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From the Methodist Federation for Social Action

UNITED METHODIST JUDICIAL COUNCIL ELIMINATES CONSTITUTIONAL GUARANTEE OF OPEN MEMBERSHIP IN UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 31, 2005

(WASHINGTON) In a ruling that is sure to stun United Methodists across the theological and political spectrum, one of the fourteen decisions released by the Judicial Council today reverses the traditional United Methodist stance of open membership in our churches.

At issue in the case are the actions of a United Methodist pastor who refused church membership to an active lay person who had participated in the church for some time and wished to transfer his membership from another denomination.

The pastor refused the supervision of the Virginia Board of Ordained Ministry, his District Superintendent and Bishop Charlene Kammerer, all of whom conveyed to the pastor that he did not have the authority to refuse membership to a lay person who had acknowledged readiness to take, affirm and fulfill membership vows.

Following the decision of the Clergy Session at the Virginia Annual Conference 2005, Bishop Kammerer placed the pastor on involuntary leave. Today's actions by the Judicial Council overturn this decision.

The Judicial Council is the highest judicial body or "court" of The United Methodist Church. Its nine members are elected by the General Conference. This is done in accordance with procedures established in The Book of Discipline.

The Judicial Council vote was split with three members dissenting.

Writing in dissent, Council member Rev. Susan T. Henry-Crowe wrote "This decision compromises the historic understanding that the Church is open to all. The Judicial Council cannot interpret something that is not stated in the Discipline. Nothing in the Discipline gives pastors discretion to exclude persons presenting themselves for membership in the Church."

Statement from Rev. Kathryn Johnson, Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action

"This ruling strikes at the very core of our understanding of who has authority to admit persons to the body of Christ.

Clearly we have given administrative authority to our pastors to determine such things as the number of membership classes a person may be required to attend before joining a church. Never, however, have we codified the role of the pastor as one who stands in ultimate judgment of a person's fitness for full membership in the Christian family.

The ruling handed down by the Judicial Council today is chilling in its implications. Should this ruling stand, there will be no limits as to who might be refused membership. Where will each pastor draw the line? Can a person be refused membership based on a person's race or their immigration status? What of the person who is divorced and remarried?

Until today, membership in the United Methodist Church has been open to all persons willing to take the appropriate vows. If the conduct of a member were subsequently questioned, that individual was guaranteed a fair and impartial trial. Now the Judicial Council has made the church subject to the prejudices and even the whims of its pastors.

In place of the strong guarantees of inclusiveness contained in church's constitution, there is now the principle of pastoral discretion. By preventing persons from coming into membership in the first place, such persons are effectively barred from exercising the rights that pertain to members. A pastor is now free to shape a local congregation around his or her own racial preferences, theological inclinations, and scriptural interpretations, with no need to be accountable to anyone. The Judicial Council has given its blessing to an understanding of the pastor as a gatekeeper for the church on the flimsiest of rationales.

This is potentially the greatest blow to the rights of laity since the church split in 1830 over concerns related disproportionate clerical authority.

By placing the keys to the admissions process solely in the hands of the pastor, the Judicial Council has opened the floodgates for innumerable and tragic repeat performances.

Finally, in this ill-considered decision, the Judicial Council has, in effect, elevated the discretion of the pastor above the disciplinarily assigned authority of the bishop to interpret the law of the church.

Bishop Kammerer appropriately interpreted the constitutional guarantee of open membership and ordered a pastor serving under her jurisdiction to abide by that ruling. The Judicial Council has ruled that such obedience to episcopal authority is no longer necessary. We call upon the Council of Bishops to carefully consider this ruling and to request the Judicial Council to reconsider Decision number 1032 at its earliest opportunity."

-END-

Links to Judicial Council Decisions:

Decision 1031

http://archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp?mid=263&JDID=1097&JDMOD=VWD&SN

=1001&EN=1032

Decision 1032

http://archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp?mid=263&JDID=1098&JDMOD=VWD&SN

=1001&EN=1032

The Methodist Federation for Social Action is an independent organization uniting United Methodist activists to promote action on justice, peace and liberation issues confronting the church and society. United Methodists and other concerned persons of faith who would like to participate in MFSA's witness for justice and peace can contact MFSA at 212 East Capitol Street, NE, Washington, DC 20003, 202-546-8806, mfsa@mfsaweb.org or visit our web site at www.mfsaweb.org.

 

Contact: Amy Stapleton, 202- 577-8712

After Hours Contact: Kathryn Johnson, 202-441-5942

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