hinged in part upon interpretation of the terms in the questions posed.  As to the first question, both decisions noted that boards of ordained ministry are not required to “ascertain,” that is, determine with certainty, whether a person is in violation of the fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness standard.  As to the second question, the Bishops noted that a board of ordained ministry should not refuse to recommend a candidate based upon a subjective belief as to whether that person is in violation of the fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness standard. 


5.     What are the potential outcomes?  When will we know?

The Judicial Council’s determination is impossible to guess.  It could, but may not necessarily, include any of the following decisions:

  • Decide that it is not within the purview of a Bishop to “second-guess” the determination of the board of ordained ministry and clergy session as to the fitness of candidates for ministry.
  • Determine that as the questions of law do not identify any particular candidates for ministry who are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” that the questions are moot and hypothetical.
  • Require the Board of Ordained Ministry to once again review all of the candidates’ fitness for ministry, specifically asking whether or not they are “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” as defined by the Discipline and relevant Judicial Council precedent. 
  • Completely nullify and reverse the ordination, commissioning, licensing and decision of the Board of Ordained Ministry and clergy session as to clergy that were commissioned or ordained that have self-identified as LGBTQI. 
  • Decide to do nothing, and defer action until the completion of the Way Forward process being undertaken by the Council of Bishops. 

Decisions of the Judicial Council have traditionally been released in the week following its deliberations (which in this case take place between April 25-28, 2017). 


6.     What will happen to LGBTQI clergy and candidates in the Northern Illinois Conference and the New York Annual Conference?

It is too soon to tell.  It will depend upon the decision of the Judicial Council, and, possibly subsequently, determinations by Boards of Ordained Ministry, Clergy Sessions, and Presiding Bishops in those conferences.  Even if the decision of the clergy session and recommendation of the board of ordained ministry were nullified, LGBTQI clergy might be allowed to continue under appointment in those conferences. 

No clergy candidates were identified in the questions of law in the Northern Illinois case.  Likewise, the questions of law were determined to be moot and hypothetical as to individual candidates in the New York Annual Conference in the Judicial Council’s initial Fall decision since no one was identified. However, Amicus Curiae on both sides of these cases have been submitted in the Spring Docket.  In at least one of them submitted by a party outside Northern Illinois Annual Conference & New York Annual Conference calls for the invalidation or “at least” suspension of NYAC LGBTQI Clergy: Kathleen Reynolds, licensed; Elyse Ambrose, Bruce Lamb, Lea Matthews, commissioned; Alex da Silva Souto, ordained. (can be found here).

Written for United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus by supporter Rev. Paul Fleck © 2017