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Decision No. 886

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May 09 2000
In Re: Declaratory Decision Regarding Authority of an Annual Conference to Take Actions That Are Unconstitutional or Violate Provisions of the Discipline.

Digest of Case

The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.

Statement of Facts

On motion of a delegate from the North Georgia Annual Conference, the General Conference adopted the following resolution and referred the same to the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision. Be it Resolved, as provided in Paragraph 2616.1 and 2616.2a of The Book of Discipline, that the General Conference hereby petitions the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on the effect of how the covenant relationship between the Annual Conference and its Clergy relates to The Book of Discipline, and Further petitions for a declaratory decision on the application of The Book of Discipline as to whether there are circumstances where the Annual Conference has the right to negate or ignore The Book of Discipline, and Further petitions for a declaratory decision as to the constitutionality of actions taken which violate The Book of Discipline based upon the Annual Conference conscientiously disagreeing with a particular disciplinary paragraph, and Further petitions for a declaratory decision on the application of The Book of Discipline as to whether there are more basic and fundamental covenants which have precedence over The Book of Discipline, and, if so, provide clarification as to which of these other covenants the Annual Conference may rely upon to supersede or disobey disciplinary provisions. Sally Curtis AsKew recused herself from participation in this decision. Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2616 of the 1996 Discipline. Analysis and Rationale The first question in the resolution refers to how the covenant relationship between the annual conference and its clergy relates to the Discipline. Par. 15 states: The General Conference shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional, and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: 2. To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, and deaconesses. Pursuant to that power the General Conference has adopted Par. 303.3: Ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all Christians, especially with those whom they lead and serve in ministry. They also live in covenant of mutual care and accountability with all those who share their ordination, especially in The United Methodist Church, with the ordained who are members of the same annual conference and part of the same Order. The covenant of ordained ministry is a lifetime commitment, and those who enter into it dedicate their whole lives to the personal and spiritual disciplines it requires. In addition, the General Conference adopted Par. 304.1(i) which states, "Be accountable to The United Methodist Church, accept its discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers." When a clergy person engages in mission and ministry in The United Methodist Church, that clergy person covenants to perform his/her duties in accord with the provisions of the Discipline. The Discipline, in describing the administrative responsibilities of the clergy states: To administer the provisions of the Discipline and supervise the working program of the local church. [¶ 331.3(c)] This paragraph is specific in stating that a clergy person has the responsibility of adhering to the provisions of the Discipline and to assure that those for whom he/she has administrative responsibility do the same. Question two of the resolution asks whether there are circumstances when the annual conference has the right to negate or ignore the Discipline. In Decision 96 the Judicial Council declared: The Discipline of The Methodist Church (United Methodist Church) is a Book of Law, and the only official and authoritative Book of Law of The Methodist Church (United Methodist Church)—"a body of laws pertaining to Church government," regulating every phase of the life and work of The Methodist Church (United Methodist Church), including regulations relating to its temporal economy and to the ownership, use and disposition of church property. This decision makes it clear that all entities of the Church are bound by the provisions of the Discipline, and that no entity or individual member of the Church has the right to negate or ignore the Discipline. Question three of the resolution asks whether actions of the annual conference, which violate provisions of the Discipline but are based on conscientious disagreements with a particular paragraph of the Discipline, are constitutional. As indicated above, the Discipline is the book of law of The United Methodist Church, the provisions of which are binding on an annual conference and individual members of the Church. If annual conferences were free to violate provisions of the Discipline because they disagree with them, this would have the effect of negating or ignoring the Discipline. Such acts would leave the Church without any enforceable law, which would lead to chaos in the Church. Question four raises the question as to whether there are more basic and fundamental covenants which have precedence over the Discipline upon which an annual conference may rely to supersede or disobey disciplinary provisions. Since the Discipline regulates "every phase of the life and work of the Church," there are no covenants which supersede the authority of the Discipline.

Decision

The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.

