Top court releases October decisions

The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, addresses the Judicial Council on the question of whether the denomination’s top legislative assembly has the authority to expel a delegate for violating General Conference rules, regardless of whether a reserve delegate would be available to fill that vacancy. Photo by Diane Degnan, UMCom.
The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, addresses the Judicial Council on the question of whether the denomination’s top legislative assembly has the authority to expel a delegate for violating General Conference rules, regardless of whether a reserve delegate would be available to fill that vacancy. Photo by Diane Degnan, UMCom.

Clergy whose status has changed involuntarily have a right to file an appeal before any final action is taken by a clergy session, the United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled.

“Until the completion of the appellate process, claims of procedural errors are not resolved and the disciplinary question is not sufficiently clear to allow the clergy members in full connection of an annual conference to make a fair and informed decision,” said Decision 1361.

The clergy appeal item, which was the subject of an oral hearing, was among the topics considered by the denomination’s top court during its Oct. 23-26 meeting.

In another case, Judicial Council affirmed the constitutional authority of General Conference to remove a delegate, under certain provisions, for ethical violations. General Conference is the denomination’s top lawmaking body.

The meeting’s most anticipated ruling involved a review of legislative plans in the Commission on the Way Forward report. The court found the One Church Plan to be largely constitutional, but noted constitutional problems in the Traditional Plan. It declined to review the Connectional Conference Plan.

The Council of Bishops had asked Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on legislation adopted by the 2016 General Conference that sets out an order of appeals for a clergy member facing an administrative process, which often deals with questions of clergy competence and effectiveness.

During an Oct. 23 oral hearing on the matter, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the Council of Bishops president-designate, expressed concerns about the 2016 legislation.

“I believe the legislation is flawed and compromises the administrative fair process, which is non-bishop-centric but, in fact, peer-centric,” Harvey said. “It’s part of the covenant that we all enter into as clergy when we become accountable to one another.”

The bishops’ main concern is the timing of when an appeal takes place. “While an involuntary status can take effect, it can only be ratified by the clergy session. Therefore, it seems logical that an administrative appeal would only be allowed after the clergy session,” she said.

But the request for a declaratory decision by the bishops did not take into account the appeal process in the Book of Discipline, argued the Rev. Robert Zilhaver. The Book of Discipline is the denomination’s policy book, and Zilhaver is a district superintendent in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, which submitted the legislation in question.

The objective of the legislation adopted by General Conference is fair process, he told Judicial Council members during his presentation at the oral hearing.

The Rev. Kimberly Reisman, who chaired the General Conference committee that first approved the legislation, noted that the appeals process passed both the Judicial Administration Committee and plenary sessions with little debate. “Although it may need further refinement, I believe a degree of clarity was achieved in these paragraphs,” said Reisman, who is also the World Methodist Evangelism director.

The court’s decision bars a vote by the clergy session on a recommendation for an involuntary change of status when the appellate process has not yet been completed.

“A clergy member remains in good standing and is entitled to an appointment pending the outcome of the appellate process, except when the challenged action is in relation to discontinuance from provisional membership,” the decision said.

The Commission on General Conference, which plans the denomination’s top legislative assembly, had asked the church court whether that assembly has the authority to expel a delegate for violating General Conference rules, regardless of whether a reserve delegate would be available to fill that vacancy.

During an oral hearing, Stephanie Henry, the chair of the commission’s Rules Committee, told the court that infractions by delegates have been alleged since at least the 2008 General Conference. However, the 2016 General Conference marked the first time the assembly’s committee on ethics received a formal complaint.

“While the issue was resolved without any formal action being taken against the delegate, the committee on ethics discussed possible ramifications,” Henry said.

The other question was what an expulsion would mean for the representation of that delegate’s annual conference. The Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of the General Conference, noted that not every annual conference has reserve delegates.

“The removal of a delegate, if no reserve delegate is present, could take a delegation with a minimum of one clergy and layperson down to one delegate,” Graves said. “However, so could an emergency such as an illness or accident, a travel delay or even a delegate’s own choice not to attend a session for any of a variety of reasons.”

It is possible for General Conference to expel a delegate, the court ruled, if the total number of delegates is between 600 and 1,000 and each annual conference has at least one clergy and one lay delegate seated. If those requirements are met, it is “immaterial” whether a reserve delegate is seated, said Decision 1362.

In other items on the fall docket, the Judicial Council ruled on two requests to appeal a March 2018 decision of the North Central Jurisdiction on Appeals regarding the Rev. David Meredith, a Cincinnati pastor who faced complaints of violating church law after marrying a same-sex partner in 2016.

The jurisdictional appeals committee found that a West Ohio Conference investigative committee made errors of church law in dismissing some of the charges against Meredith and sent the case back to the conference. It also asked the conference to hold off on any further judicial proceedings until after the special General Conference, which focuses on issues of homosexuality, is completed at the end of February.

West Ohio’s church counsel appealed to the Judicial Council, challenging the authority of the appeals committee to order such a “pause” in the proceedings. In Memorandum 1367, the court continued the case until its February session in St. Louis and asked the church counsel to file an additional brief.

Meredith also appealed the ruling by the jurisdictional committee on appeals, but Judicial Council ruled in Memorandum 1368 that he did not have standing to do so.

In other actions, Judicial Council:

  • Deferred consideration of five docket items until the court’s Feb. 19-22 meeting in St. Louis.
  • Declared petitions related to mandatory registration fees for the 2019 Special General Conference to be moot because the fees have been dropped.

Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York. Hahn is a UMNS writer based in Nashville.

Contact them at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umnews.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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