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Decision No. 1178

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October 29 2010
In Re: Request from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision Regarding Direction Given to the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to Ensure That No More Than a Profession of Faith and Vows of the Baptismal Covenant Be Required of New Church Members in Light of Article IV, ¶¶ 139 and 214-225

Digest of Case

Under the Constitution, the General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional including the power to fix the conditions, privileges and duties of Church membership which shall in every case be without reference to race or status. An annual conference is not permitted to devise and define its own policies or rules relating to the conditions, privileges and duties of Church membership. Such efforts violate the Discipline and are unlawful. Judicial authority under the Constitution is vested solely in the Judicial Council. An Annual Conference has no judicial authority.

Statement of Facts

The 2010 session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference adopted the following request for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council:

I. That the Northern Illinois Annual Conference finds and concludes that Article IV of The Constitution and Par. 139 of the Book of Discipline take precedence over Judicial Council Decision 1032, and determines that all actions within the power and authority of the Annual Conference concerning these matters be consistent with this finding; and II. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is directed to take steps necessary to ensure that membership be granted in accord with the above cited Constitutional and Disciplinary provisions (Article IV, Par. 139, Pars. 214-225) and that no more than a profession of faith and vows of the Baptismal Covenant be required of new church members in this Annual Conference. III. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference requests a Declaratory Decision from the Judicial Council that its direction to the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is correct.
The Judicial Council held an oral hearing on October 28, 2010, at New Orleans, Louisiana. The Rev. Marti Scott and The Rev. Dr. Gayle C. Felton appeared on behalf of Northern Illinois Annual Conference. The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht appeared on behalf of amicus curiae.
Jurisdiction
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2610 of the 2008 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
The Northern Illinois Annual Conference request for a declaratory decision asks the Judicial Council to affirm that the Conference’s direction to the Board of Ordained Ministry is correct. We are unable to do so. In reviewing action of an Annual Conference, our inquiry considers whether the action is consistent with or in conflict with the Constitution and the Discipline. Any conference action that conflicts with the Constitution and the Discipline cannot be affirmed. The Discipline is a book of law governing every aspect of the life and work of the Church, including regulations relating to its temporal economy, the use and disposition of Church property, and the conditions, privileges, and duties of Church membership. Under ¶ 604, an Annual Conference is authorized to adopt for its own government, rules and regulations that are not in conflict with the Discipline. The proposed direction to the Board of Ordained Ministry conflicts with the Discipline and is, therefore, impermissible. An Annual Conference may not legally ignore, negate, or violate provisions of the Discipline even when they are based upon conscientious disagreements with its provisions. Under ¶ 16, Article IV of the Constitution, the General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional including the power to fix the conditions, privileges, and duties of Church membership, which shall in every case shall be without reference to race or status. The issue of Church membership is a matter distinctively connectional. The General Conference has determined the meaning of Church membership in ¶¶ 214-221 and the method of admission into the Church in ¶¶ 222-225. Because church membership is a matter distinctively connectional, an Annual Conference has no authority to create standards of membership that conflict with the Discipline. Efforts of annual conferences to devise and define their own policies relating to the conditions, privileges, and duties of Church membership are contrary to the Discipline. The 2008 General Conference amended ¶ 225 and now mandates that a member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to unite with The United Methodist Church shall be received as either a baptized or a professing member. The 2008 General Conference did not amend ¶ 214 relating to Church membership or admission into the Church. The practical result is that the General Conference has created one path for admission into Church membership for persons in good standing transferring from other Christian denominations and another path for persons seeking Church membership who are not members of other Christian denominations, generally referred to as a profession of faith. We presume that the General Conference is aware of the provisions of the Discipline and that whenever it acts it does so with intention and purpose. The General Conference has expressly acted to change the provisions of ¶ 225. Our jurisdiction is limited to a declaration of Church law as it exists. We are not empowered to determine which path to Church membership is the right path or to re-write the Discipline between sessions of the General Conference. It remains the prerogative and the obligation of the General Conference to determine the scope of the inclusiveness statement contained in the Constitution and in relevant portions of the Discipline in order to provide clear and unmistakable direction to clergy and laity alike. Efforts of Annual Conferences to devise and define their own policies and rules relating to the conditions, privileges, and duties of Church membership are contrary to the Discipline. An Annual Conference may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference request for a declaratory decision asks the Judicial Council to determine whether the Conference’s direction to the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry is correct. It does not seek a decision as to the constitutionality, meaning, application or effect of the Discipline or a portion thereof. The preliminary language of the resolution that purports to find and conclude that the Constitution and ¶ 139 of the Discipline take precedence over Judicial Council Decision 1032 is in excess of its authority. The first clause purports to assume judicial authority. The second clause provides direction to the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry with general references to portions of the Constitution and Discipline along with the extant requirements for membership in the Church which are not in dispute. Under the Constitution and ¶¶ 55-58 and ¶ 2609 and ¶ 2610 of the Discipline, all judicial authority is vested in the Judicial Council. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference direction to the Board of Ordained Ministry is hereby determined and declared null, void, and of no effect.

Decision

Under the Constitution, the General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional including the power to fix the conditions, privileges and duties of Church membership which shall in every case be without reference to race or status. An annual conference is not permitted to devise and define its own policies or rules relating to the conditions, privileges and duties of Church membership. Such efforts violate the Discipline and are unlawful. Judicial authority under the Constitution is vested solely in the Judicial Council. An Annual Conference has no judicial authority. October 30, 2010

Concurring Opinion
My disagreement with the holding of Decision 1032 was made clear in my dissenting opinions in Decision 1032 and in Memorandum 1041. Simply stated, Decision 1032 was wrongly decided. It ignored our settled precedent relating to the assumption of jurisdiction and took liberties with the legislative prerogative of the General Conference. Although the 2008 General Conference made an effort to clarify the standard for Church membership and provide direction to clergy and laity alike, its effort was not comprehensive enough to be fully dispositive of the issue of inclusive membership. This has created a perverse anomaly. The Church now has differing paths to membership. There is one standard for Church membership for persons in good standing in other Christian denominations who wish to join The United Methodist Church (¶ 225). There is another standard for those who wish to join The United Methodist Church by profession of faith (¶ 214). Partisans on both sides of the membership issue have urged the Judicial Council to act in place of the General Conference to declare one standard of membership. On the one hand, some urge the Judicial Council to declare that all persons are to be admitted into Church membership upon request and without pre-condition. On the other hand, there are those who wish for the Judicial Council to rule that the pastor in charge has unbridled discretion to determine who can and cannot join a local church. Though polar opposites, both positions are equally misguided. The Constitution assigns to the General Conference the power to fix and define the conditions, privileges and duties of Church membership. Annual conferences may not establish parochial rules, regulations, policies, directives, or operating procedures relating to the conditions, privileges, powers and duties of Church membership nor may annual conferences prescribe methods of admission into the Church that conflict with the Discipline. This constitutional restriction applies to the Judicial Council as well. The Judicial Council has no authority to create law that it thinks the General Conference should have enacted, but merely to declare the law of the Church as it exists. As stated in my dissent in Memorandum 1041, this issue can only be resolved by the General Conference. Decision 1032 has caused the Church needless strife. However, the Judicial Council cannot act in excess of its jurisdiction. It would be a senseless repeat of the same mistake for the Judicial Council to assume legislative authority that is properly reserved to the General Conference. Jon R. Gray October 30, 2010 I join in this concurring opinion. Katherine Austin Mahle I join in this concurring opinion. Angela Brown October 30, 2010

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