Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 468
January 18 1938
In Re: Invalidity of 1972 Amendment of General Rules by General Conference Without Required Vote of the Annual Conferences, and Modification of Decision No. 358.
Digest of Case
The action of the General Conference of 1972 in adopting the Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards constituted a change in the General Rules contrary to the limitation of the Restrictive Rules. (Par. 19) The wording of the General Rules as set forth in the 1968 Discipline remains unchanged. Decision 358 of the Judicial Council is modified to this extent.
Statement of Facts
The Norway Annual Conference in session June 30, 1978 passed by unanimous vote a request for a Declaratory Decision from the Judicial Council as to the constitutionality of the changes in wording of the General Rules appearing in the 1976 Discipline. The Norway Conference pointed specifically to the following words in Par. 95 of the 1968 Discipline. First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:...... Drunkenness, buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity. The 1976 Discipline omits certain words and changes others so that the section now reads: Drunkenness: drinking spirituous liquor, unless in cases of necessity. The words "buying or selling" and "extreme" are omitted in the newer Discipline. The Norway Annual Conference alleges that such changes constitute a violation of Article V of the Restrictive Rules (Par. 19): The General Conference shall not revoke or change the General Rules of Our United Societies. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2515 of the Discipline. ANALYSIS Par. 19 of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, adopted in 1968 at the time of the formation of The United Methodist Church by the predecessor denominations, reads: The General Conference shall not revoke or change the General Rules of Our United Societies. What were the General Rules to which the 1968 Constitutional provision referred? The enabling legislation of the Plan of Union of the two former denominations appears at page 753 of the 1966 Daily Christian Advocate. The Plan of Union is defined to include as Part II Doctrinal Statements and the General Rules. The General Rules were set forth in the Plan of Union at page 32 in exactly the same form as in every previous Discipline of The Methodist Church since its formation in 1939. That is also the exact form in which the Rules appeared in every Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church from 1848 until its merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939 to form The Methodist Church. The adoption of the Plan of Union by the necessary votes of the General Conferences of the two denominations in 1966 and the subsequent voting in the Annual Conferences is reported in the 1968 DCA at pages 210 and 359-360. To the 1972 General Conference was presented the report of the Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards. At the outset of that report the General Conference was told: The most obvious feature of this Report is what it is not. It is not a new creed, nor a new set of Articles of Religion, nor a Confession of Faith, nor a new set of General Rules. The old ones are still retained in the middle of our text, in their original versions. This is by design, of course-for the next most obvious thing about the Report is that it is not a simple reaffirmation of the old Part II, either. The old Articles and Confession and Rules have been set in a new context of interpretation,... (1972 DCA pg. 218) At page 219 we read: We hope that you have noticed that we have tried to clarify the contextual relationships between the Articles, the Confession, and Wesley's Sermons and Notes and Rules in order to clarify the reference in the First Restrictive Rule about "our present and existing and established standards of doctrines". We have not altered these standards, as much (sic) but we have proposed a genuinely new principle for doctrinal self-understanding in The United Methodist Church. At page 220 the Daily Christian Advocate reports: Now it will interest you to know that we have petitioned the Judicial Council for declaratory judgment as to the due processes by which Part II of the Discipline may be amended. Obviously, if we had revoked, altered, or changed the Articles of Religion or Confession, or alternatively, if our Report proposed as normative anything that is contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine-in either case we would be in conflict with the first and second restrictive rules of the Constitution and the Report could then be adopted only by the constitutional provision for two-thirds vote in this Conference and three-fourths vote in the Annual Conference. We're not at all unwilling to have the Report acted upon by the Annual Conferences, and under the requirement of a three-fourths majority, so long as this is not presented to the church or the Christian world at large as a violation of either the spirit of our Wesleyan heritage or the letter of our first restrictive rule. We understand that rule to forbid, in the first place, revoking, altering, or changing the Articles of Confession and, second, adding any new standards or rules or doctrines that are contrary to our present and existing standards of doctrine. Now, we can prove that we have not revoked, altered, or changed the text of the Articles of Confession and the Rules. The Report of the Commission came before the General Conference for debate and adoption on April 21. In the 1968 Discipline Part I was the Constitution. Part II was headed "Doctrinal Statements and the General Rules". It consisted of a preface followed by the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the General Rules of The Methodist Church. Part III was headed "Social Principles" and consisted of a preface, the Methodist Social Creed and the Basic Beliefs Regarding Social Issues and Moral Standards of the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Part IV is headed "Organization and Administration" and consists of legislative enactments of the General Conference. The Report of The Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards proposed that the heading of Part II be changed to read "Doctrine and Doctrinal Statements and the General Rules." Then Part II was to be divided into three sections. The first was a statement of historical background replacing and expanding the previous preface. Section 2 was headed "Landmark Documents" and after a bibliographical preface consisted of the Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the General Rules of The Methodist Church. Section 3 was entirely new and headed "Our Theological Past". In response to inquiries from the floor the following statements were made: It is not something of the past but a genuine guide. We feel that these documents are to be understood in exactly the way that Wesley understood them originally as part of the larger heritage. 