Law and History Review


The Use and Abuse of the Law: Public Opinion and United Methodist Church Trials of Ministers Performing Same-Sex Union Ceremonies

Christopher Waldrep 

Law in the United Methodist Church (UMC) is a product of democracy, written by elected delegates to a legislative body, recorded in a book entitled The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. As “a Book of Law,” the Book of Discipline is “the only official and authoritative Book of Law of The Methodist Church,” according to the Methodist Church's Judicial Council in a landmark 1953 ruling. Despite this declaration, the Judicial Council had no idea in 1953 that it had addressed a question that in 20 years would divide not just the Methodists, but Americans and American Christians generally. In the last 30 years of the twentieth century, controversies over homosexuality led American Christians into debates over the role law should play in their churches, while Americans as a whole debated the role churches should play in their law. United Methodist conservatives discovered that by rallying populist majorities to rewrite church law, they could then use church trials to roll back what they saw as excesses from the 1960s still plaguing American society. Writing any law is necessarily a political process, but in the UMC, church trials became political battlegrounds as well, contests to determine if rank-and-file clergy approved church rules against anything resembling a same-sex marriage.