“Good News” and 24-hour Suspension for Northwest Clergy

(Although dated 2014-03-04, this draft was finally published on 2014-03-13.)

As I stated in my previous post, I’m not in the habit of reading “Good News,” never mind commenting. “Link rot” helped bring me to this post from the “Good News Media Service.” In my opinion, the aforementioned post contains inaccuracies concerning church law upon which I feel obligated to comment.

There are three inaccuracies I will address.

  1. Complainants do not “file charges.”
  2. The complainants’ proposed “just resolution” was neither.
  3. The original post fails to cite any disciplinary provision violated by Church Counsel.

I then conclude this (somewhat long) post with a few observations.

1. Complainants do not “file charges.”

From the post:

The Rev. Cheryl Fear (Bellingham, Washington) and the Rev. Gordon Hutchins (Tacoma, Washington) have both openly acknowledged defying the denomination by performing same-sex unions. In response to United Methodist protocol, charges were filed against the two clergypersons by the Rev. Colleen Sheahan and the Rev. David Parker.

The Reverend Sheahan and the Reverend Parker did not “file charges.” Each filed a complaint. A Google search for “file charges” returns several pages; I’m just going to comment on two highly-ranked results from secular criminal law.  This page from Nolo Press indicates that it is up to a prosecutor to “file criminal charges.” A page from Northeast Florida discusses how to file criminal complaints. It notes that “Only sworn law enforcement officers can file felony charges.”

Perhaps in keeping with ¶¶ 20 and 2701, the current Discipline does not appear to use the language “filing charges.” The closest relevant paragraph in the current Discipline might be ¶ 2704.2a. After any supervisory response fails to achieve a just resolution (¶ 363.1c), the bishop appoints Church Counsel. (The post later identifies the Reverend Orendorff as Church Counsel.) I would contend that the Church Counsel forwarding the judicial complaint (which includes a bill of charges and specifications) is the closest analogue to “filing charges.”

2. The complainants’ proposed “just resolution” was neither.

The original post’s penultimate paragraph describes what the complainants proposed for a “just resolution”:

Sheahan and Parker were very specific about what they perceived as a “just resolution” to the filed charges. “Our main request as complainants was that the respondents would agree to not perform future ceremonies which the Discipline prohibits,” Sheahan said. “Our offer was refused (not the other way around). The decision to accept the Counsel’s recommendation further divides the church.”

I believe that the proposed “just resolution” would have been neither a resolution nor just. I cannot speak for anyone else refusing to sign such an agreement. I will limit my comments on this matter to the “strictly legal standpoint.”

Judicial Council Decision 240 (November 1966) found that a trial court penalty cannot consist of an indefinite suspension. From the Digest: “In prescribing the penalty of suspension such a Trial Court may not condition reinstatement of a suspended minister by requiring him to assume the burden of proving affirmatively an absence of disqualifying conditions.” Decision 725 (October 1994) noted that a proposed Annual Conference definition could not proscribe merely the intent to engage in prohibited behavior. Based on this case law, I have doubts whether a just resolution can consist of agreements that would not be enforceable by a trial court.

Now some might find the above argument unconvincing. I’ll concede that it’s just a sketch of an argument. I’ll also concede that there is a lot of discretion in the terms of a specific “just resolution.” So let’s assume arguendo that the following “just resolution” is reached: “the prohibited conduct will not be repeated.” What does this mean as a practical matter?

  • It means that merely the accusation of repeating the prohibited conduct puts the (former) respondent under a cloud of suspicion. A “resolution” indeed.
  • It could mean that if a respondent does repeat the prohibited conduct, the respondent would be facing a “more serious” charge: violating the “just resolution” in addition to violating the Discipline. Isn’t violating the Discipline supposed to be serious by itself?
  • This “just resolution” sends a clear (unintended) message: you can only get caught once.
  • This “just resolution” undermines the legitimacy of the prohibition in question. In other words, I can’t imagine any other “chargeable offense” in which this “just resolution” could be proposed.

The above discussion might not matter because of the discretion granted to bishops. This brings me to my third and perhaps most important point.

3. The original post fails to cite any disciplinary provision violated by Church Counsel.

The 2012 General Conference made a number of changes to Judicial Administration. One major change was the removal of the Committee on Investigation for most respondents.

From the original post:

Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Greater Northwest Area appointed the Rev. David Orendorff as the Counsel of the Church to process the charges. According to a memo from Orendorff, the Revs. Fear and Hutchins “agree that they have disobeyed the Book of Discipline, para. 2702.1.b” and that the two clergypersons “agree as a penalty they will take a one day suspension from the exercise of their pastoral office and will voluntarily take the day of suspension without pay.”

