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May 10, 2000 GC-051

Annual conferences bound by Discipline, court says

CLEVELAND (UMNS) – Affirming the Book of Discipline as the law of the United Methodist Church, the denomination’s Judicial Council ruled May 10 that annual (regional) conferences may not "legally negate, ignore, or violate" its provisions even when such disagreements are based upon conscientious objections.

The decision was the first of three in response to referrals during the church’s top legislative body meeting May 2-12. The Judicial Council, which serves as the denomination’s supreme court, is meeting during General Conference.

In a second case, the council said the General Conference had voided an election held May 8 by its own legislative action a day later.

The third ruling originated in one of the 10 legislative committees dealing with almost 2,000 proposals for different changes in denominational policy and procedures being considered by General Conference. In response to this question, the council has determined that any petition to give lay people voting rights in conference committees on investigation is unconstitutional.

Regarding the first issue, initially raised by North Georgia delegate Joe M. Whittemore, the council said the Discipline regulates every phase of the life and work of the church.

The series of questions referred to the council by the General Conference contained four questions. They asked how the covenant relationship of an annual conference and its clergy relate to church law; whether an annual conference ever can ignore the rule book; whether the church’s constitution contains a right to conscientious objections; and whether any circumstances could supersede the provisions of the Discipline.

Council member Sally Curtis AsKew, of Bogart, Ga., took no part in the decision. Council members typically recuse themselves from cases that originate with their annual conferences.

Two members wrote separate concurring opinions.

Evelynn S. Caterson, expressing a need to directly address the question about following one's conscience, said both Christianity and Methodism resound with people following God in challenges to the religious and secular status quo. She wrote that lay and clergy members have a right to violate the Discipline, but they are still subject to processes set forth in the book. "However, being 'subject to' the punitive provision of the law does not mean that one must be charged nor, if so charged, must be found guilty."

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe noted that the covenantal relationship between clergy and the annual conference is filled with love and respect and is binding. "As in any covenantal relationship, there will be honest differences of opinion and commitments," she observed. Expression of differences of opinion "are always an option," but when actions by a clergy person "are determined to be contrary to the Discipline, he or she is responsible for the consequences."

 

In the other matter referred from the General Conference, the council ruled that the delegates had voided the election of a person to serve the four remaining years of a council member's unexpired term. That occurred when the delegates approved legislation deleting the age limit on members of the Judicial Council. The existence of this rule had led to the belief that a vacancy would occur at the end of General Conference.

The Judicial Council sent for all the documents involved. The original petition contained a sentence that said: "This legislation becomes effective upon adoption." The legislative committee that handled the petition had not removed the stipulation. As a result, the council ruled that the passage of this legislation means that the vacancy does not exist.

The Rev. John G. Corry, whose term would have expired under the previous age limit, did not preside nor participate in the decision.

In the third decision, the council responded to a legislative committee question as to whether lay people who serve on a conference committee on investigation have voting rights and parity with clergy members. The court ruled that they do not. "Any petition seeking to give them voting rights and parity with clergy members of the committee is unconstitutional."

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-- Joretta Purdue

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