Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 811
October 24 1997
In Re: Request from the Minnesota Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision on a Series of Questions Regarding the New Membership Provisions of the 1996 Discipline.
Digest of Case
The legislation adopted in accordance with the Baptismal Study Committee report relating to "baptized membership" and "professing membership" ¶¶ 215, 222.1-5, 227.2, 231.1 and 2 (1996 Discipline), are declared unconstitutional. The 1996 legislation which constituted amendments to the existing membership provisions of the 1992 Discipline is unconstitutional and invalid. The 1992 Discipline relating to membership categories "preparatory membership" and "full membership" ¶¶ 216.4, 222-224, 232.1 and 2 (1992 Discipline) remain as the governing law of The United Methodist Church. Based on the foregoing, we direct that the local church membership rolls of The United Methodist Church be kept and maintained in accordance with ¶ 232 of the 1992 Discipline, and that the baptism and membership practices and polity shall be continued in accordance as set forth in the 1992 Discipline.
Statement of Facts
The 1988 General Conference established a Baptismal Study Committee which was authorized to continue its work by the 1992 General Conference. The committee submitted its work to the 1996 General Conference in a report entitled "By Water And The Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding Of Baptism". The General Conference adopted the report and accompanying legislation which substantially changed the membership provisions of the Discipline. The 1997 session of the Minnesota Annual Conference requested a declaratory decision on the following questions relating to the membership provisions of the legislation: (1) Should the Roll of Baptized Members (¶ 215.1) include both baptized members and professing members? (2) Since the 1996 Book of Discipline has no clause similar to ¶ 224 in the 1992 Discipline (which called for removal of preparatory members when they reached age 19), how far back in history must the pastor or membership secretary go when he/she is creating the Roll of Baptized Members (¶ 215.1) and is trying to identify persons who were baptized but never became full members? (3) Should persons formerly on the Roll of Preparatory Members who were placed on it without yet being baptized (1992 Discipline, ¶ 216.4) now be transferred to the Roll of Baptized Members? (4) Does the second sentence of ¶ 214 imply that at the time of baptism an adult may choose to be enrolled as a baptized member without being enrolled as a professing member? (5) Does the second sentence of ¶ 214 imply that a baptized adult who wishes to join the church by profession of faith or transfer may be received at his/her request as a baptized member rather than as a professing member? (6) When a professing member is removed by action of the charge conference (¶ 229.2b(4); 244), shall his/her name remain on (or be transferred to) the Roll of Baptized Members? (7) If a professing member wishes to cease being a professing member, may he/she remain (or become) a baptized member? (8) If a person ceases to be a professing member but remains (or becomes) a baptized member, is he/she to be listed on both the Roll of Baptized Members (¶ 231.1) and the Roll of Persons Removed From the Roll of Professing Members (¶ 231.6)? (9) May the Church Council survey the congregation to ask professing members whether they wish to remain professing members or wish to be listed only on the Roll of Baptized Members? (10) Is the register of baptized children (¶ 227.3) to be identical with the Roll of Baptized Members (¶ 231.1) or is it to be a separate document? (11) When parents transfer to another congregation, are their baptized children (up to a certain age) to be removed from the Roll of Baptized Members in the "sending" church and transferred to the "receiving" church without an explicit request from the children themselves? (12) May a child withdraw from membership on his/her own initiative? (13) May a parent validly communicate in writing the purpose of withdrawal (¶ 243) from baptized membership on behalf of a child? (14) Should the Constituency Roll (¶ 231.3) include the immediate family of a professing member of the congregation even if those family members have a formal membership connection with another congregation? (15) Does the 1996 Discipline, in making all baptized persons, including infants, members of The United Methodist Church, violate the Constitution ¶ 4, which says that persons are eligible for membership "when they take the appropriate vows"? (16) If a young person's pre-baptismal instruction takes place in accordance with ¶ 222.1b and the person is baptized before entering the confirmation class, do ¶ 215.2 and ¶ 231.2 require the pastor to enroll that person as a professing member at the time of baptism (assuming the baptism is performed according to the ritual of the church)? (17) Does ¶ 227.2 require that some children be carried on the roll of baptized members of two churches simultaneously? (18) Are all baptized members, regardless of age, entitled to vote at sessions of the church conference? Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under P 2616 of the 1996 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale The Baptismal Study Committee, in its report entitled "By Water And The Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding Of Baptism", presented a very comprehensive review of baptism generally as well as how it relates to The United Methodist Church. While recognizing that "church membership, in the sacramental sense, is not equated with salvation, nor with organizational membership," the report sought "to integrate within the constitutional and legal provisions of The United Methodist Church the theological and sacramental roots of our tradition." A principal focus of the study related to the baptism of young children. By way of background, The United Methodist Church has long recognized the baptism of young children (¶ 62 of the Discipline under Articles of Religion). While baptized young children became members of the universal Church and were placed on the preparatory membership rolls of a local church of The United Methodist Church for care and instructions, such young children did not become members of a local church of The United Methodist Church until they themselves took membership vows by way of confirmation. Based on the theological rationale developed in the report, the legislation sought to change the nature and meaning of membership by replacing earlier membership categories ("preparatory membership" and "full membership" ¶¶ 216.4, 222-224, 232.1 and 2 [1992 Discipline]) with two new ones ("baptized membership" and "professing membership" ¶¶ 215, 222.1-5, 227.2, 231.1 and 2 [1996 Discipline]). New categories of membership rolls to be maintained by local churches are set forth in ¶ 231 of the 1996 Discipline which replaces ¶ 232 of the 1992 Discipline. The council received well prepared briefs from Peter F. Milloy on behalf of persons who composed the final draft of the question asked by the Minnesota Annual Conference and from Daniel Taylor Benedict, Jr., which represented the work of key persons involved in the Committee on the Study of Baptism. Question 15 is the most significant, as the answer will determine the answers to several other listed questions. Question 15 reads as follows: (15) Does the 1996 Discipline, in making all baptized persons, including infants, members of The United Methodist Church, violate the Constitution P 4, which says that persons are eligible for membership "when they take the appropriate vows"? Par. 4 of the Constitution reads as follows: ¶ 4. Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church – The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. Therefore all persons, without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, to participate in its programs, and, when they take the appropriate vows, to be admitted into its membership in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition. (Emphasis Added) Par. 217 of the 1996 Discipline, which was adopted as part of the Baptismal Report legislation, states that "When persons unite with a local United Methodist church, they, or, if unable to answer for themselves, their parent(s), legal guardian(s), sponsor(s) or godparents(s), profess their faith in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Spirit." While theological changes may have taken place in some members' understanding of how baptism is related to church membership and "the growing ecumenical consensus" assisted the Study Committee in their thinking, and the inclusion of the provision that only professing members are to be included for statistical purposes, no change which abolishes the vow requirement can be legislated without amending the Constitution. Based on the clear wording of the Constitution, a person himself or herself must take the vows to be admitted into membership in any local church. Our rituals and practices of membership by only "profession of faith" or "confirmation" have been based on this premise. We, therefore, declare that the answer to Question 15 is "yes" as such legislation violates ¶ 4 of the Constitution which requires every individual himself or herself to take the appropriate vows to become a member of a local church. All legislation based on the definitions of "baptized members" and "professing members" as set forth in the 1996 Discipline is unconstitutional. Another significant issue concerns voting rights of members raised in Question 18. Par. 258.2 states that "full members" are entitled to vote and there is no definition of "full members" provided by the General Conference in the 1996 Discipline. Par. 250 also states "the vote to all local church members present at such meetings" for which the General Conference has provided no definition. The council finds that there are numerous paragraphs in the 1996 Discipline in which "full members", "members" and "local church members" are given substantial rights. Failure to provide a definition for these terms by the General Conference, or by amending these paragraphs to the new nomenclature creates an impossible administrative task. The council cannot speculate, in which instances, in these various paragraphs of the Discipline in which the General Conference would substitute "professing member" or "baptized member". We agree with the brief filed by Daniel Benedict on Question 18 which states that "The General Conference enacted legislation based on two quadrennia of study without thoroughly anticipating the full ramifications of the changes." We strongly recommend future study committees, commissions, or groups presenting comprehensive legislation research and include proposed changes for all paragraphs in the Discipline affected by the proposed legislation. We find that the adopted legislation in regards to voting rights is vague and uncertain so as to render it void and of no effect. Having made rulings on Questions 15 and 18, we hold that questions 1 through 14 and questions 16 and 17 are moot.
The legislation adopted in accordance with the Baptismal Study Committee report relating to "baptized membership" and "professing membership" ¶¶ 215, 222.1-5, 227.2, 231.1 and 2 (1996 Discipline), are declared unconstitutional. The 1996 legislation which constituted amendments to the existing membership provisions of the 1992 Discipline are unconstitutional and invalid, the 1992 Discipline relating to membership categories "preparatory membership" and "full membership" ¶¶ 216.4, 222-224, 232.1 and 2 (1992 Discipline) remain as the governing law of The United Methodist Church. Based on the foregoing, we direct that the local church membership rolls of The United Methodist Church be kept and maintained in accordance with ¶ 232 of the 1992 Discipline, and that the baptism and membership practices and polity shall be continued in accordance as set forth in the 1992 Discipline. This copy subject to final editing and correction. DECISION NO. 811 Concurring Opinion We concur with our colleagues regarding the inconsistencies, lack of clarity, and unconstitutionality in the 1996 Discipline relating to membership provisions. When the 1996 Conference passed By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism, a well-studied and strong theological rationale of the nature of baptism and membership was articulated. The concepts and definitions of "baptized" members and "professing" members are substantially different from the earlier understandings and definitions. By Water and the Spirit brings historic consistency and theological clarity to our understanding of the sacrament of baptism. This well articulated statement provides United Methodism with understanding and practice closer to our historical roots. By Water and the Spirit states: When persons (who were baptized as infants) are ready to profess their Christian faith, they participate in the service which United iMethodism now calls confirmation. This occasion is not an entrance into Church membership, for this was accomplished through baptism and the acknowledgment of one's acceptance of that grace by faith. At the heart of the issue of the meaning of baptism as it relates to membership is our sacramental theology as it is interwoven with our polity. In 1904 the Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference approved a new Constitution with the following provision: Members of the Church shall be divided into local societies, one or more of which shall constitute a pastoral charge. 1 This provision states that membership is held within the Church, with less significance on "membership" placed within the "local societies" (churches). Governance of the societies (or local congregations) was and is representative through the Charge Conference ¶ 248) and the Annual Conference (¶ 31). When the General Conference of The United Methodist Church in 1972 instituted the "Church Conference" it shifted the historic understanding of a representative understanding of governance to a more congregational understanding. The historic view held that membership is within a more universal and global church shifted, in principle and practice, to an understanding which is more congregational. The meaning of membership is then not only a sacramental issue but also has implications for our polity and matters of governance. It must be remembered that the strength of United Methodism is based on connectional principles. C. Rex Bevins