Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 363
October 26 1972
In Re: May a Lay Person be Elected and Consecrated to the Episcopacy Without Ordination?
Digest of Case
A lay person may not be elected to the episcopacy nor may a lay person be consecrated as a bishop. To be elected and consecrated a bishop a person must first be a traveling elder.
Statement of Facts
On July 11, 1972, during the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference a question was raised from the floor prior to the first ballot for the election of bishops. Ministerial delegate Claude W. Whitehead of North Alabama inquired whether a vote for a candidate who is not an ordained elder invalidates the entire ballot. The presiding officer, Bishop James W. Henley, replied that (according to the recommendation of the Committee on Rules) a vote for a person not holding elder's orders would not invalidate the entire ballot, but that such a person would, nevertheless, be ineligible for election to the episcopacy. Dr. O. Kelley Ingram of the North Carolina Conference presented the following request for a ruling from the chair: "Since there does not appear to be any Disciplinary impediment to the election of a lay person to the episcopacy, AND since there are at least two precedents in Methodist tradition for the election of such persons to that office, AND since the requirement that a bishop be an elder in order to discharge the duties of this office provided the requirement can be met in the course of time, assuming the layman possesses the gifts and graces of ministry, AND since Bishop Henley has ruled that a lay person is not eligible for election to the episcopacy: THEREFORE I request that Bishop Henley reconsider his ruling concerning the eligibility of lay persons to the episcopal office." Bishop Henley sought to clarify his official ruling on the following grounds: "While it is true that Mr. Asbury was consecrated a bishop on the third day after being ordained a deacon on the first and elder on the second, the simple fact is that the Christmas Conference was an organizing conference, without procedural restraints or an adopted Discipline. The process involved in full connection and elder's orders are currently infinitely more complex and the time factors as well as academic preparation constitute a delaying element in ordination procedures. The delay between the election of a layman and his possible ordination as an elder in a conference can no longer be accomplished precipitously, but require adequate preparation involving years of study plus practical experience. "The Methodist Church has believed in these procedures and nothing less than radical and far-reaching revisions of the Discipline can alter them. "At the same time, while the legislation of the Discipline does not state that a person must be an elder in full connection to be eligible for the episcopacy, the presumptive evidence is unmistakable: In the consecration service the ordinand is presented with the words: 'We present this elder to be consecrated a bishop'. In division 3 of the constitution we read: "There shall be a continuance of the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church of like plan, power, privileges and duties as now exist in The Methodist Church and in The Evangelical United Brethren." Both of these historic bodies practice the consecration of only elders as bishops. In paragraph 310, section 2 of the Discipline: 'An elder may be ordained by a bishop employing the order of service for the ordination of elders. The bishop shall be assisted by other elders in the laying on of hands.' "We could multiply such references many times. For this reason I must abide by my ruling that a person, to be eligible for the election to the episcopacy, must be an elder in full connection and must be so at the time of his election." On July 15, 1972, following a ruling by Bishop Paul Hardin, Jr., that under Paragraph 1712 Bishop Henley's ruling would automatically come before the Judicial Council, there was uncertainty among the delegates as to whether further action was needed to assure transmission of the appeal for decision to the Judicial Council. The Conference took action on a motion by Dr. Louise Branscomb requesting the Judicial Council to render a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the following: May a lay person be elected to the episcopacy? Having been elected, may a lay person be consecrated as a bishop without ordination as an elder? Thereafter Bishop Henley transmitted his ruling to the Judicial Council. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Paragraph 1512. ANALYSIS There is no specific and direct statement in the Discipline concerning the requirement of ordination for eligibility of a person to be elected to the office of bishop, nor is there any statement that specifically states he must be ordained as an elder before consecration as a bishop. However, the Discipline does provide for the continuance of an episcopacy of "like plan" as existed in The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church prior to their union in 1968. The 1972 Discipline states in Paragraph 50: "There shall be a continuance of an episcopacy in The United Methodist Church of like plan, powers, privileges, and duties as now exist in The Methodist Church and in The Evangelical United Brethren Church in all those matters