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Decision No. 1109

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October 24 2008
In Re: Request for a Declaratory Decision from the Western North Carolina Annual Conference on Whether ¶ 1117.9 of the 2004 Discipline as Amended by the 2008 General Conference Contravenes Restrictive Rule 1 of The United Methodist Church Regarding Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion

Digest of Case

Paragraph 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, creates a doctrine of the “reserved sacrament” for The United Methodist Church. Paragraph 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, contravenes Restrictive Rule I. It thereby has the effect of altering Part II, Section 3, Article XVIII of the Discipline without legislative authority to do so. Hence, ¶ 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, is null and void. To achieve such a change of doctrine will require a two-thirds majority vote by the General Conference and three-fourths of the aggregate votes of the annual conferences.

Statement of Facts

The 2004 Book of Discipline stipulates in ¶ 1117.9 the following:

Encourage ordained elders to select and train laity to distribute the consecrated Communion elements to sick or homebound persons following a service of Word and Table. This distribution also may apply to laypersons who have been assigned pastoral roles in a church or in more than one church by the district superintendent.
At the 2008 General Conference, this paragraph was amended in the following manner:
Encourage ordained elders to select and train laity to distribute the non-perishable consecrated Communion elements as soon as feasible to the sick or homebound and to other appropriate persons as approved by the pastor following a service of Word and Table. Every family is encouraged to have at least one consecrated Communion distribution in each family annually.This distribution also may apply to laypersons who have been assigned pastoral roles in a church or in more than one church by the district superintendent.
The Western North Carolina Conference, in its session on June 6, 2008, approved a motion to petition the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the 2008 amendment. Specifically, the Western North Carolina Conference asks if the General Conference action in 2008 contravenes the Restrictive Rule Number 1 by clearly establishing the concept of a greserved sacrament,h thereby violating Article XVIII in The Articles of Religion.

JURISDICTION

The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2610.

ANALYSIS AND RATIONALE

Three separate, but related, questions are posed. First, does ¶ 1117.9 in the 2004 Book of Discipline and/or in its amended form by the action of the 2008 General Conference establish the theological concept of a “reserved sacrament” for United Methodists? Second, if so, does that concept constitute a new doctrine that contravenes the First Restrictive Rule (¶17) in the Constitution, which is Part I of The Discipline? Third, what is the relationship between the Articles of Religion in Part II of The Discipline and the Restrictive Rules and what are the implications of that relationship for adopting amendments? In Decision 358, the Judicial Council established precedents for considering these issues. The Council determined that Part II of The Discipline “itself is not a part of the Constitution.” At the same time and in the same decision, the Council judged that the doctrinal statements and General Rules in Part II “have the protection of the Restrictive Rules of the Constitution and cannot be changed except by following the procedures for Constitutional amendments.” While the Judicial Council was careful to say that it has “refused jurisdiction over questions which demand of it theological interpretations,” and left such determinations to the General Conference, it clearly determined which matters can be modified by legislative action and which matters may need to follow the process for adopting constitutional amendments. Are the “Articles of Religion” a part of the Constitution? In Decision 358 the Judicial Council clearly said they are not. Yet they are, according to the Council, “basic documents in the life and structure of our Church.” For that reason, they “are given even greater protection than the Constitution itself.” Indeed, the Council added, “Change in them is made more difficult.” In short, any change in “established standards of doctrine” must be made in the manner that would be used to amend the Constitution, except for an even larger super-majority in the aggregate vote of annual conferences—three-fourths, rather than two-thirds. The remaining question is whether ¶ 1117.9 in the 2004 Book of Discipline and its 2008 amendment establish a new theological concept in the doctrine of The United Methodist Church. This Judicial Council honors the precedent of Decision 358 and will not become the arbiter of theological debates. Nevertheless, the Council cannot overlook the fact that ¶ 1117.9 creates a fundamental shift in the way that the Church talks about the elements of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Certainly, it is a shift from the explicit stipulation in Article XVIII of the Articles of Religion that the Sacrament is not “reserved” or “carried about.” It is quite permissible for The United Methodist Church to change its doctrine regarding Holy Communion. But the means for doing so is not to act on a petition by a simple majority of the General Conference. Rather, the proper procedure is akin to that for amending the Constitution, except for the provision that a larger aggregate vote of the annual conferences—three-fourths—must be achieved. An argument from expediency, to make it easier for laity in remote areas to receive the sacrament, does not abrogate the Church’s methods for changing its doctrine.

Decision

Paragraph 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, creates a doctrine of the “reserved sacrament” for The United Methodist Church. Paragraph 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, contravenes Restrictive Rule I. It thereby has the effect of altering Part II, Section 3, Article XVIII of the Discipline without legislative authority to do so. Hence, ¶ 1117.9, as amended by the 2008 General Conference, is null and void. To achieve such a change of doctrine will require a two-thirds majority vote by the General Conference and three-fourths of the aggregate votes of the annual conferences.

DISSENTING OPINIOIN

The record supplied in this case is insufficient to facilitate review. The complete record supplied by the Conference Secretary is as follows:
At the Friday morning, June 6, 2008, session of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, during the report of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the annual conference upon motion by a clergy member, Thomas A. Langford III, adopted a request for a declaratory decision of the Judicial Council under ¶2610.2j as follows: Does ¶1117.9 as amended by the 2008 General Conference contravene the Restrictive Rules of The United Methodist Church?
Even if the record supplied is sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council, I nevertheless believe that a question of such magnitude regarding the Restrictive Rules merits a more thorough consideration of the issues raised. Under the current Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Council is the responsibility of the Secretary of the Annual Conference to provide the Secretary of the Judicial Council with materials relating to the matter being appealed, including the minutes where such matter arose in the normal proceedings of the body. See Rule III B. The minutes should include an exact statement of the entire question submitted for declaratory decision and clearly reflect facts sufficient to invoke the Judicial Councilfs jurisdiction, including any and all parliamentary actions tendered thereto. The issue does not present as a matter of great urgency that requires an immediate answer. I would prefer to defer the matter until the Spring 2009 docket and join additional parties who could be affected by the decision.

Jon R. Gray
Beth Capen joins in this dissenting opinion.

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