Delegate Sara Ann Swenson (left) of Minnesota presses her voting keypad to her lips while awaiting results of a vote on the United Methodist Church's stance on sexuality during the denomination's 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. At center is fellow delegate the Rev. Bruce Robins. Photo by Mike DuBose/courtesy United Methodist News Service

Methodist court sidesteps changes to gay policies

Delegate Sara Ann Swenson (left) of Minnesota presses her voting keypad to her lips while awaiting results of a vote on the United Methodist Church's stance on sexuality during the denomination's 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. At center is fellow delegate the Rev. Bruce Robins. Photo by Mike DuBose/courtesy United Methodist News Service

Delegate Sara Ann Swenson (left) of Minnesota presses her voting keypad to her lips while awaiting results of a vote on the United Methodist Church's stance on sexuality during the denomination's 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla. At center is fellow delegate the Rev. Bruce Robbins. Photo by Mike DuBose/courtesy United Methodist News Service


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) The United Methodist Church’s highest court issued three rulings this weekend that do not change church policy toward gays and lesbians but allow bishops to accept resolutions expressing dissent from church teachings.

The Judicial Council affirmed a resolution approved by New York Bishop Martin McLee that celebrates congregations and individuals that “provide for the pastoral needs of same-sex couples within the United Methodist Church.”

It said that the resolution is “aspirational,” and does not call for action that contradicts the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist book of doctrine and laws, which defines homosexual conduct as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The court also affirmed a California-Pacific Annual Conference resolution that calls for operating as if church law regarding homosexuality does not exist.

The ruling noted that members of the denomination, as well as regional bodies, might disagree on issues such as health care, gun control and other matters.

“While doing so might theologically imperil or weaken the church, it is not an illegal action under Church law,” the council wrote.

Bishop Melvin Talbert joined 13 other United Methodist bishops at a gathering on May 4 outside the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida, where they showed their support for clergy in the denomination who choose to officiate at religious weddings of same-sex couples. Doing so is a violation of church rules, but Talbert said he preferred Biblical obedience even if it meant ecclesiasical disobedience. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/courteys UMNS

Bishop Melvin Talbert joined 13 other United Methodist bishops at a gathering on May 4 outside the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla., where they showed their support for clergy in the denomination who choose to officiate at religious weddings of same-sex couples. Doing so is a violation of church rules, but Talbert said he preferred biblical obedience even if it meant ecclesiastical disobedience. Photo by Paul Jeffrey/courtesy United Methodist News Service


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The court also required Bishop James Dorff of Southwest Texas to rule within 60 days “on the merits” of a question about the ordination eligibility of a lesbian clergy candidate. The case does not address the candidate’s sexuality.

But the court also voided a resolution calling for a 24-hour suspension for bishops that ordain gays, which the denomination does not allow. According to the Book of Discipline, the trial court jury has the exclusive right to set penalties for those found guilty of chargeable offenses.

The Judicial Council rulings were published on the United Methodist website Saturday (Oct. 26), the same day retired Bishop Melvin Talbert presided at a same-sex marriage in Alabama. Talbert is the only bishop to publicly commit such an action. The Rev. Frank Schafer of Lebanon, Pa., will be tried Nov. 18 for officiating at a same-sex wedding, and several other trials are likely soon.

Matt Berryman, executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, which affirms gays, said the rulings will have little impact on inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United Methodist Church.

“The Judicial Council rulings are essentially rulings on procedural arguments and do not reach the merits of the deeper argument underlying the actions,” he said.

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