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Decision No. 714

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October 28 1994
In Re: Legality of Conference Action Declaring Some Topics Inappropriate for Worship Services Sponsored by Any Church or Other Organization Within That Conference.

Digest of Case

The bishop's decision of law is affirmed, so long as the resolution is interpreted as an expression of opinion rather than a binding policy.

Statement of Facts

In the 1994 session, the Southern New Jersey Conference adopted the following resolution: Resolved, that the worship, liturgy, and the services on the present interpretation of "Sophia" as a goddess equal to or less than equal to the Trinity, be regarded as an inappropriate topic for any worship service, devotional activity/reading sponsored in whole or in part by any board, agency, commission, committee, organization, or church within the Southern New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. A question as to the legality of the action taken was presented to the presiding bishop, Neil L. Irons for a decision of law. The bishop ruled as follows: It is my judgment that the action of the Southern New Jersey Annual Conference regarding resolution 1, p. 42, under the general heading, "Sophia Controversy" is constitutional. Section II, Article IV.6, 1992 Discipline reserves the right of the General Conference to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship, subject to the limitations of the first and second Restrictive Rules. First of all, the Ritual and Hymnal of the church do not contain rituals or other provisions for a mode or form of worship to "Sophia, as a goddess equal to or less than equal to the Trinity." Therefore, the Annual Conference has not usurped any authority of the General Conference by denying a mode or form of worship that is commended to the church through either the Ritual or Hymnal. Secondly, the Restrictive Rules preclude the worship of any deity other than the Holy Trinity. For the Annual Conference to make the same provision is not unconstitutional. Thirdly, the Annual Conference Resolution judges the topic cited to be "inappropriate." This allows for some discretion, although the resolution strongly counsels against such "worship, liturgy and services" (presumably of worship). The vagueness of the term "inappropriate" seems to suggest that no usurpation of General Conference's authority has occurred or is intended. Fourthly, the resolution deals only with "Sophia as a goddess equal to or less than equal to the Trinity" and does not prohibit what the Restrictive Rules protect, namely the appropriate use of "wisdom" in reference to God (#67 Section 3. Article I; p. 58-9; Article I, p. 66.) JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2613 of the 1992 Discipline. ANALYSIS The resolution as adopted is not unconstitutional. It merely expresses the sense of the Annual Conference that worship involving "Sophia," when interpreted as described in the resolution, is "inappropriate." As written, the resolution is not binding. There would be serious constitutional questions raised if the resolution were to be regarded as in any sense binding on local churches or any other body of The United Methodist Church. The bishop's ruling correctly cites the constitutional power of the General Conference "to regulate all matters relating to the form and mode of worship." (Par. 15.6) However, he also comments that the policy adopted is not in conflict with the Restrictive Rules. It must not be concluded from this that lack of conflict with the Restrictive Rules or any other part of the Discipline would validate any intent of the conference to apply the resolution in a binding fashion. Decisions 476 and 700 stress that the Annual Conference has no authority to approve or disapprove any provision of the Discipline. A vote to approve implies the power to disapprove, and is therefore not permissible. In short, worship is an area in which constitutional authority is given to the General Conference rather than to the Annual Conference. The Annual Conference may express its opinion, but it may not impose its will. Within those limits, the decision of the bishop is affirmed.

Decision

The bishop's decision of law is affirmed, so long as the resolution is interpreted as an expression of opinion rather than a binding policy.

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