Methodist Court Upholds Pastor's Right to Bar, Receive Members

The United Methodist Church's highest court recently denied requests to reconsider a 2005 decision that granted a pastor the right to bar a gay man from becoming a church member.

The Judicial Council ruled last weekend to leave the decision alone.

"Let the decision rest where it may. Changing metaphors, let us not resurrect a dead horse which, by all indications, may be further beaten up," wrote Ruben T. Reyes in a concurring opinion. "There is no need to reconsider, abandon, overturn or withdraw [the decision]."

In 2005, the Rev. Ed Johnson, who was senior pastor at South Hill United Methodist Church in Virginia, was placed on an involuntary leave of absence for refusing to receive a gay man into membership. The man was a participant in the church in a variety of ways and sought to transfer membership from another denomination to the South Hill United Methodist Church.

Johnson agreed to continue to be in ministry with the man but said he would not receive him into membership in the church.

Later that year, the Judicial Council narrowly ruled in favor of Johnson, reinstating him as pastor and concluding that United Methodist ministers do have the right to determine "a person's readiness to affirm the vows of membership."

UMC bishops made it clear that the ruling did not mean that homosexuality is a barrier to membership. It just affirmed a pastor's right to discern whether a person can be received as a member.

Since then, the court has been asked in seven separate cases to review or reconsider the decision. The Arkansas, Northern Illinois and Minnesota Annual Conferences (regional bodies) were among those that submitted a request.

Victoria Rebeck, director of communication for the Minnesota Annual Conference, explained that part of the reason they asked the court to revisit the ruling was because of a number of changes made in the denomination over the last few years.

The UMC's highest legislative body in 2008 changed the rule about accepting members to read: "A member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to unite with the United Methodist Church shall be received as either a baptized or a professing member." The word "shall" replaced "may."

Also, the Book of Discipline 2008 – the church's policy and procedure manual – defines inclusiveness to mean the "total involvement of all persons who meet the requirements" for membership and leadership at every level of the church, Rebeck pointed out.

Regardless of opinion on the 2005 decision, Judicial Council members agreed in their ruling last weekend that the court is not an appropriate body to change church law.

"It was wrong for the Judicial Council to legislate then and it would be wrong for the Judicial Council to legislate now. This issue cannot and should not be resolved by judicial fiat," said Jon R. Gray in his concurring opinion.

Currently, The United Methodist Church holds that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. In May, its legislative body rejected an amendment on the inclusiveness of church membership that some believed would have required pastors to accept openly gay persons.