Skip Navigation

Judicial Council Decisions Search


Decision No. 155

Back to Search

October 16 1958
In Re: Central Conference Powers with Respect to Full Clergy Rights for Women

Digest of Case

A Central Conference may not change General Conference legislation regarding the granting of full clergy rights for women. A Central Conference may not refuse to accept a woman who has been given full clergy rights by an Annual Conference. A bishop has the power to transfer a woman ministerial member of an Annual Conference to any other Annual Conference provided he has the consent of the bishop of the receiving Conference, and provided the ministerial member agrees to said transfer.

Statement of Facts

At a meeting of the General Conference Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas, action was taken to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council on the following questions: 1. May a Central Conference change General Conference legislation regarding the granting of full clergy rights for women? 2. May a Central Conference refuse to accept a woman who has been granted full clergy rights as a member of an Annual Conference when another Annual Conference has elected her a member of that Annual Conference? 3. Does a bishop have the power to transfer a woman member of an Annual Conference (having full clergy rights) to an Annual Conference which has refused to admit women into full clergy rights or has not considered the subject? Since Question No. 2 seemed somewhat unclear, the Secretary of the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas was asked to interpret more full its meaning. In reply to this request, the following statement was received from the Secretary. "By this question we mean, for example, if a woman were granted full clergy rights in one Central Conference could another Central Conference refuse to accept her or could the Central Conference in which she received full clergy rights in one annual conference refuse to permit her to be transferred to another annual conference in the same Central Conference in which women have not been accepted on the terms of full clergy rights?" JURISDICTION Under Paragraph 914 (2) of the 1956 Discipline, the General Conference Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas has the right to request a declaratory decision and therefore the Judicial Council has jurisdiction. ANALYSIS The General Conference Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas has requested a declaratory decision on three questions. We shall deal with them in order. The first of these is "May a Central Conference change General Conference legislation regarding the granting of full clergy rights for women?" We assume that by the phrase "change General Conference legislation" is meant to pass legislation of such a kind as to negate legislation on the same subject passed by the General Conference. Paragraph 303, adopted by the General Conference of 1956, reads as follows: "Women are included in all provisions of the Discipline referring to the ministry." Paragraph 562, of the 1956 Discipline, reads in part as follows: "A Central Conference . . . shall have power to decide the official status and ordination of women; provided that no action shall be taken which is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of The Methodist Church." The question at issue is whether or not a Central Conference, under the authority of Paragraph 562 quoted above, may pass legislation denying full clergy rights to women in contradiction to the legislation passed by the General Conference as recorded in Paragraph 303 granting women full clergy rights. Division two, Section 1, Article IV, of the Constitution of The Methodist Church provides that "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:. . . . . . . . . . . . . 2. To define and fix the qualifications and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters and deaconesses." The section of the Constitution quoted above clearly indicates that the General Conference has full legislative power concerning the qualifications for membership in an Annual Conference and ordination. In Decision No. 147 the Judicial Council held that "the General Conference cannot delegate its legislative powers or transfer to others the essential legislative functions with which it has been vested under the Constitution of The Methodist Church." Were a Central Conference to pass legislation denying full clergy rights to women when the General Conference has adopted specific legislation giving them these rights, the Central Conference would be assuming power to reject the essential legislation of the General Conference. The Judicial Council in Decision No. 147 declared that this a Central Conference cannot do. We here reiterate and confirm that opinion. A study of the history of the Central Conferences would seem to support the conclusion that no such sweeping power was intended to be given a Central Conference by the General Conference. Reference to a Central Conference, then called a Central Mission Conference, is found first in the Discipline of The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1884. Power was there given to a Central Mission Conference to "take under its supervision the Educational, Publishing and other Connectional interests and work as may be committed to it by the Annual Conferences or Missions; but never in contravention of the book of Discipline or Rules of the General Conference...... This provision remained in almost identical language in every Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1924. In that year additional powers were granted as follows: "A Central Conference shall have power to make such changes and adaptations as the peculiar conditions on the fields concerned require, regarding