Church court: Conferences can’t exit unilaterally

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Key Points:

  • The Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s top court, ruled that current church law doesn’t allow U.S. annual conferences to leave the denomination. 
  • The church court said that annual conferences have a right to vote on disaffiliation, but only General Conference can set the process for doing so. 
  • The ruling answers questions from the United Methodist bishops, who are dealing with the ramifications of a splintering in the denomination.

U.S. annual conferences have no authority under current church law to withdraw from The United Methodist Church, the denomination’s top court ruled.

“There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church,” the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1444.

The church court said only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — can set the process and conditions for these regional church bodies to leave the United Methodist connection. 

But as of now, General Conference has not established such a process for annual conferences within the U.S.

“Absent General Conference legislation, any vote and actions taken by an annual conference to separate are unconstitutional, null and void, and of no legal force or effect,” the Judicial Council said.

The church court released the ruling May 10 as U.S. annual conferences are about to begin their season of yearly meetings.

Separate opinion

Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part with the majority in Decision 1444. 

She argued that the Book of Discipline’s process to allow annual conferences outside the U.S. to become autonomous is not analogous to a disaffiliation.

She also said the majority opinion's framing suggests that annual conference disaffiliation is permissible under The United Methodist Church’s constitution and polity. 

“I fear that some will form the belief that with the correct enabling legislation the General Conference can legislate a process of annual conference ‘disaffiliation’ without any constitutional amendments,” she wrote. “I submit that such a belief would be misplaced.”

Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part. Capen concurred with the ultimate holding but approached the issue differently. 

The United Methodist constitution describes an annual conference as “the basic body” of the denomination. Each consists of multiple congregations and other ministries such as camps and college groups in a geographical area. The United Methodist Church has 53 annual conferences in the U.S., and 80 spread across Africa, Europe and the Philippines. A bishop presides at each annual conference. 

Decision 1444 responds to questions brought by the United Methodist Council of Bishops about U.S. annual conferences. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, has a lengthy process for conferences outside the United States to become autonomous.

The bishops are dealing with a splintering in the denominationAfter years of intensifying internal disputes around the status of LGBTQ people, the coming General Conference faces proposals for some kind of denominational separation including the disaffiliation of annual conferences. However, not one of these separation proposals has received a General Conference vote. 

Complications from the pandemic have caused three postponements of the international legislative assembly, from May 2020 to now 2024. With the third postponement, some theological conservatives decided to stop waiting for General Conference action and instead launched a breakaway denomination — the Global Methodist Church — on May 1. 

But with no General Conference-approved separation plan in effect, the bishops asked whether U.S. annual conferences can leave under current church law.

As the Judicial Council notes, resolutions already have been filed in at least two U.S. annual conferences — Northwest Texas and South Georgia — seeking their disaffiliation. The Northwest Texas Annual Conference, which encompasses the Texas Panhandle, held a nonbinding vote last year signaling its aspirations to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council rejected arguments made in some briefs that an annual conference should be able to set its own rules for departure. Without enabling legislation passed by General Conference, the church court said, an annual conference disaffiliation “is contrary to Church law.”

New Judicial Council docket item

The Judicial Council has added to its docket a question concerning the legality of a Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference resolution. The resolution stated that the annual conference “withdraws from and severs all ties, legal or otherwise, with The United Methodist Church as of 1 May 2022 and immediately becomes an annual conference of the Global Methodist Church… .” 

Opening briefs are due June 13, and reply briefs on June 24.

See docket item

Read Judicial Council rules and guidelines for brief submissions.

Annual conferences elect General Conference delegates, deal with matters related to clergy ordination, manage church discipline and, in the U.S., serve as pension plan sponsors for their clergy members. Annual conferences also are responsible for handling the disaffiliations of individual United Methodist congregations

They are part of The United Methodist Church’s connectional form of church governance and any separation has “serious ramifications” for both the departing annual conference and beyond its boundaries, the Judicial Council said.

“The question of annual conference withdrawal from The United Methodist Church is a connectional matter and requires a churchwide legislative solution primarily because General Conference has ‘full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional,’” the church court said, quoting the United Methodist constitution. 

Church law already spells out how an annual conference “outside the United States” can become “an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist or affiliated united church.”

The bishops asked if this process, in the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 572, can be viewed “as minimum standards” for any annual conference disaffiliation. The Judicial Council said “no” since the paragraph only applies to conferences outside the United States. “There is no parallel provision or process for U.S. annual conferences,” the church court said.

In Decision 1444, the Judicial Council also expanded on part of one of the court’s earlier rulings. Decision 1366, from 2018, repeatedly came up in briefs arguing that conferences should be able to set their own rules for exits. 

The Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference also referenced Decision 1366 in a resolution to leave The United Methodist Church for the Global Methodist Church — a move that now has led to another item on the Judicial Council docket.  

In that earlier ruling, the church court was reviewing the constitutionality of proposed legislation going to the special 2019 General Conference. The decision said a proposal that set up a procedure for annual conferences to become self-governing was in line with the denomination’s constitution. 

“An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church,” Decision 1366 said. “This reserved right, however, is not absolute but must be counterbalanced by the General Conference’s power to ‘define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences.’”

However, the particular proposal under review in Decision 1366 never became church law. It was part of a longer petition that died in committee at the 2019 General Conference

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In short, General Conference has not approved any legislation that provides a process for U.S. annual conferences to exit The United Methodist Church. 

“While an annual conference has the reserved right to vote on disaffiliation, the General Conference must first enact enabling legislation to establish the right to withdraw but has not done so for U.S. conferences,” the Judicial Council said in Decision 1444. 

“Decision 1366 cannot be construed as creating a self-executing right for an annual conference to separate because the Judicial Council has no legislative authority.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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