in which they agree and may be considered identical; and the differences between these historic episcopacies are deemed to be reconciled and harmonized by and in this Plan of Union and Constitution of The United Methodist Church and actions taken pursuant thereto so that a unified superintendency and episcopacy is hereby created and established of, in, and by those who now are and shall be bishops of The United Methodist Church; and the said episcopacy shall further have such powers, privileges, and duties as are herein set forth." To determine what the "like plan" was, is to discover that the parent denomination, The Evangelical United Brethren Church, and the grandparent denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, state specifically in their Disciplines that bishops are to be elected from among "the active itinerant elders" and from among the "traveling elders" respectively. The 1967 Discipline of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, Paragraph 385, states: "The bishops of The Evangelical United Brethren Church shall be elected by ballot by the General Conference from the active itinerant elders who have been itinerant elders for at least ten years . . ." The 1936 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Paragraph 86, states: "The General Conference shall elect by ballot from among the Traveling Elders as many General Superintendents as it may deem necessary." In all references in the ritual for the consecration of a bishop, in the Disciplines of both the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, it is indicated that the one chosen to be bishop is to be an elder. The 1936 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Paragraph 1443: THE ORDER FOR THE CONSECRATION OF BISHOPS "(This service is a consecration, not an ordination, of an Elder or Presbyter to the duties of General Superintendency in the Church.) " (Page 607 reads as follows:) "Then shall the Elected Person be presented by two Elders unto the Bishop, the Elders saying: We present unto you this Elder chosen to be consecrated a Bishop." The 1938 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Paragraph 669: THE FORM OF CONSECRATING A BISHOP. (Page 415 reads as follows:) "After the Gospel and the sermon are ended, the elected person shall be presented by two elders unto the Bishop saying: We present unto you this elect elder to be consecrated a Bishop." The identical paragraph which appeared in the 1936 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church as Paragraph 1443 (quoted above) is found in the 1939 Discipline of The Methodist Church as Paragraph 1592. The paragraph is repeated in the 1964 Discipline of The Methodist Church, Paragraph 1722. Moreover, the same language was used in the 1939 Discipline that united the former Methodist Episcopal Church and former Methodist Episcopal Church, South, as that later used in the 1968 Discipline of The United Methodist Church in regard to the continuance of the episcopacy: "There shall be an episcopacy in The Methodist Church of like plan, powers, privileges, and duties as now exist in The Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South." (Par. 34, 1939 Discipline) There are other disciplinary references which offer presumptive data indicating the necessity for ordination as elder as qualifying a person for election as a bishop. In the 1972 Discipline of The United Methodist Church, Paragraph 395 makes reference to provisions for the resignation of a bishop and states that a bishop who voluntarily retires "shall surrender consecration papers to the secretary of the Jurisdictional Conference and shall be furnished with a certificate of resignation which shall entitle the bishop to membership as a traveling elder in the Annual Conference in which membership was last held or its successor . . ." (Par. 395.2) In the same Paragraph, 395.4, it states that: "an elder who has served as a bishop up to the time of retirement shall have the status of a retired bishop . . ." These paragraphs would seem to imply that the bishop was a traveling or itinerant elder previous to his election to the episcopacy. The same provisions appear also in Paragraph 399.4 with reference to a Central Conference term bishop who is not re-elected. One finds further such evidence in Paragraph 310.2 of the 1972 Discipline. In reference to the ordination of elders it is directed that "The bishop shall be assisted by other elders in the laying on of hands." (emphasis added) Contextual evidence for ordination as a requirement for election and consecration to the episcopacy is found in the Discipline, Paragraphs 382-400. These are to be found in Chapter Two of Part IV of the Discipline (Paragraphs 301-400). This section is concerned exclusively with "The Ministry." With the exception of a brief acknowledgment of the ministry of the people of God (Paragraph 301) the entire chapter is devoted to United Methodist polity as it relates to the ordained ministry. It is in this chapter on the ordained ministry that matters dealing with the episcopacy are to be found. This would suggest that the episcopacy is to be understood as an integral part of the ordained ministry of the church. Who are the traveling or itinerant elders thus qualified to be elected to the Episcopacy? In the 1972 Discipline, Chapter Two, The Ministry, states: "Paragraph 307.1 Elders are ministers