Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ed Johnson, can ministers deny membership

Ed Johnson's case was case as a gay rights case inside the United Methodist Church but it really isn't. Rather because the the nature of the ruling, it touches on a more core issue which is the relationship of the minister within the United Methodists to the church and whether statements of principle have any effect on the efficiency pastoral action.
Edward Johnson was the reverend for United Methodist Church in South Hill Virginia. He had an application for membership from a man who was an active homosexual. The man had been active in the church and sung in the choir. Ed Johnson refused him membership due to homosexual practice. His district superintendent Rev. W. Anthony Layman, argued that the church had a specific doctrine that allowed homosexuals to be members (even practicing homosexuals) and thus that Johnson's refusal was illicit. After an extended back and forth she suspend him, this suspension was upheld by the Virginia conference with a 581 to 20 vote and Johnson appealed to the national organization's judicial board.

The judicial board decided that ministers have the unlimited right to determine qualification for membership. That is that a minister may determine that a person who claims he wishes to be a member does not intend to fulfill their membership vows. Further the interpretation of those vows is up to the minister.

Since the pastor is not required by the Discipline to admit into membership all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm the vows of membership, and since the Discipline designates the pastor "to be the administrative officer of the local church" (¶ 340.3a) and to "administer the provisions of the Discipline” (¶ 340.3b(1)), a pastor-in-charge cannot be ordered by the district superintendent or bishop to admit into membership a person deemed not ready or able to meet the requirements of the vows of church membership of The United Methodist Church. The appointed pastor in charge has the duty and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into the membership of a local church.
This was immediately seen as judicial activism by its opponents. There are no guidelines at all for what constitutes "responsible pastoral judgment" and there was concern that given that homosexuality was not a basis for a ban for membership the council greatly increased the power of local ministers and moreover had allowed someone to be denied membership for any reason what so ever. That is they had converted local methodist churches into "clubs" whose club president (the pastor) had unlimited rights to determine membership policy without oversight:
According to Judical Board's thinking, if we ask somebody to make a commitment, then someone needs to judge whether that person's commitment is sincere and serious before we accept him or her into membership or partnership or whatever we want to call it. This is where I disagree. I am not sure any of us are qualified to make this kind of judgment about someone else.
Moreover as status grounds were included then on the pastor's description it would equally well allow exclusion based on race or handicap or any other area which is not scripturally supported. The Baltimore Washington Conference for example explicitly declared that in light of 1032 they continue to admit people without regard to race, sex, economic status and do not believe in discrimination on any basis. To quote the dissent
My greater concern is that its pronouncement may be a harbinger of things to come. Will we begin to see cases where membership has been denied based on economic status? Or educational status? Will pastors deny membership to those who do not support all of our Social Principles? Or those who fully support our Social Principles? We all aspire to break the bonds and reject the forces of sin. Nevertheless, we choose a perilous course when even “responsible pastoral judgment” is granted to allow pastors the “discretion” to select among a multitude of sins for which some persons will be refused membership. Jon R. Gray and Susan T. Henry-Crowe
The letter or reconsideration went even further. The Bishops of the UMC argued that it is Christ's invitation to the table and not the churches and the church has authority to administer the sacraments to those persons who affirm a desire for Christ's mercy but does not have the authority to deny them.

The Judicial board on the other hand has more "ground level support" than the bishops do. On the other hand its the Bishops that have the power of enforcement and they despised this ruling. Moreover many conservatives argued that the theoretical objections were nonsense. UMC pastors aren't casually excluding people from membership anywhere, that is there are no "abuses" and there are unlikely to be any abuses. Keith Boyette's writing for the majority and Edward Johnson himself did assert that homosexual practice as opposed to orientation was the issue and that specific guidelines of what constitutes failure to be taking the vo

In Febuary of 2007 the man who originally had requested membership was granted membership by Johnson's successor (site)
As for my opinion on the case, I think it really comes down to the attitude towards homosexuality. Consider these two pastors:

A -- Is a UMC pastor who believes that being Hispanic is an intrinsically sinful state. While we are all sinners persons who persistent eat of burritos and tacos unrepentantly are unsuited for church membership.

B -- Is a UMC pastor who believes that being a thief is an intrinsically sinful state. While we are all sinners persons who persistent steal unrepentantly are unsuited for church membership.

I agree with the people affirming this choice that the debate is really about whether Johnson is more like pastor A or pastor B. They are correct that there is simply no evidence that the broad powers granted to pastors under 1032 are going to be abused in the near future. On the other hand I agree with the dissenting opinion that 1032 was a grant of tremendous authority to pastors. In trying to uphold the right for pastor B it legitimized pastor A. This was a very poorly reasoned choice which undermines the whole rule of law inside the UMC.

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