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Decision No. 458

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May 24 1979
In Re: AUTHORITY OF THE GENERAL COUNCIL ON FINANCE AND ADMINISTRATION TO REPRESENT THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH IN LITIGATION.

Digest of Case

Paragraph 907.4 of the 1976 Discipline does not delegate to the General Council on Finance and Administration either the authority or the duty to sue, or to file an answer or to otherwise plead, on behalf of The United Methodist Church as a denomination.

Statement of Facts

The General Council on Finance and Administration submitted a request for a declaratory decision as follows: "Does paragraph 907.4 or any other provision of the 1976 Discipline or the Constitution of the denomination of The United Methodist Church direct or authorize the General Council of Finance and Administration, or any person, or persons, boards, councils or agencies of the denomination to answer on its behalf or to sue on its behalf in any legal proceeding, thereby purporting to speak for the denomination as a whole, as distinguished from appearance on its behalf in legal proceedings related to separate units of the denomination; also concerning the meaning and effect of Disciplinary Paragraph 612.1 reading: 'No person, no paper, no organization has the right to speak officially for The United Methodist Church, this right having been reserved exclusively to the General Conference under the Constitution.' as it relates to the question of appearance in any civil proceedings as above mentioned." Dr. Leon Hickman submitted a brief for the General Council of Finance and Administration and made an appearance for oral argument in Chicago, Illinois on May 25, 1979. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Paragraph 2515.2(c) of the 1976 Discipline. ANALYSIS The basic questions asked in the request of the General Council of Finance and Administration are: 1. Does Paragraph 907.4 direct or authorize the General Council on Finance and Administration to answer on behalf of The United Methodist Church, or to sue on behalf of The United Methodist Church, in any legal proceedings? 2. What is the meaning and effect of Paragraph 612.1 as it relates to the question of appearance in any civil proceeding? The Discipline of The United Methodist Church is a book governing every aspect of the life and work of the Church, including regulations relating to temporal economy and to the ownership, use and disposition of church property. In interpreting a paragraph of the Discipline related paragraphs must be read and the Discipline interpreted as a whole. The 1976 General Conference, in keeping with its constitutional authority, ". . . to initiate and to direct all connectional enterprises of the Church and to provide Boards for their promotion and administration" (Par. 15.8) authorized and established the General Council on Finance and Administration, as one of the connectional agencies of The United Methodist Church. (see 1976 Discipline Paragraphs 901-937.) Within the legislation defining the work of the General Council on Finance and Administration is Paragraph 907.4 which provides that the Council is: "To take all necessary legal steps to safeguard and protect the interests and rights of The United Methodist Church; to maintain a file of legal briefs related to cases involving 'The United Methodist Church', and to make provisions for legal counsel where necessary in order to protect the interest of the Church at the request of a general agency or bishop, as the Council deems advisable . . ." We are expressly asked whether 907.4 or any other provision of the Discipline or the Constitution directs or authorizes any other person or persons, boards, councils or agencies of the denomination to answer or sue on behalf of the denominations in any legal proceeding. We find no other person, board, council or agency so authorized. In interpreting Paragraph 907.4 all of the paragraphs of the Discipline concerning the responsibility and authority of the General Council on Finance and Administration must be read together. When this is done it is obvious that no litigation against or by The United Methodist Church is contemplated. Historically, The United Methodist Church is but the sum of its separately organized units with no separate existence of its own. It has never had a chief executive officer or any executive officers. It has no headquarters, owns no property, and has no bank account. It has never signed a contract, a check or a tax return. It has never litigated in the civil or ecclesiastical courts either as a plaintiff or a defendant. Thus, it seems impossible that The United Methodist Church, as distinguished from one of its various organizations and bodies, would ever be a proper party to defend a legal action. As a matter of polity, The United Methodist Church is a connectional structure of separately organized churches, conferences, boards, councils and other bodies. It numbers over 43,000 local churches connectionally yoked through Annual Conferences. The Annual Conferences are constitutionally the basic bodies of the Church (Par. 37 of the Constitution). Each is largely autonomous and none has the authority to obligate any other units of the Church. (Par. 702.2) The denomination is international in nature, not being confined to the geographic bounds of the United States. It is neither a hierarchial nor congregational denomination. Necessarily Paragraph 907.4 is a limited grant of authority. While the paragraph appears to be broad in its authority "to take all necessary steps to safeguard and protect the interests and rights of The United Methodist Church"; in actual fact it is not. Any involvement by the General Council on Finance and Administration with any other agency or a bishop in a legal problem facing that agency or bishop is limited to making provisions for legal counsel, etc. "at the request of a general agency or a bishop." There is no legislative authority for the General Council on Finance and Administration to take over the legal responsibility for any other agency of the Church, or the Annual Conferences. The maintaining of a file of legal briefs is for the information of Annual Conferences and Agencies. The General Council on Finance and Administration is in no way empowered to employ a "General Counsel" for The United Methodist Church, or to act as a "Legal Department" for the many bodies of the Church or the various conferences. In legal proceedings, each separate unit of the Church is responsible for its own work in suing or being sued. One agency or unit cannot act for nor obligate another agency or unit in legal or civil proceedings. We are asked in the second question whether any provision of the Discipline or Constitution authorizes the General Council or anyone else to purport to speak for the denomination as a whole, and particularly asked to interpret Paragraph 612.1. We find no authorization for the General Council on Finance and Administration, or anyone else other than the General Conference to speak officially for The United Methodist Church. Paragraph 612.1 states "No person, no paper, no organization has the authority to speak officially for The United Methodist Church, this right having been reserved exclusively to the General Conference under the Constitution." While we affirm this historic policy of The United Methodist Church we see no need to interpret the meaning and effect of the paragraph as it relates to questions of appearance in civil proceedings in the light of our interpretation of Paragraph 907.4.

Decision

Paragraph 907.4 of the 1976 Discipline does not delegate to the General Council on Finance and Administration either the authority or the duty to sue, or to file an answer or to otherwise plead, on behalf of The United Methodist Church as a denomination. (Leonard D. Slutz Dissents) (Elizabeth B. Gundlach Absent)

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