Orendorff recommended to Bishop Hagiya that “the complaints not go to trial unless the responders [Fear and Hutchins] fail to meet the penalty obligations within a timeframe specified by the Resident Bishop.”

In his memo to Bishop Hagiya, Orendorff claimed that the Revs. Sheahan and Parker “have refused to proceed with efforts attempting to find a ‘just resolution.’” He states: “My conversation with the complainants has been exhausted and they have stated they do not wish to continue seeking a ‘just resolution.’”

Both Sheahan and Parker told Good News that they were stunned by Orendorff’s characterization of the situation, especially since neither of them had been consulted before a so-called “just resolution” had been declared. “The decision to not certify a charge when the respondents have admitted guilt, is incredible,” Sheahan said. “Instead of forwarding a charge as prescribed by the Book of Discipline, Counsel for the Church became essentially the judge and jury by determining what a ‘just resolution’ would be.”

Despite the remarks of the Reverend Sheahan, I cannot find a provision in the current Discipline that mandates Church Counsel “forward” or “certify” a charge. (Under the 2008 Discipline, the Reverend Sheahan might have had a point concerning Church Counsel being required to contact the Committee on Investigation.)

The relevant complaint procedures begin in the current Discipline at ¶ 363. I’m not going to go through ¶ 363 in detail. I’ll just note that ¶¶ 363.1b and .1c cover the “supervisory response” and “just resolution.” (¶ 363.1c includes this sentence: “A process seeking a just resolution may begin at any time in the supervisory, complaint, or trial process.” This sentence was added by the 2012 General Conference via Calendar Item 347.) If at this stage resolution is not achieved within 90 days (and barring an approved extension), the bishop shall refer the matter to Church Counsel (¶ 363.1e(2)).

Upon referral, ¶ 2701 applies. This means that the complainant has fewer rights than during the supervisory response process. These rights are listed at ¶ 2701.1. Referral seems to “activate” ¶ 2704.2, which in my opinion does not override the sentence added in ¶ 363.1c concerning “A process seeking a just resolution may begin at any time …” In fact, the sentence at ¶ 363.1c was enacted one day after the revision to ¶ 2704.2. The more recently enacted disciplinary provision at ¶ 363.1c is controlling. ¶ 2707 provides further support for this interpretation.

Even if charges had been submitted to the presiding officer of a trial court, note that ¶ 2708.3 still allows for a just resolution upon recommendation of the presiding officer. Also note that ¶ 2708.3 does not require that the complainant be included in any such just resolution.

The complainants might be rather unhappy with Church Counsel. Unhappiness aside, I just can’t find any disciplinary provision violated by Church Counsel.

Concluding remarks

It’s interesting that the original post identified where the respondents (both elders in full connection) were appointed: Tacoma and Bellingham, WA. It failed to do the same for the complainants. Where are the complainants located?

The Reverend Parker, an elder in full connection, is appointed in Richland, WA. The Reverend Sheahan, a part-time local pastor, is appointed in Yakima, WA. According to Google, Yakima and Tacoma are 155 miles apart.

I don’t know the full story as to why pastors appointed over 100 miles away from other pastors filed complaints. I hope that there’s more to the story than someone acting out of a general confused view of enforcing some misunderstood rules.

Sometimes he is convinced that it is for the glory of God, or (which comes to the same) the good of his neighbour, that an evil should not be covered. In this case, for the benefit of the innocent, he is constrained to declare the guilty. But even here, (1.) He will not speak at all, till love, superior love, constrains him. (2.) He cannot do it from a general confused view of doing good, or promoting the glory of God, but from a clear sight of some particular end, some determinate good which he pursues. (3.) Still he cannot speak, unless he be fully convinced that this very means is necessary to that end; that the end cannot be answered, at least not so effectually, by any other way. (4.) He then doeth it with the utmost sorrow and reluctance; using it as the last and worst medicine, a desperate remedy in a desperate case, a kind of poison never to be used but to expel poison. Consequently, (5.) He uses it as sparingly as possible. And this he does with fear and trembling, lest he should transgress the law of love by speaking too much, more than he would have done by not speaking at all. (from John Wesley, Sermon 22: III.14)

I doubt I have measured up to Wesley’s solid advice. At the same time, I don’t hold myself up as worthy of licensed or ordained ministry.