Judicial Council OKs transgender pastor's appointment


By Neill Caldwell
United Methodist News Service

SAN FRANCISCO — The United Methodist Church’s supreme court has upheld a bishop’s decision that a pastor who changed gender from female to male remains eligible to serve the church.

In combining two separate docket items related to the Rev. Drew Phoenix, pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baltimore, the Judicial Council stated that it was not ruling on whether changing gender is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards set by the church’s legislative body, the General Conference. Rather, the court said “a clergyperson’s standing cannot be terminated without administrative or juridical action having occurred and all fair process being accorded.”

“The adjective (in this case, ‘transgender’) placed in front of the noun ‘clergyperson’ does not matter,” the court states in Decision 1074. “What matters is that clergypersons, once ordained and admitted to membership in full connection, cannot have that standing changed without being accorded fair process.”

Because Phoenix is a clergy member in good standing, the ruling means Phoenix will continue to serve his church. The United Methodist Church bars practicing homosexuals from being ordained but has nothing in its polity about transgender persons.

In other decisions related to sexuality issues, the council ruled that a Minnesota Annual Conference plan for providing health benefits for domestic partners does not violate the church’s Book of Discipline.

The Judicial Council meeting also was notable for the absence of its president, Dr. Jim Holsinger. As President George W. Bush’s nominee for U.S. surgeon general, Holsinger said his participation could become an “unnecessary and unproductive distraction” to the court’s proceedings.

Holsinger is awaiting confirmation as the country’s top doctor as the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee awaits answers to follow-up questions posed to him in August on his views on homosexuality. His nomination has drawn opposition from gay rights groups, among others.

The council ruled that candidates for the church’s General Conference and jurisdictional conferences cannot be compelled to disclose their view on controversial issues. In Decision 1083, the council declared a motion adopted by the Memphis Annual Conference unconstitutional because it directed the annual conference to create a survey for prospective candidates.

The Judicial Council also rules that the standing rule of the South Carolina Annual Conference – which delegates the nomination of the conference secretary exclusively to the bishop and cabinet without any input of the annual conference – conflicts with Paragraph 603.7 of the Book of Discipline. The court directed the conference to correct the rule.

The council will meet next during the 2008 General Conference, set for April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth.