Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 7
May 04 1940
In Re: Constitutionality of Provision Fixing Retirement Age of Ministers
Digest of Case
The legislation enacted by the 1940 General Conference providing for automatic retirement of clerical members of Annual Conferences whose 72nd birthday precedes the first day of the regular session of the Annual Conference (Paragraph 231, Discipline 1940), is constitutional, as it is a general principle of constitutional construction that legislation must be upheld unless it is clearly in conflict with the Constitution interpreted as a whole. The matter of uniform regulations for retirement of Ministers is a connectional matter, and as such it is a subject over which the General Conference under the Constitution has legislative power.
Statement of Facts
At the session of the General Conference held May 3, 1940, there was adopted the following: Amend the Discipline of 1939 by adding another article to be known as Article 2, to Paragraph 230 at the close of Article 1 to read as follows: Every clerical member of an Annual Conference whose 72nd birthday precedes the first day of the regular session of his Annual Conference shall automatically be retired from the active ministry at said Conference session. This action is to become effective with the Annual Conferences of 1942. Immediately thereafter the determination of the constitutionality of this enactment was appealed to the Judicial Council by the vote of more than one fifth of the members of the General Conference.
In behalf of those contending that this act is unconstitutional, it is urged that the question is answered by Article II of Section VII of the Constitution, Paragraph 22, of the 1939 Discipline as follows: The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church, and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on all constitutional amendments, on the election of Ministerial and Lay delegates to the General and the Jurisdictional or Central Conferences, on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members, and on the ordination of ministers, and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution, with the exception that the Lay members may not vote on matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations of Ministers. It shall discharge such duties and exercise such powers as the General Conference under the Constitution may determine. On the other hand, the proponents of the constitutionality refer to Article II of Section I of the Constitution, Paragraph 8 of the 1939 Discipline as follows: Article IV. The General Conference shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional, and in the exercise of said power shall have authority as follows:To define and fix the qualifications and duties of Elders, Deacons, Supply Preachers, Local Preachers, Exhorters, and Deaconesses. To define and fix the powers and duties of Annual Conferences, Mission Conferences, and Missions, and of District, Quarterly and Church Conferences. It therefore becomes necessary to construe the different sections of the Constitution, having in mind the general principle of constitutional construction that legislation enacted under any grant of power must be upheld unless it is clearly in conflict with the Constitution interpreted as a whole. In the construction of the Constitution as a whole we must also read Article III, Division 2, Paragraph 4, of the 1939 Discipline, as follows: There shall be a General Conference for the entire Church with such powers, duties and privileges as are hereinafter set forth. It is important to bear in mind in considering what may appear to be the inconsistent wording of these different portions of the Constitution, that much of Paragraph 22 was taken from the 1932 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, wherein the powers of the Annual Conference (which was then composed of the clerical members only) were outlined as against those of the Lay Conference composed of lay members; and therefore must be interpreted with that connotation. The question at issue seems to be as to whether or not the fixing of the retirement age for ministers is a connectional matter. It must be conceded that the General Conference is the supreme legislative body of The Methodist Church and has been specifically empowered to legislate on all matters distinctively connectional. The Constitution specifically enumerates many items over which the General Conference shall have such authority in legislating, so as to make all such matters uniform throughout the Church. It is unnecessary to mention all the subjects which have been so included in the legislative program of the General Conference, but it is sufficient to name only fixing of educational qualifications of ministers, location of ministers, minimum age limit for retirement, and similar matters. What was meant by the term "diconnectional" put into our Constitution has another historical aspect. In each of the three Churches when a minister completed all the requirements and was admitted into the Conference, he was "admitted into full connection." That meant that while his membership was in the Conference so receiving him, his relationship was a "connectional" one and that he was eligible for transfer elsewhere into the "connection." If, therefore, joining the Conference was a "connectional" matter, surely retirement from active service is likewise a connectional matter. It can hardly be denied that the age of a minister is a continuing qualification, and as such is the subject matter for legislation. It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to "vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members," is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up. standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference. Thus as it is held that General Conference is the only body that can legislate for the "entire Church," and has the specific authority to legislate on "all matters distinctively connectional," and since it is also held that the matter of uniform regulations for retirement of ministers is a connectional matter then it must follow that authority to enact such laws is vested in the General Conference. Therefore by applying the well-established rule of construing an instrument as a whole, it must be held that two portions of the Constitution in question are not conflicting, but that each applies to separate and distinct matters. It follows then that the addition to Paragraph 230 as adopted by the General Conference is constitutional, and we so hold. All members concur except J. S. French who files herewith a dissenting opinion. May 5, 1940. Dissenting Decision of J. S. French Up to the time when the delegated General Conference was established, the Annual Conferences had all power. The General Conference of that day was a mass convention of the entire ministry of the Church in full connection. There are no terms too broad or too high to express the unlimited powers which belonged to it. But upon the establishment of such a delegated body, the Annual Conferences committed to it "full powers to make rules and regulations for our Church under the following limitations and restrictions." Then follow the six Restrictive Rules. It may be said frankly and without reserve that nowhere in these Rules is there a limitation on the General Conference which would prevent it passing a retirement age for ministers, such as in Report No. 11 of the Committee on Ministry. Up to the time when what was Paragraph 63 (Annual Conferences) in the Discipline of 1936 of the former Methodist Episcopal Church, was passed, and to the time of the Uniting Conference in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, such legislation would have been entirely constitutional in these respective bodies. But we are no longer governed by those Constitutions, but by the Plan of Union, which has been declared to be our Constitution and under which, by constitutional methods adhering in the respective Churches, the union of the Churches was legally effected. In this Constitution, it is plainly declared that "the Annual Conference is the basic body of the Church, and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote on all constitutional amendments, on the election of Ministerial and Lay delegates to the General and the Jurisdictional or Central Conferences, on all other matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its Ministerial members" (Paragraph 22, Discipline of 1939, a part of the Constitution), and it fixes it the more firmly in its rights in this respect by affirming that only ministers may vote on such relations, thus eliminating the possibility of a General Conference passing such legislation as is here contemplated since it is composed of laymen in equal number with ministers and no restrictions are laid upon them in their voting. In fact, this legislation was passed with laymen voting. It has been contended that under Paragraph 8, Sections 2 and 3, the General Conference has a constitutional right to pass such an act. But this Article IV, Paragraph 8, gives to the General Conference "full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional," and only by an accommodation of language utterly foreign to any rule of interpretation can it be said that the matter of deciding Annual Conference relations is connectional. It is purely local. Sections 2 and 3 plainly deal only with connectional, not local matters i.e., to "define and fix the qualifications and duties of Elders, Deacons," etc., which are to be the same everywhere-i.e., to lay down rules regarding educational and moral and other qualifications for these orders and classes in the Church. Section 3 affirms that the General Conference is to "define and fix the powers and duties of Annual Conferences," etc., but in doing so it plainly cannot fly in the face of a clear affirmation that only the Annual Conference, as the "basic body of the Church," has the power to vote on the "Conference relations of its Ministerial members," and only its ministerial members vote on such a matter. It may be argued that this matter in Paragraph 22 (which has just been quoted), was brought into the Constitution from the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church when the Lay Conference was established in order to confine ministerial Conference relations to a vote of ministers, and that a vote is all the Annual Conference has. But the right to vote inevitably carries with it, in any but a despotic government, the right to decide, and by whatever means or for whatever purpose, it was introduced into the Constitution, this right of the clerical members of an Annual Conference to determine the Conference relations of its ministerial members is in the Constitution and a vital part of the Plan of Union. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the action of the General Conference on May 3, 1940, with relation to above stated report of the Committee on Ministry, was unconstitutional.