The United Methodist Church's top court recently ruled that clergy, both active and retired, cannot perform same-sex marriages or civil unions.
Performing such services is "a chargeable offense," Bishop Beverly J. Shamana ruled last Friday. UMC's Judicial Council affirmed her decision.
The council further ruled that an annual conference, or regional body within the UMC, "may not negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based on conscientious objections to the provisions."
The council's ruling was on a resolution passed by the California-Nevada Annual Conference last year, months after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Along with providing pastoral ministry to same gender couples, the resolution would allow retired clergy to perform marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.
More than 80 retired United Methodist clergy from northern California had offered to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies on behalf of clergy who cannot perform them.
They signed a covenant stating, "We must not deny ministerial services to anybody because of their sexual orientation. We will witness that United Methodists in California-Nevada Annual Conference do have Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors and we will not tolerate the exclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people from our ministry."
Given that the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which embodies Church law, forbids churches and clergy from performing same-sex unions, the resolution also sought lenient disciplinary action against clergy who disobey church law on the issue.
While Bishop Shamana called the resolution "a commendable gesture" in offering pastoral counsel to same-sex couples desiring marriage, she stated in her decision that "it steps over a Disciplinary line when it commends these clergy to the congregations for the purpose of 'performing same gender marriages or holy unions.'"
In a dissenting opinion, council member F. Belton Joyner, Jr. said the willingness of some retired clergy to perform same gender marriages or unions "does not prescribe or recommend a violation of The Book of Discipline."
Unless changes are made to the provisions in the Book of Discipline, an annual conference may not advise local churches of the availability of clergy who are willing to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies, the Judicial Council ruled. UMC law currently states, "Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."
Last year, the General Conference, the top governing body of the UMC, voted to reject changes to its constitution and retain the ban on performing same-sex marriages.
The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist denomination in the world and the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States.