church membership, special advices, worship, and the local ministry and shall have power to decide the official status and ordination of women, provided that no action shall be taken which is contrary to the book of Discipline." In the Discipline of 1932 of the Methodist Episcopal Church, provision for Central Conferences is found for the first time in the Constitution, as the result of an amendment passed by the General Conference of 1928 and ratified by the Annual Conferences during the Quadrennium. However, the power granted to Central Conferences by General Conference legislation remained substantially the same and was still limited by the phrase "provided that no action shall be taken which is contrary to the Discipline." At the time of Union these provisions for Central Conferences were carried over into the new church, including the limitation of their power to actions not contrary to the general book of Discipline of The Methodist Church. The General Conference of 1944 raised a Commission to study the work of the Methodist Church Overseas and to recommend changes in legislation regarding that work. This Commission recommended a number of changes with respect to Central Conferences to the General Conference of 1948 through its Committee on Conferences. Among them was a change in the last sentence of Paragraph 578 which substituted the words "Constitution and the General Rules of The Methodist Church" for "the Discipline of The Methodist Church" so that the Paragraph now reads in part: "The Central Conference ... shall have power to decide the official status and ordination of women; provided that no action shall be taken which is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of The Methodist Church." This change was passed by the General Conference without any questions being asked from the floor as to its meaning or implications, and with no debate whatever. The question naturally arises, entirely apart from whether or not it has the right to delegate legislative power, as to whether the General Conference intended to make so radical a change and give such sweeping powers to a Central Conference which might involve legislation in direct contradiction to that passed by the General Conference, without asking for some explanation of the reasons therefor, or without some debate on the floor of the General Conference. It is our feeling that the General Conference did not so intend. For the reasons given above, our answer to question No. 1 is that a Central Conference may not pass legislation which will change that passed by the General Conference with respect to full clergy rights for women. The answer to question No. 2 as interpreted by the Secretary of the General Conference Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas is likewise in the negative. Section VII, Article II, which is paragraph 22 of the Constitution, reads in part as follows: "The Annual Conference is the basic body in the church, and as such shall have reserve to it the right to vote ... on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members, and on the ordination of ministers. . . ." Paragraphs 323 through 345 of the 1956 Discipline set forth the steps and the requirements which must be met by a candidate for admission into the membership of an Annual Conference. A Central Conference neither accepts nor can refuse to accept a minister whether that minister be a man or woman. This is a power reserved to an Annual Conference. The second part of the question as interpreted by the secretary asks whether a Central Conference can refuse to permit a woman who is a member of an Annual Conference to be transferred to another Annual Conference within the same Central Conference. A Central Conference has nothing whatever to do with the transfer of a member from one Annual Conference to another and therefore cannot refuse to permit a woman who is a member of an Annual Conference to be transferred to any other Annual Conference. The power to transfer a ministerial member from one Annual Conference to another is reserved to bishops as set forth in the answer to question 3 as indicated below. Question No. 3 reads as follows: "Does a bishop have the power to transfer a woman member of an Annual Conference (having full clergy rights) to an Annual Conference which has refused to admit women into full clergy rights or have not considered the subject?" Paragraph 8, Article IV (5), of the Constitution provides that one of the legislative powers of the General Conference is: "To define and fix the powers, duties and privileges of the episcopacy.... " Paragraph 431 (7) lists as one of the duties of a bishop: "To transfer with the consent of the bishop of the receiving Annual Conference a ministerial member of one Annual Conference to another, provided the ministerial member agrees to said transfer. . . ." Paragraph 443 reads as follows: "A bishop elected by a Central Conference shall have, within the bounds of the Central Conference by which he is elected or within which he is administering, authority similar to that exercised by bishops elected by or administering in a Jurisdictional Conference." The above quotations clearly indicate that a bishop of either a Jurisdiction or a Central Conference has the power to transfer a member from one Annual Conference to any other Annual Conference with the consent of the bishop of the receiving Annual Conference provided the ministerial member agrees to said transfer. There appear to be no other limitations to this power. The answer, therefore, to question No. 3 is that a bishop does have the power to transfer a woman member of an Annual Conference to any other Annual Conference, provided he has the consent of the bishop of the receiving Conference and of the ministerial member involved in the transfer.

