Bishop Tuell, church law expert, dies at 90


(Memorial Information)

Retired Bishop Jack M. Tuell, a widely respected expert of United Methodist church law, died Friday, Jan. 10. He was 90.

“He will be considered one of the two or three giants of our council (of bishops) in the latter part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century,” said retired Bishop William B. Oden, a longtime friend, who now resides in Santa Fe, N.M.

Greater Northwest Area Bishop Grant Hagiya added, “Bishops like him only come around once in a lifetime.”

As bishop, Tuell presided over the Portland Episcopal Area from 1972 to 1980, the Los Angeles Area from 1980 to 1992 and retired to the Seattle area.

Bishop Jack TuellHe was president of two general agencies — the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns and the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits. He delivered the episcopal address at the 1988 General Conference and served as president of the Council of Bishops from 1989 to 1990.

Tuell was influential in The United Methodist Church’s ecumenical work, both as president of the denomination’s ecumenical agency and later as part of the United Methodist/Evangelical Lutheran Church in America dialogue that eventually led to full communion between the two denominations.

But perhaps Tuell is best known across the connection as the author of “The Organization of The United Methodist Church,” which has helped generations of United Methodists better understand church governance and structure. “It was a book used in most polity classes in our seminaries,” Oden said.

Starting in the 1970s, Tuell took on the task from the late Bishop Nolan Harmon of revising the primer after each General Conference to include changes the assembly made to the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book. His most recent edition was after the 2008 gathering of the lawmaking body. He also published an autobiography, “From Law to Grace.”

Until two years ago, he also taught United Methodist polity at Jesuit-related Seattle University School of Theology. “Thousands of UMC students have learned from him,” Hagiya said.

Hagiya said he often would call on Tuell for advice. Tuell spent his retirement years living so close to the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference office he could see Hagiya’s car and even told the younger bishop when his lights were on.

“He possessed a brilliant mind and knew our UMC system inside and out,” Hagiya said. “I am going to miss him the most for his wise counsel and gentle spirit.”

The Rev. Bruce Robbins, a retired Minnesota pastor and former top executive of the denomination’s ecumenical agency, considered Tuell a mentor and said he already misses Tuell’s guidance.

“He was the person I would turn to to help me understand all of the complexity of how justice and theology come together in the Book of Discipline, and how we need to interpret it as God calls us,” Robbins said. “And he, more than anyone else I knew, gave the most thought to that process.”

Keen legal mind, deep spirituality

Born in Tacoma, Wash., Tuell graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor of science and a law degree. He practiced law for two years before answering the call to become clergy in the Pacific Northwest Conference.

He  eventually attended the Boston University School of Theology, where he was awarded the Jacob Sleeper Fellowship and graduated summa cum laude. He returned to his home state where he pastored local congregations and served as a district superintendent.

His early experience as a lawyer served him in good stead throughout his ministry, friends say.

Tuell was among the rare group of United Methodist leaders who served in all three of the denomination’s top governing bodies.

He was an alternate member of the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, from 1964 to 1968 (although he never ruled in a case); a delegate to General Conference, the top legislative assembly, in 1964, ’68, ’70 and ’72, and a bishop — essentially a member of the denomination’s executive branch — starting in 1972.

He held these influential roles throughout the preparations and immediate aftermath of the 1968 Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren merger that formed The United Methodist Church.

He later argued cases in six oral hearings before the Judicial Council, said Sally Curtis AsKew, who was a Judicial Council member from 1988 to 2004, and now Judicial Council clerk. She remembered first seeing him speak at a hearing in April 1989, when he helped persuade the church court to reconsider a decision it had made the previous fall.

“That in itself was unusual,” AsKew said. The court ultimately sided with the Council of Bishops, which Tuell represented in the case.

“There was no question that he was very, very knowledgable about the Discipline and about the way the church operated,” AsKew said. “He came with a lot of understanding of legal procedure. And while there were differences between secular and United Methodist procedure, at the same time, there is some overlap.”

His fellow bishops relied on his expertise. AsKew noted that bishops often requested Tuell to sit nearby to help answer questions when their turns came to preside at General Conference sessions.

Bishops also asked Tuell to serve as presiding officer — the equivalent of a judge — at multiple church trials.