Dissenting Opinion I completely and fully agree with my colleagues' rulings in response to the specific wording of the questions asked. However, I believe that there is a need to also directly respond to the very evident underlying question involving the tension between following one's conscience when doing so may ultimately be found to be in violation of the Discipline. While the Discipline itself gives no right to anyone to violate its provisions, our Christian heritage beginning with our Lord, and our Methodist heritage beginning with John Wesley both resound with people following their conscience and their God with challenges to the religious and secular status quo. Throughout time, Methodist (United Methodist) lay and clergy church leaders, while proclaiming dedication to Methodist (United Methodist) doctrine and polity, have taken totally opposite views on such issues as the American Revolution, slavery, women delegates to General Conference, ordination of women, homosexuality. (See the Historical Statement, 1996 Discipline, pp. 9-20.) Some of these stands have arguably been in direct violation of the Methodist (United Methodist) doctrine or Discipline existing at the time. John Wesley has been quoted as saying, "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think." (1996 Discipline, p. 48) Wesley also said, "To be ignorant of many things and to be mistaken in some, is the necessary condition of humanity." (1996 Discipline, p. 49) Interpreted together, these two comments readily leads to the question as to what things do indeed "strike at the root of Christianity", and then the fact that humanity may well be mistaken from time to time as to what these things are. In another example, tension also arises out of Par. 62, Section 3 - OUR DOCTRINAL STANDARDS AND GENERAL RULES, THE ARTICLES OF RELIGION OF THE METHODIST CHURCH, the 3rd subsection of Article XXV entitled "Of the Duty of Christians to the Civil Authority" which reads "It is the duty of all Christians, and especially of all Christian ministers, to observe and obey the laws and commands of the governing or supreme authority of the country of which they are citizens or subjects or in which they reside, and to use all laudable means to encourage and enjoin obedience to the powers that be." (1996 Discipline, p. 64.) In point of fact, the Methodist (United Methodist) Church has regularly affirmed both laity and clergy who have, by conscience and with obedience to a "higher law," done exactly the opposite of this exhortation. Therefore, a more comprehensive response to the question of the "right" to violate the Discipline is that laity and clergy do have the personal "right" to violate the Discipline, albeit not "legally", nor without subjecting themselves to the Disciplinary processes. This concept then leads to the second part of the tension which resolves around being "subject" to the Discipline. To be clear, those who are alleged to have violated secular or disciplinary law come under the punitive laws which govern the specific violation. However, being "subject to" the punitive provision of the law does not mean that one must be charged nor, if so charged, must be found guilty. Specifically, as to disciplinary law, if someone, or some entity of the church, is alleged to have violated the Discipline—and the disciplinary process has led to no charge, or an acquittal of the charge after full process has been followed—then the matter has been fully resolved in accordance with the existing law and is closed. Clearly, the sufficiency of the relevant punitive disciplinary process can be reviewed and modified legislatively if deemed necessary. However, in my opinion, there should never be questioning of the sufficiency and/or modifying of the punitive disciplinary process, which is in any way based on disagreement with the view or position which is alleged to be in violation of the Discipline. Evelynn S. Caterson Concurring Opinion The questions asked and the Judicial Council response center on possible actions taken by annual conferences. Although these questions border on being moot and hypothetical, we have responded. The Discipline is clear that annual conference actions must be faithful to and consistent with the Discipline. Annual conferences may not violate the provisions set forth therein. Additionally, the covenantal relationship between clergy and the annual conference include the provisions set forth in the Discipline against the backdrop of Pars. 301-303 which include following in "the way of love and service." In ordination, "the early church through the laying on of hands, set apart persons with responsibilities to preach, to teach, to administer the sacraments, to nurture, to heal, to gather the community in worship, and to send them forth in witness." (Par. 302) This covenantal relationship is both grace filled and binding. It is marked by love and respect for all those in the covenantal relationship. As in any covenantal relationship, there will be honest differences of opinion and commitments. Expressions of differences of opinion with the Discipline by a member of the annual conference are always an option. When actions taken by a clergy person are determined to be contrary to the Discipline, he or she is responsible for the consequences of such actions. Susan T. Henry-Crowe

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