1972 DCA pg. 343 . . . . . It is our feeling that we have not added any doctrine that are contrary and obviously we have not altered, revoked or changed the text. So we are not in violation of the other restrictive rule we think at all. pg. 343 After the report of the Study Commission was adopted the General Conference moved to ask the Judicial Council for a decision as to whether or not that action required a Constitutional Amendment. Nowhere in the record of the presentation of the Report, the debate leading to its adoption, or the action referring the question to the Judicial Council can be found any indication that the report included changes in the three landmark documents. Decision No. 358 first holds that Part II is not part of the Constitution. We reaffirm that portion of the decision. The Decision goes on to hold that the paragraphs of historical setting and comment in the Preface to Part II as found in the 1968 Discipline were legislative enactments and could therefore be amended by action of the General Conference, so that substituting Sections 1 and 3 as they appear in the 1972 Discipline for the Preface found in the 1968 Discipline was valid and did not require a Constitutional Amendment. We reaffirm that portion of the decision. Decision No. 358 goes on to consider whether the Report made any changes in the three landmark documents and whether or not it established any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to the present existing standards of doctrine. The Decision reads in part: On the basis of a narrowly construed interpretation of the questions, the Judicial Council is of the opinion that it does not. We find no recommended substantive changes or additions to the documents themselves. We are convinced that when the Judicial Council found no recommended substantive changes it was because no such changes were pointed out or observed. Decision No. 358 goes on to hold that the Judicial Council does not take jurisdiction over questions demanding theological interpretation and should not decide whether the new setting provided for the protected documents by Sections 1 and 3 of Part II had the effect of changing the documents themselves or establishing new standards or rules of doctrine. The present petition points directly to what is an obvious and significant substantive change in the General Rules which could not constitutionally be made by reason of Par. 19 without the required affirmative vote of both the General Conference and the members of the Annual Conferences. We made considerable research into the history of the General Rules with the much appreciated assistance of Dr. Elmer J. O'Brien, Librarian and Professor at United Theological Seminary and Dr. Glenn Massengale, Librarian at Huntingdon College. Dr. Kenneth E. Rowe of Drew University also gave us valuable assistance, especially with regard to the Methodist Protestant history. The Encyclopedia of World Methodism at page 986 states that the General Rules were drawn up by Wesley on February 23, 1743 and published in Newcastle. The Encyclopedia sets forth the rule relating to drunkenness in the form used by the 1968 Discipline. Both Robert Emory's History of the Discipline of the M.E. Church, published in 1844, and James Buckley's Constitutional and Parliamentary History of the M.E. Church published in 1912, state that the General Rules were signed by John and Charles Wesley on May 1, 1743. Both of these authors say that Wesley used the form found in the 1968 Discipline. Both Emory and Buckley say that the rules as drawn by the Wesleys were adopted without alteration by the first Methodist Societies in America. The 1808 Discipline uses the wording found in the 1972 Discipline. According to Bishop Nolan Harmon's The Organization of The Methodist Church, published in 1962, it was in 1808 that a restrictive rule preventing change of the General Rules by the General Conference was formally written. According to Buckley, it was in 1848 that the rule regarding drunkenness was rewritten exactly as it had been when first promulgated by Wesley 105 years before. So far as we have been able to determine, however, in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South the rule regarding drunkenness always appeared in the 1808 form. The Methodist Protestant Church was founded in 1830 and in its first Discipline, that of 1831, included the General Rules. The portion relating to drunkenness was in Wesley's original form, that of the 1968 version. The Methodist Protestant Church continued the original wording until 1877. In the Discipline of that year, and all subsequent editions including the final Discipline of 1936, the Rule was worded: Drunkenness, or the manufacturing, buying, selling, or using intoxicating liquors, unless for mechanical, chemical or medicinal purposes, or in any way intentionally aiding others so to do. At the time of the Reunion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South and Methodist Protestant Church, the three denominations were using three different versions of the Rule relating to drunkenness, but the newly formed Methodist Church, from its beginning, used the original Wesley wording and protected it by incorporating a Restrictive Rule in the Constitution which became effective in 1939. Subsequently, as above discussed, in 1968 The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, by action of their separate General Conferences and approved by voting in their separate Annual Conferences, adopted a Plan of Union which included a new Constitution and a statement of the General Rules forth in the original form as set forth in the 1968 Discipline.
The action of the General Conference of 1972 in adopting the Report of the Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards constituted a change in the General Rules contrary to the limitation of the Restrictive Rules. The wording of the General Rules as set forth in the 1968 Discipline remains unchanged. Decision 358 of the Judicial Council is modified to this extent.