Decision

It is therefore the decision of the Judicial Council that: (1) A Central Conference may not adopt legislation which will change that already adopted by the General Conference with reference to full clergy rights for women. (2) A Central Conference may not refuse to accept a woman who has been granted full clergy rights as a member of an Annual Conference. Neither can a Central Conference refuse to allow a woman member of an Annual Conference to be transferred to another Annual Conference with the same Central Conference. (3) A bishop has the power to transfer a woman ministerial member of an Annual Conference to any other Annual Conference provided he has the consent of the bishop of the receiving Annual Conference and provided the ministerial member agrees to said transfer. October 17, 1958 Dissenting Opinion Respectfully and regretfully I must dissent from the opinion of my colleagues. Since I consider judicial opinions in regard to the powers of Central Conferences of prime importance to World Methodism, I am impelled to state the grounds of my dissent. The majority opinion in the present case is based on two affirmations: (1)the reiteration and confirmation of Judicial Council Decision No. 147 that "the General Conference cannot delegate its legislative powers or transfer to others the essential legislative functions with which it has been vested under the Constitution of The Methodist Church"; (2) that the General Conference of 1948 in its action making the change in the last sentence of Paragraph 578 by which the words "Constitution and the General Rules of The Methodist Church" were substituted for "the Discipline of The Methodist Church" did not intend to make so radical a change and give such sweeping powers to a Central Conference as might involve legislation in direct contradiction to that passed by the General Conference, without asking for some explanation of the reason therefor, or without some debate on the floor of the General Conference. I I have already stated in a dissent to Judicial Council Opinion No. 147 reasons for holding that the General Conference has been deliberately and with intention empowered by the Constitution of The Methodist Church "to delegate its legislative powers" to Central Conferences within the constitutional legislative limitations imposed upon the General Conference itself. But since the present opinion contends that a "study of the history of the Central Conferences would seem to support the conclusion that no such sweeping power was intended to be given a Central Conference by the General Conference," it seems well to amplify the statement in my dissent to Judicial Council Opinion No. 147 concerning the intent of the 1924 General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church in adoption of the two basic amendments re Central Conferences. It is pointed out in the statement that "These amendments were freely and completely discussed over a period of days before their adoption by the General Conference, and the whole tenor of the discussion indicates that general thinking gave widest interpretation to the powers with which the General Conference would be invested in dealing with Central Conferences." Of these two amendments the first was basic and is pertinent to our present problem. This amendment which was approved by a vote of 766 in favor and 64 opposed and was ratified in 1929 by the members of the Annual Conferences of The Methodist Episcopal Church with a vote of 18,490 for and 494 against provides: Annual Conferences, Mission Conferences and Missions in such numbers as the General Conference, by a two-thirds vote, shall determine, may be organized by the General Conference into Central Conferences with such powers as the General Conference, by a two-thirds vote, shall prescribe. (Emphases supplied.) See The Daily Christian Advocate, General Conference, May, 1928, 369. From this amendment derives the language and provisions of Paragraph 19 of the present Constitution of The Methodist Church, introductory item, providing:"The Central Conferences shall have the following powers and duties and such others as may be conferred by the General Conference." (Emphases supplied.) See the Methodist Discipline, 1956, Par. 19. The intent of the General Conference in its adoption of this amendment is indicated by the debate in the 1928 General Conference and by discussion of Central Conferences in the General Conference of 1932 in which both proponents and opponents interpreted the intent of the proposed amendments and the implementing legislation as means by which: to "give larger independence, largerself-determination to the various branches of our Church in foreign lands"; "our work in foreign fields may be allowed to develop itself with full autonomy"; "every nation may mold a Methodism after the fashion of their own national life"; to afford the means without which "the churches afield can never develop into self-respecting, vigorous, independent organizations"; to give the "members of our church in other lands . . . the self-determination, the independence, the autonomy for which they are asking." See Daily Christian Advocate, May, 1928; L. 0. Hartman, p. 140; Frank A. Horne, p. 341; W. A. C. Hughes, pp. 364-365; E. F. Lee, p. 365; L. 0. Hartman, p. 369. This interpretation was reiterated in the succeeding General Conference by the chairman of the Commission of Twenty-five in reviewing and interpreting the action of the 1928 General Conference in adopting and the subsequent action of the Annual Conferences in ratifying the two