Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 42
April 22 1947
In Re: Executive Sessions of Annual Conference Excluding Lay Members; Constitutionality of Paragraph 646, Discipline 1944
Digest of Case
The provisions of Paragraph 646, Discipline 1944, permitting an Annual Conference to "order an Executive Session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character and Conference relations," held to be Constitutional.
Statement of Facts
HISTORY OF THE CASE For a statement of the history of this case reference is made to Judicial Council Discipline 37. The case was previously sent up to the Judicial Council in the year 1946, as a petition or request by the Southern California-Arizona Conference asking for a Declaratory Discipline involving the constitutionality of Paragraph 646, Discipline 1944. The Judicial Council then held for the reasons set out in Discipline 37, that it bad no jurisdiction to render Declaratory Disciplines in response to appeals from an Annual Conference. At the meeting of the Council of Bishops held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, September 12, 1946, the following action was taken: "In accordance with the provisions of Paragraph 43, Article 2, Section 1 of the 1944 Discipline, the Council, in response to the request of the Southern California-Arizona Conference as communicated in a letter from its Secretary, W. C. Botkin, dated July 18, 1946, voted to appeal to the Judicial Council to determine the constitutionality of Paragraph 646 of the Discipline of The Methodist Church which provides that an Annual Conference 'may order an Executive Session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations,' in the light of the following Resolution adopted by the Southern California-Arizona Conference, and appearing on Pages 49 and 50 of the 1945 Journal of that Conference:" Then follows the identical Resolution formerly presented to us by the Southern California-Arizona Conference. The manner in which it is now presented is according to one of the legal methods, and we therefore assume jurisdiction. SOME STATEMENTS, AND AN EXAMINATION OF THE PARAGRAPH IN QUESTION (1) The language of the Constitution of The Methodist Church, Section VII, Paragraph 21, Article 1, seems to make clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the membership of an Annual Conference consists of the ministers in full connection thereof, together with one layman from each pastoral charge of said Conference, provided he meets certain specified requirements. The matter of meeting these requirements is not in controversy in this case. (2) We cannot be sure what meaning the General Conference attached to the phrase, "Executive Session," in Paragraph 646. Neither in "Robert's Rules of Order," nor in the rules governing procedure of the General Conference of The Methodist Church, is any reference made to such a session. In Webster's "New International Dictionary" an "Executive Session" is defined as that "of an executive council, as of the United States Senate, when considering appointments or the ratification of treaties," and an executive council is defined, by the same authority, as "a body of men constituted to give advice to, or exercise some control over, the executive." It may be that some other authority gives some other or additional, definition, but if so, we have been unable to find it. If the General Conference meant this, the language in Paragraph 646 is very inadequate and greatly needs clarification. But there has grown up a commonly accepted definition, just how and by what authority we do not know, that an "Executive Session" is one from which all but its own membership is excluded, and the Southern California-Arizona Annual Conference has interpreted the phrase, "an Executive Session of the ministerial members," to mean that its lay members are not only not to have a vote on "questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations" (a constitutional provision according to Paragraph 22 of the 1944 Discipline), but that they are to have no voice on such "questions," and not even to be present when such a Session is held. Does this infringe upon the constitutional rights of the laymen of that Conference or any other where such procedure may be in vogue? In other words, is that part of Paragraph 646 which reads as follows: "Provided that theConference may order an Executive Session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations," contrary to Paragraph 21, a part of the Constitution, which says that "an Annual Conference shall be composed of all the traveling preachers in full connection with it, together with a lay member elected by each pastoral charge"? Is such a session of its ministerial members illegal and its actions null and void? (3) Let us examine rather closely the 646th Paragraph in its entirety. "Inquiries shall be made in the open Conference as to whether all the ministerial members of the Conference are blameless in their life and official administration." We call attention to the fact that if the Conference chooses the "open session" method, it is obligatory (the word used is "shall," not may) to make these inquiries "in the open Conference." The Paragraph then goes on to point out two methods by which the open Conference may arrive at a DisciplineThe above brings us to a consideration of: (A) The right of an Annual Conference to choose the medium through which it will "consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations" of its ministerial members. (1) No one questions its right to an open session wherein "inquiries shall be made as to whether all the ministerial members of the Conference are blameless in their life and official administration," nor does any one question its right to choose between the two methods outlined in the first part of Paragraph 646, by means of which that end may be attained. (2) Does it have a right to choose such a closed session as is provided for in the latter part of Paragraph 646? We think it does, and for the following reasons: (a) It is a choice of the entire membership, laymen as well as ministers. It is not an arbitrary rule imposed by a particular bloc of the membership, but the result of the adoption of a motion which is subject to debate and upon which all members who choose to do so, may vote. Even if it has been made a Standing Rule, it may be revised at any annual session. If parliamentary rules should obstruct a motion to reconsider or amend, one to rescind, repeal or annul can be offered, motions which bring up the entire matter, are debatable, yield to all privileged and incidental motions, and to which all the subsidiary motions may apply, (See Robert's Rules of Order.) This would seem to give the Conference as a whole ample opportunity to express its desire. It has been objected that the ministers in an Annual Conference outnumber the laymen and can thus impose their will upon the latter: First, we doubt whether that assertion can be universally supported. It may be true of some Conferences, the Southern California-Arizona, as far as we can determine by the General Minutes, being one in evidence. But neither the preachers on trial, nor local preachers acting as supplies have a vote, and in many Annual Conferences they, taken together, will outnumber the retired preachers (many of whom do not attend), members of General Boards, etc., etc., so that if there be present a duly elected layman from each pastoral charge, the laymen will have approximately equal voting strength with the ministers-sometimes greater strength. Of course, if a great number of them neglect to attend the session to which they have be accredited, some things may be done of which they do not approve, but under such circumstances a plea that their constitutional rights have been invaded cannot be sustained. Second, this objection rests on the supposition that all the preachers will vote alike and all the laymen alike. That is a pretty far-fetched supposition. We have never seen "rugged individualism" more rampant, upon the part of both ministry and laity, than in an Annual Conference. Methodist polity may not be as independent as that of Baptist, but Methodist people are about as independent in their thinking and acting as anybody we know, and have a confirmed habit of sooner or later breaking up blocs, whether of ministers or laymen, with complete ruthlessness and happy abandon. Third, if worse comes to worst, there is always the vote by orders, which equalizes any discrepancy in numbers. We cannot see that the rights of either ministers or laymen are jeopardized if the Conference orders such a closed session as is set out in the latter part of Paragraph 646. (B) The Annual Conference is competent to designate, if it so chooses, a particular group of its membership to perform for it a specific item of business. That is exactly what it does when it chooses to order an Executive, i.e., a closed session, composed of its ministerial members only. That group then occupies a position equivalent to an Executive Committee to which has been referred a matter with power to act. This power to act is, in this case, enhanced and made imperative by the Constitution of the Church which says: "Laymembers may not vote on matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations of ministers." (Paragraph 22 of the Discipline.) The Conference, voting as a whole, ministers and laymen, has chosen to perform this part of its business through those designated and without either the presence or voice of any outside this group. That it should designate this part of its membership to act for it, is wholly a matter of its own choice. It could have chosen the open session. It chose the closed one, with all implications involved clearly before it. It goes without saying that if this group goes beyond the bounds specifically assigned it, viz., "to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character, and Conference relations," its actions are null and void. It would thereby exceed the authority committed to it by the choice of the Conference. But as long as it confines itself to a consideration of, and action upon, the matters set forth, its session is as legal as any other of the daily sessions of the Annual Conference. It is the Conference in action through a method which it has chosen, and which method is not in conflict with either the Constitution or the Laws of the General Conference. Moreover: in the final analysis, the question of whether or not lay membersof the Annual Conference have a constitutional right to be present and participate in the discussions in the Annual Conference relating "to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members, and on the ordination of ministers" even though they have no right to vote on such matters, may be and perhaps should be determined solely from