Church court deals with General Conference delay

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Key Points:

  • Three United Methodist annual conferences, including one in Africa, have asked the denomination’s highest court to rule on the ramifications of General Conference’s third postponement to now 2024. 
  • One big question: Will a new slate of delegates need to be elected to the lawmaking assembly?
  • The Judicial Council also faces more questions about church disaffiliations.

In its coming session, The United Methodist Church’s highest court faces multiple questions related to the delay of the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly to 2024. 

The Judicial Council also continues to deal with questions on how to handle church disaffiliations under church law.

The denomination’s top court plans to start deliberations on its 24-item fall 2022 docket this month. 

Since 2020, the pandemic has forced the Judicial Council — with nine members from Liberia, Mozambique, Norway and the U.S. — to do its work in a new way. Instead of gathering for a few days in one location, the Judicial Council has been meeting online throughout the year and publishing decisions as they are ready. The church court plans to resume in-person meetings next year. 

How delegate elections work

Typically, determining the number of General Conference delegates and who they will be is a multiyear process. 

Two or three years before the big meeting, the General Conference commission usually sets a rough estimate of the delegate count

The General Conference secretary then determines how many delegates each annual conference can elect based on a membership formula in the Book of Discipline with the goal of getting as close as possible to that target number. The membership statistics used in those calculations come from the most recent annual conference journals submitted to the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance and data agency.

Each annual conference then holds elections for the number of delegates allocated. Lay conference members vote for lay delegates and clergy vote for clergy delegates. Once elections are complete, the annual conference secretary submits the names and identifying information to the General Conference staff so work can begin on obtaining visas to the legislative meeting and making other travel arrangements. 

Half of the delegates elected must be laity and half clergy, but there is nothing to prevent annual conference voters from electing the same people as delegates to multiple General Conference sessions. 

In the meantime, three annual conferences have each asked the Judicial Council to rule on the ramifications of the much-delayed General Conference, the denomination’s big legislative meeting. 

Chief among the annual conferences’ questions is whether new delegates need to be elected to the coming General Conference, and if so, how many. 

The denomination’s 133 annual conferences are church regional bodies consisting of multiple congregations and other ministries. As the basic bodies of the denomination, they are responsible for electing the lay and clergy delegates who vote at General Conference.

The coming lawmaking assembly — usually held every four years — was scheduled initially for May 2020, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the meeting venue and forced postponement. Since then, the virus and resulting travel restrictions have continued to bedevil planning for the meeting that draws delegates from four continents and multiple time zones

Citing COVID-caused long waits for travel visas, the Commission on the General Conference voted earlier this year to delay the gathering a third time to 2024, the year when the next General Conference after 2020 already was supposed to take place. The commission has since specified that the next General Conference is scheduled for April 23-May 3, 2024, in Charlotte, North Carolina

The General Conference commission has long maintained that the 2020 legislative assembly is postponed and not cancelled. Based on that assessment, the commission argues that annual conferences do not need to hold new delegate elections for the delayed General Conference; nor does legislation already duly submitted to the assembly need to be resent.

However, a number of United Methodists are not so sure. The Alaska Conference has asked the Judicial Council to determine whether it’s legal under the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, for the General Conference commission to postpone the 2020 General Conference to 2024 and hold the postponed session in lieu of the regular session.  

In a similar vein, both the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and the Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference in eastern Africa each asked the church court whether the General Conference in 2024 should be seen as a regular session, rather than postponed, and what that means for delegate elections. 

The Kenya-Ethiopia Conference phrased the question this way: “If new delegates must be elected, will the number of delegates to be elected be based on the allocation of delegates for the 2020 General Conference or a revised allocation of delegates based on the formula for a regular 2024 General Conference?”

Earlier this year, the Judicial Council took up another question about General Conference’s delay, ruling that each postponement resets the deadlines for legislative petitions to be submitted to the body. The church court’s Decision 1429 essentially opens the door for more legislation to be considered than what was already before delegates elected to the 2020 General Conference. 

The coming General Conference already faced multiple proposals for denominational separation after decades of intensifying debate and defiance of United Methodist bans on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

But with the session’s third delay, a slow-motion separation is already under way with a number of congregations opting to use a Book of Discipline provision passed during the 2019 special General Conference that allows churches to leave the denomination with property if they meet certain financial and procedural conditions.

More on church court

General Conference elects the Judicial Council members and alternates. Four members are clergy and five laity. They serve on the church court as volunteers.

See the complete fall 2022 docket.

The provision, the Discipline’s new Paragraph 2553, only applies in the U.S. The 2019 special General Conference also established that legislation passed at the gathering would not take effect in central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — until 12 months after the coming General Conference. The church law is set to expire Dec. 31, 2023, months before the next General Conference is set to take place.

Since Paragraph 2553 took effect in 2019, more than 1,300 churches have used it as a pathway to withdraw from the denomination. That is still less than 5% of the more than 30,000 United Methodist churches in the U.S.

The Judicial Council has previously ruled on multiple questions related to Paragraph 2553. The church court also ruled that another measure in the Discipline, Paragraph 2548.2, deals solely with property and cannot be used as a pathway for church disaffiliations

The fall docket includes 10 more items related to disaffiliation. They all stem from issues raised during the 2022 U.S. annual conference season.

Bishops routinely face questions of law during the annual conference sessions at which they preside. The Book of Discipline requires that any bishop’s decision of law must go before the Judicial Council for review. 

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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