Constitutional Amendments re Central Conferences, as he declared "it was necessary to develop some technique of change so that adaptations could be made upon the foreign fields to meet changing conditions." He also stated: We were interested in the Central Conference legislation, in keeping open certain avenues through which the originality, the originality of the Chinese, the originality of the Indian, the originality of the people in Latin America might flow, and so on; and you, by your action in establishing the Central Conferences with certain powers, did that very thing. Upon these principles, this legislation rests. In other words, it is an attempt to make it possible for an organism, this church, to adapt itself to changing environment. ... There is a demand for self-government. Self-government may be achieved by independence. Japan, Mexico - it is possible also for self-government to be achieved in another way, and that is this: Perhaps the best phrase to suggest itis the phrase that is used in India today - or used all over the British Empire or Commonwealth of Nations - when they use the term "dominion status." See The Daily Christian Advocate, May, 1932; G. Bromley Oxnam, p. 480. II The second assumption inherent in the majority opinion concerns the intent of the General Conference of 1948 in the legislation changing the wording of Paragraph 578 (now Paragraph 562). Any judicial body has grave responsibility to interpret legislation in accordance with the intent of the enacting body. Let it be noted that the change in this paragraph was recommended in the report of the Commission on Central Conferences which had been appointed in 1944 and presumably had had ample time in the four intervening years to give full consideration to the import of proposed changes. Furthermore, on the second day of the session of the General Conference, April 29, 1948, the report on request of the Commission on Central Conferences was referred to the Standing Committee on Conferences for consideration and recommendation. Seven days later the report of the Committee on Conferences was printed in The Daily Christian Advocate containing the recommendation that the change in Par. 578, among many others, should be made. The report indicates that this committee had a membership of 49; that 49 were present when the report was adopted in the committee; that 49 voted for the report and 0 voted against. The next day the report was considered by the General Conference during a special order of the day, previously established for that purpose. Lengthy discussion ensued; numerous questions were asked; several amendments to the report were adopted. The chairman of the Commission on Central Conferences, Leon T. Moore, called specific attention to the changes in Paragraph 578. No question was asked and no objections were raised to these changes in Paragraph 578 by any member of the General Conference. In view of these facts, I cannot agree with the majority conclusion: The question naturally arises, entirely apart from whether it has the right to delegate legislative power, as to whether the General Conference intended to make so radical a change and give such sweeping powers to a Central Conference which might involve legislation in direct contradiction to that passed by the General Conference, without asking for some explanation of the reasons therefor, or without some debate on the floor of the General Conference. It is our feeling that the General Conference did not so intend. (Emphases supplied.) There would seem to be no doubt that the General Conference had ample opportunity to understand the import of this change in Paragraph 578 of the 1948 Discipline (now Paragraph 562 of the 1956 Discipline) and did intend "to make so radical a change and give such sweeping powers to a Central Conference." Hence I must conclude that these powers were both constitutionally and intentionally bestowed upon Central Conferences by this legislation. III Furthermore, it would appear that such powers were, prior to the enunciation of Judicial Council Decision No. 147, uniformly recognized by this Council and have formed a part of the developing constitutional pattern for autonomy in the structure of Methodism overseas. In Decision No. 121, July 31, 1955, this Council specifically states, "under this authority (i.e., Paragraph 578) the Philippines Central Conference could change or modify for all the Annual Conferences within its boundaries, the provisions in the Discipline which give an annual conference the right and power to grant ordination to a woman as a local preacher." (Emphases supplied.) Again, on October 18, 1957, this Council under its Decision No. 142 unanimously ruled that the Latin American Central Conference could not revise Paragraph 127 of the Discipline under Paragraph 562 (Paragraph 578 of the 1952 and 1948 Disciplines) because the revisions proposed were "contrary to the Constitution of The Methodist Church," and not on any basis that Paragraph 562 was itself of questionable constitutionality. (Emphases supplied.) Not until the enunciation of Judicial Council Decision No. 147 and the present decision had there been any intimation that Paragraph 578 (now 562), when construed to authorize any changes or adaptations beyond mere "rules and regulations for the administering of the work within their (i.e., Central Conferences) boundaries," might itself be unconstitutional. From the 1928 General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church until the issuance of Judicial Council Decision No. 147 there had been a progressive