the language and implications of Article II, Section VII of the Constitution (Paragraph 22, 1944 Discipline) the only article in the Constitution relating to the subject under consideration. It appears significant that the only right sought to be protected by that Article with reference to several matters is the right to vote. Note the language of the Article: "The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church, and as such shall have reserved to it the right to vote . . ." To vote on what? First, to vote on "all constitutional amendments." Second, to vote "on the election of ministerial and lay delegates to the General and the Jurisdictional and Central Conferences." Third, to vote "on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members, and on the ordination of ministers." Thus the Constitution does not specifically provide that either ministerial members or lay members shall have the right to be present and participate in the discussions relating to any of these matters on which the right to vote is reserved to the Annual Conference. It is argued, and is here conceded, that the right to vote carries with it an inherent right to be present and participate in the discussions leading up to such vote. On the other hand, and by the same token, the specific denial to a group of the right to vote on a given question negatives any presumption of an inherent right in the members of that group to be present and participate in the discussions leading up to such vote. The same Article of the Constitution (Paragraph 22, 1944 Discipline) specifically denies to the lay members of the Annual Conference the right to vote on "matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members and on ordination of ministers." We believe that this Constitutional denial of the right to vote on these matters precludes any inference that the lay members of the Annual Conference have an inherent or Constitutional right to be present and participate in the discussions relating to such matters. This same article reserves to the Annual Conference "such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution." That appears to be sufficient Constitutional authority for the Annual Conference, the basic body of the Church, to adopt its own method of procedure in voting upon a matter specifically reserved to the Annual Conference. At least there is no such clearly defined Constitutional right given to the lay members of the Annual Conference in relation to such matters as would justify the striking down as unconstitutional an Act of the General Conference granting to the Annual Conference, the basic body of the Church, the right to regulate its procedure in connection with a matter on which the lay members of the Annual Conference are, by the Constitution itself, specifically denied the right to vote. We cannot refrain from saying that in our judgment Paragraph 646, as at present framed, is ambiguous and ought to be rewritten, but we can find no logical ground for declaring it unconstitutional. We therefore give it as our opinion that it is Constitutional, and that sessions of an Annual Conference held under its provisions are legal sessions. April 23, 1947.
Dissenting Decision by H. R. Van Deusen The majority opinion very scholarly and able document-makes a careful analysis of Paragraph 646, pointing out the different procedures that may be followed by Annual Conference in the performance of the powers reserved to it by the Constitution (Paragraph 22, Discipline 1944) "on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members, and on ordination of ministers." It is pointed out that one of the alternate procedures which Paragraph 646 seems to provide is found in the last clause which reads "provided that the Conference may order an Executive Session of the ministerial members to consider questions relating to matters of ordination, character and Conference relations," and this is interpreted to mean that such an Executive Session may be called only by a vote of the entire Annual Conference including both lay and ministerial members. Thus, it is argued, the lay members are not deprived of any rights they may have as members of the Annual Conference, if the Conference by a majority of the body including both lay and ministerial members votes to adopt this method. The basic fallacy of this argument seems to be that this procedure assumes that the Annual Conference can delegate the exercise of one of its most important rights and duties to an Executive Committee, or an Executive Session, or some other segment of its membership. This right is one of the most important rights reserved to the Annual Conference, and when action is taken, after the report of Committees or otherwise, irrespective of the voting rights, the action must be by the Annual Conference as a body, and not by a segment thereof. Therefore, the lay members being an integral part of the Annual Conference, as such Constitutional members they may not be prevented from being present and participating in every session of the Conference, including participating in a discussion of matters affecting the ordination, character and Conference relations of ministers. It, therefore, should be held that the General Conference had no power to enact the provision contained in the last paragraph of Paragraph 646, and that the same is unconstitutional. Dr. G. W. Henry joins in the foregoing dissent, April 24, 1947.