Changing views on homosexuality

As Tuell wrote on multiple occasions, the seventh trial at which he presided had “a profound impact” on his thinking regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Tuell in 1999 was the presiding officer at the trial of the Rev. Greg Dell, a Chicago pastor who was found guilty of officiating at the union of two men who were his congregants.

“Ecclesiastically speaking, the decision was correct. As I understand the spirit of God, it was wrong,” Tuell preached in a 2000 sermon at his home church in Des Moines, Wash.

After the Dell trial, he publicly advocated in sermons and statements for the denomination to eliminate its ban on clergy officiating at same-sex unions and the prohibition against “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. The Book of Discipline, since 1972, has said all people are of sacred worth, but “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

“I feel that his influence and reasoning has made a big difference on the prophetic stance that many of us hold on this issue,” Hagiya said. “It was not just an emotional issue for Bishop Tuell; rather it was a rational and intellectual change in his thinking. Great minds have the capacity for openness on many dimensions of our human condition, and Bishop Tuell believed in both his head and heart that this was one issue where we needed to change our UMC stance.”

Hagiya,  like Tuell, wants to see the Book of Discipline’s “incompatibility” language removed. But both he and those who disagreed with Tuell stressed that the bishop  always tried to be a bridge-builder.

“Bishop Tuell was a friend who could relate in an affirming way to persons with whom he disagreed, a statesman who served the church with his legal training,” said the Rev. Maxie Dunnam, retired chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and a founder of the Confessing Movement, which advocates maintaining the denomination’s stance on homosexuality. “We will miss him.”

Other changes sought

Tuell supported another change to the Book of Discipline.

“Bishop Tuell also was one of the earliest and most fervent supporters of creating the position of full-time president for the Council of Bishops,” said Oden, who also would like to see the change. “He began working on that in 1970 and never let it drop.”

At present, the council president serves a two-year term and retains a residential assignment to a geographic area. The Council of Bishops submitted a constitutional amendment to the 2012 General Conference that would have allowed the council to elect one of its own to a full-time, four-year position.

The bishops’ petition received majority support, but fell short of the two-thirds vote required of amendments to the denomination’s constitution. Oden noted that Tuell’s recommendation has been gaining support at each General Conference where it is introduced, and he expects the lawmaking body will see a similar proposal again.

Long-lasting legacy

While Tuell did not see all the changes he sought in church life come to fruition,  friends and admirers said, he leaves behind a legacy that will shape The United Methodist Church he loved.

“He was a quiet leader, a ‘gentle giant’ if you please, who took his stand firmly, with excellence, and competence,” said the Rev. Ralph Lawrence, a retired pastor in the Oregon-Idaho Conference, who credits Tuell’s support with helping continue 60 years of ministry without break. “I believe he will be seen in future years as one of the true prophets of The United Methodist Church.

Friends says the bishop’s wife of 67 years, Marjorie “Marji” Tuell was every bit his equal and partner in ministry. “Their love and devotion to each other was inspiring to all of us who had the opportunity to see them together,” Hagiya said.

A scholarship is named for Tuell and his wife at Alaska Pacific University, the institution that granted them both honorary doctorates in 1981. A fund in honor of the Tuells also has been created at the School of Theology at Claremont to be used for future scholarships.

The Pacific Northwest Conference has opened the Bishop Jack and Marjorie Tuell Center for Leadership Excellence , which aims to nurture clergy and lay members to lead congregations toward vitality.

Tuell is survived by his wife; their three children, Jacqueline T. Joday, Cynthia D. Edwards, and James Knowles Tuell; and five grandchildren.

Memorial Information

Two memorial services will be held to celebrate the life and ministry of Bishop Jack M. Tuell. The first will take place on Saturday, January 25, at 2:30 pm, at Wesley Homes in the Terrace Auditorium, 816 S. 216th Street, Des Moines, WA. A second service will be held on Sunday, January 26, at 2:30 pm, at Des Moines United Methodist Church also in Des Moines, WA, at 22225 9th Avenue South.

Cards may be sent to Marji Tuell at 816 South 216th St. #637, Des Moines, WA  98198. Memorials may go to the Claremont School of Theology to support scholarship aid in the Tuell's name, or to the Wesley Homes Foundation's Circle of Concern, supporting housing for residents who have outlived their resources through no fault of their own.