The United Methodist Judicial Council Ruling
On Homosexual Marriage Services

"Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches," ( 65.C of the 1996 Discipline)

Over the past several months there has been much question over whether or not this prohibition, from The United Methodist Discipline, should be considered binding as Church Law. The reason for the question is a simple, but often misunderstood, one: the prohibition was placed in a part of the 1996 Book of Discipline that has never, before, been considered legally binding. Historically, the Social Principles have always been viewed as “guidelines for social action,” but have not generally been considered “law.” They represent the official position of The United Methodist Church on many Social Justice issues, but strict adherence to their statements have not always been demanded -- in other words, there has always been room for honest disagreement when it came to the Social Principles. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the placement of the above statement inside the Social Principles left quite a few people wondering if this was a law or was it, like the rest of the Social Principles, only a “Guideline” and, hence, not binding.

So heated was the debate on the question, and so sharp the disagreement over various Church court rulings, that some people called for a Special Session of the General Conference (the highest legislative body of the UMC) to settle the issue. Rather than go to that extreme, the Bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction (that’s our area, folks) requested that the Judicial Council (the highest judicial court of the UMC) rule on the question -- is the above statement a guideline, per its location in the Social Principles, or is it a law, per its wording and the intention of the General Conference.

Two weeks ago The United Methodist Church's Judicial Council met in Dallas to hear the case, and subsequently has issued their ruling on this question: the prohibition is binding as law, notwithstanding its location in the Social Principles. In other words, even though the prohibition is contained in a portion of the Book of Discipline which has never been considered binding, the Judicial Council has ruled that it was the intention of the General Conference to make a law, and hence this is a binding law. As they said, ministers who conduct "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" are liable to be brought to church trial.

The prohibitive statement governs the function of all clergy members of The United Methodist Church. The amendment language is descriptive of expected functions of a clergy member, who has accepted a covenant relationship to uphold the "Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church." Failure to do so is adisciplinary violation, and therefore, subjects a pastor to the process of formal complaint, including Fair Process as defined in the Discipline. (Judicial Council Ruling No. 833)

Anyone who would like to read the full text of the Judicial Council’s ruling, please feel free to ask me for a copy.

My opinion on the ruling has changed over time. At first I believed that this was an excellent ruling because it reflected the lack of coherency in the United Methodist Church on this issue. Since the Church couldn't be of a common mind on the question of homosexuality, I believed it was best that no changes be made. However, I have since come to believe that denying homosexuals the pastoral office of marriage is both a violation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and an example of moral hypocrisy. In the Book of Resolutions the United Methodist General Conference has affirmed that homosexuals are people of sacred worth and, as such, should not be subjected to discrimination based upon their sexual orientation or gender; at the same time, the Social Principles promote discrimination based upon sexual orientation. This is rank hypocrisy on the part of our church.

Which brings up a further question. As a United Methodist Minister I have affirmed that I will abide by the Discipline of the Church and the orders of my Bishop. While I believe that the Discipline is in error, as a United Methodist Minister I am not free to violate it in this case. Hence, I shall abide by the Disciplinary prohibition and not perform homsoexual Unions.

© 1999, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved