Commentary: Judicial Council Ruled Properly in Virginia Pastor Case
- Commentary: Judicial Council Ruled Properly in Virginia Pastor Case
A UMNS Commentary
By Brenda A. Menzies*
Nov. 29, 2005
The United Methodist Judicial Council recently rendered two decisions
in the case of the Rev. Ed Johnson of Virginia, a pastor who was
disciplined by his bishop for not admitting a self-avowed, practicing
homosexual into church membership.
In overturning the bishop's actions, the court upheld existing church
law, as determined by many General Conferences. There was nothing new
in the decisions. Yet, there has been a flurry of debate and
interpretations in the church. What do the decisions say? What do they
not say? How do we process the impact of these rulings on the nuances
of the homosexual debate in our church?
The first ruling, Decision No. 1031, related to an administrative
complaint against Johnson that led to an erroneous ruling of law by
Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer at last summer's Virginia Annual
(regional) Conference. In its decision, the Judicial Council found
that Rev. Johnson had been deprived of his fair process rights. Based
on the findings, Bishop Kammerer's rule of law was rightly reversed.
The second, Decision No. 1032, pertained to a pastor's authority to
determine who may be received into membership in the local church.
This decision by the council represented no change in the church's
historical stance. Research indicates nothing in any Book of
Discipline - in 200 years of church history - mitigates against a
pastor's authority to allow, delay or refuse someone into membership.
"The 2004 Discipline invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to
make the determination of a person's readiness to affirm the vows of
membership (217)," the Judicial Council said. "Paragraphs 214 and 225
are permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all
persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows."
Again, the Judicial Council rightly ruled.
We all recognize the need to reach out to our homosexual brothers and
sisters in hospitality and ministry, and to be loving and affirming in
the faith. That is exactly what Rev. Johnson was doing. A process of
ministry was taking place. The individual whom he was counseling was
not the one who brought the complaint and was actively participating
in the life of the church.
Sadly, we now have two individuals whose lives have been impacted by
the misapplication of church law and improper disciplinary procedure:
Rev. Johnson, who by all accounts has served our church faithfully for
24 years, and a self-avowed, practicing homosexual with whom he was
The historical position and law of the church, set by General
Conference, is that the "practice of homosexuality is incompatible
with Christian teaching." The question with reference to the Rev.
Johnson case is: Was there a prejudicial leaning in favor of the
practice of homosexuality placed above administering the law of the
church? If so, any pastor seeking merely to uphold traditional church
policy and the will of General Conference would be at risk under the
leadership of a bishop with differing views.
It is with great consternation and grief that I view the current
circumstances of the church. We are an inclusive church. All are
invited to participate in the means of grace, which can transform and
instill in our hearts a desire to live daily lives under the influence
of our vows of membership.
Membership in the church is a covenant, not unlike the marriage
covenant between a man and a woman. According to the Discipline, we
"covenant together with God and with the members of the local church
to keep the vows which are part of the order of confirmation and
reception into the church ..." Two of our vows of membership are "to
renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of
the world, and repent of (our) sin" and to join in "professing the
Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New
We would not expect our ordained clergy to knowingly receive into
membership someone who is in breach of the very church vows that he or
she is proclaiming. Our clergy have sacred and sole discretion to make
the determination as to readiness for making this covenant; after all,
the local pastor is the churches' representative closest to the
Thankfully, the checks and balances in the United Methodist Church
resulted in the Judicial Council upholding church law as determined by
General Conference. It is disappointing that an issue so plainly
addressed in our Book of Discipline had to reach our top layer of
accountability to be recognized.
While the Judicial Council's decisions are comforting and affirmed the
relationship between pastor and laity, the potential exists for a
backlash in the relationship between the church's hierarchy and the
pastor. Such a backlash could result in an appointment of Rev. Johnson
outside the norm for someone of his tenure.
It is quite disturbing that, according to the statement of facts in
the case, Bishop Kammerer explored exclusionary measures with Rev.
Johnson. The "surrender of credentials" and "early retirement"
proposed by Bishop Kammerer would have amounted to nothing less than
the exclusion of Rev. Johnson and his ordained ministry in the United
Methodist Church. The irony here is that in our inclusive United
Methodist Church, the bishop would entertain the notion of excluding a
pastor for faithfully carrying out his ordained duties.
Hopefully, the clarity brought to the Virginia Annual Conference by
the Judicial Council will enable Bishop Kammerer, the annual
conference, the Rev. Ed Johnson and his congregation at South Hill
(Va.) United Methodist Church to move forward in the unity of
proclaiming the grace of Jesus Christ, being true to the Book of
Discipline and to the United Methodist Church's written recognition of
the authority of Scripture.
*Menzies, a laywoman from Franklin, Tenn., is a two-time delegate to
General Conference and served on the assembly's Faith and Order
Committee and Church and Society Committee.