who have completed their formal preparation for the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order; have been elected itinerant members in full connection with an Annual Conference; and have been ordained elders in accordance with the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church." Paragraph 313, The Order of Elder "An elder is a minister who has met the requirements of Paragraph 314 and therefore has full authority for the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order; who has been received as a minister in full connection with an Annual Conference; and who has been ordained elder." (Pars. 331-332.) The Council has been greatly aided in its study and decision-making process by briefs submitted by various persons including Bishops William R. Cannon, L. Scott Allen and Roy H. Short, Reverends E. Dale Dunlap, Joseph Mitchell, and O. Kelly Ingram, Dr. Louise Branscomb and Dr. Harriett Miller. It has been argued that the election and consecration of Francis Asbury as bishop established a precedent for electing laymen as bishops. Yet, Asbury himself, to emphasize the clerical or ministerial nature of his position as bishop, was ordained first as a deacon, then as an elder, and finally after another day, he was consecrated to the general superintendency of the church. It should be noted that this occurred before the adoption of the Constitution of the church, and it is the provisions of the Constitution which must direct a decision in this appeal. To the person that argues that a lay person may be elected bishop but must be ordained elder in order to be consecrated, one must call attention to the present disciplinary requirements for ordination as an elder. It now requires a minimum of four years to qualify for ordination as an elder if one follows the normal route of seminary training, presupposing that the one elected holds a baccalaureate degree at the time of his election. Without some additional General Conference legislation in this regard, this would hardly seem a practical procedure in the election of bishops. It is a matter of historical record that in 1884, William Taylor was elected to serve as a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was a lay delegate to the General Conference from the South India Conference. He was consecrated a bishop the day after his election by the 1884 General Conference. In this instance, however, William Taylor had been a traveling elder for more than 40 years before "locating" soon after 1880 because of disagreement with certain missionary policies of the church. He was a local elder when chosen a lay delegate to the General Conference. It was this status as an elder which seemingly made his consecration possible without delay. In parent denominations and former years there have been persons who have been ordained as local elders-holding orders but not full membership in the Annual Conference. Therefore they cannot be classified as "itinerant" or "traveling" elders. They were and are qualified to exercise their orders only in a local church to which they were appointed as local preachers, approved lay pastors, or currently, lay pastors. The 1972 Discipline makes no provision for such orders in The United Methodist Church. Those holding local orders in the merging denominations, however, maintain the rights and privileges which were theirs at the time of merger. (Par. 307) It is the conclusion of the Judicial Council that the term "like plan" (Par. 50) requires limitation of the term denoting eligibility for election to the episcopacy to "traveling elder" or "itinerant elder." When persons are elected and consecrated as bishops, they retain the ministerial order of traveling elders and are consecrated, not ordained, as bishops. They are set aside within the order of elder as bishops or general superintendents in the church. The work of a bishop, presupposes therefore, the preparation, training, experience and service of a fully ordained minister who is in full connection with an Annual Conference. A decision in this case hinges on what is implied in "the like plan" of Paragraph 50 of the Constitution. As observed above, the plan of the episcopacy of the Methodist Episcopal Church specifically provided that a bishop must be an ordained elder, and the plan of episcopacy of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, implied the same requirement. Thus, the plan of the episcopacy of The Methodist Church which was to be "of like plan" as existed in its two parent denominations, required that a bishop be elected from among the elders. The plan of episcopacy of The Evangelical United Brethren Church specifically required that bishops be elected from among the elders. A "like plan" would therefore require ordination as an elder and Annual Conference ministerial membership to qualify a person to be elected and consecrated a bishop.
It is the decision of the Judicial Council that the Constitution provides a "like plan" that requires that any person elected and consecrated a bishop in The United Methodist Church must first have been an ordained elder and ministerial member in full connection in an Annual Conference. Therefore, to elect an unordained lay person to the episcopacy or to consecrate a lay person to the episcopacy would be unconstitutional. Lay persons, therefore, may not be elected or consecrated to the episcopacy.