constitutional development in the autonomy of Central Conferences under the Constitution of The Methodist Church and the legislation of successive General Conferences. Under this development many legislative changes have been enacted by Central Conferences including changes in the membership, composition, organization, and functions of quarterly conferences and official boards, conditions, duties, and qualifications for church members and ministers, and the institution and use of organizations, such as Class Meetings, now absent from the Discipline of The Methodist Church. Such changes and others of even greater import so long as safe-guarded by the restrictions of Paragraph 562 permit diversity in unity in a world-wide Methodism which ought not to bear, as W. A. C. Hughes so aptly said in the General Conference of 1928, the label of "made in America." The ruling that Central Conferences have no power to make changes in Methodist polity except in regard to mere "rules and regulations for the administration of the work within their boundaries" - a power by the way granted specifically to them by the Constitution of The Methodist Church, Article IV, Item 5, Section V, and not needing Paragraph 562 or any other General Conference legislation to make it effective - must eventuate in an overseas Methodism designed and dominated by the American majority. R. F. Curl Dissenting Opinion To Decision No. 155 We must respectfully dissent from the majority decision in this case insofar as it applies to Question Number 1, "May a Central Conference change General Conference legislation regarding the granting of Full Clergy Rights for Women?" The majority has referred to Judicial Council Decision Number 147 as part of the argument to sustain its decision. We hold that it was not the intent of Decision 147, however, to deny to the General Conference its right to adopt specific legislation for the regulation of the work in Central Conferences. While Decision Number 147 declares that "the General Conference cannot delegate its legislative powers or transfer to others the essential legislative functions with which it has been invested under the Constitution of The Methodist Church," it also clearly recognizes the power of the General Conference to grant to Central Conferences "the right to make rules and regulations for the administering of the work within their boundaries as conditions require," and states that the General Conference in the Discipline has "spelled out with particularity the administrative areas in which the Central Conferences may apply these permitted 'changes and adaptations."' Included in the Discipline of 1956, Paragraphs 556 to 581, are a number of such "Administrative areas" in which the General Conference has, by its own legislative enactment, granted specific powers to Central Conferences. Paragraph 562 specifically grants to Central Conferences the "power to decide the official status and ordination of women; provided that no action shall be taken which is contrary to the Constitution and the General Rules of The Methodist Church." This grant of power was given to the Central Conferences by the proper legislative functioning of the General Conference and, unless shown to be contrary to the Constitution or General Rules of The Methodist Church, must be in full force and effect unless changed by further act of the General Conference. It is significant that the adoption of the provision referred to in Paragraph 562 giving to the Central Conferences the "power to decide the official status and ordination of women" was coincident with the enactment of General Conference legislation of the Methodist Episcopal Church permitting the ordination of women as local preachers in 1924. The clear implication is that conditions relative to the leadership of women in the church differ so widely in the Conferences outside the United States that each Central Conference should be permitted to make its own decision concerning the status and ordination of women in the light of attitudes and conditions existing within its own boundaries. The admission of women into an Annual Conference, we hold. is a part of the inclusive language of the Paragraph under question which covers "the official status and ordination of women." This becomes clear when it is remembered that ordination is a prerequisite to admission into the membership of an Annual Conference. If, therefore, a Central Conference is empowered to control the ordination of women within its boundaries, it necessarily follows that such control must extend also to membership in the Annual Conference, entrance into which is conditioned upon ordination. If the question which has been submitted to us must be construed literally, "may a Central Conference change General Conference legislation regarding the granting of Full Clergy Rights for Women?" the answer would be in the negative since as stated by the Council in its Decision Number 147, "The General Conference of The Methodist Church is the legislative body of the Church. There is no other legislative body in the Church." If, however, as we believe, the question concerns the right of a Central Conference to exercise the powers granted unto it by a specific legislative enactment of the General Conference and to decide for itself whether admission to Annual Conference shall be open to women within its own boundaries, we must hold that a Central Conference does possess this power as specifically set forth in Paragraph 562 of the 1956 Discipline. A. Wesley Pugh Ivan Lee Holt, Jr. Ralph M. Houston

Back to Search