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Decision No. 1179

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October 29 2010
In Re: Request from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision as to the Meaning, Effect, and Application of ¶ 4 of the Constitution as it Relates to an Annual Conference Rule that All Clergy Shall, Without Discretion, Admit to Membership Any Baptized Member Desiring to Join the United Methodist Church and Avowing the Faith

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.

Statement of Facts

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

1. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference adopt a rule stating that, in accord with Par. 4 of the Constitution, all clergy shall, without discretion, admit to membership any baptized member desiring to join The United Methodist Church and avowing the faith; 2. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference shall ensure that all clergy are aware of this rule. Accordingly, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry shall as soon as possible establish and implement concrete ways to effectuate this rule and awareness of it with all Conference clergy. 3. The Northern Illinois Annual Conference requests from the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church a Declaratory decision that the rule, above, and its implementation are consistent with the Constitution and Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.
Jurisdiction
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶ 2610 of the 2008 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
The Northern Illinois Annual Conference request for declaratory decision asks the Judicial Council to affirm that its 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 membership is a matter distinctively connectional, an Annual Conference has no authority to create standards of membership that conflict with the Discipline. Efforts of an annual conference to devise and define its own policies relating to the conditions, privileges and duties of Church membership are contrary to the Discipline. The 2008 General Conference amended ¶ 225 in an effort to remove the discretion of the appointed pastor in charge and to mandate that a member is 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, however, 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. Our jurisdiction is limited to declare Church law as it exists. We are not empowered to determine which path to membership is the right path or to re-write the Discipline between sessions of the General Conference. 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. It remains the prerogative and the obligation of the General Conference to determine the scope of the inclusiveness statement contained in ¶ 4 of 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 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.

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
CONCURRING OPINION
Judicial Council Decision 1032 determined that ¶ 214 and ¶ 225 of the 2004 Discipline “are permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows.” The General Conference in 2008 amended ¶ 225, changing the word “may” to “shall” in the paragraph that relates to persons who transfer their membership into The United Methodist Church from another denomination. Whereas the controlling opinion in Decision 1032 noted that ¶ 214 in the 2004 Discipline said persons “may be received” into membership and decided that “disciplinary language of ¶¶ 214 and 225 is permissive,” the action of the 2008 General Conference replaced the permissive term “may” with the mandatory term “shall” in ¶ 225 while leaving ¶ 214 unchanged. In the 2008 Discipline, ¶ 604.1 specifies the authority of annual conferences to make their own rules. The annual conference, for its own government, may adopt rules and regulations not in conflict with the Discipline of The United Methodist Church, provided that in exercise of its powers, each annual conference shall act in all respects in harmony with the policy of The United Methodist Church with respect to elimination of discrimination. The Judicial Council has delivered numerous decisions, from 1947 to the present, on the limits as well as the liberties of annual conferences to make their own rules. Therefore, the facts in this case are within a long history of jurisprudence by the Judicial Council regarding the authority of an annual conference to establish its own rules. This case also sits within the Constitutional provision that the work of annual conferences includes adopting their own rules and regulations. At least twenty-five decisions of the Judicial Council have touched directly on some aspect of the authority given to annual conferences to adopt their own rules. Particularly relevant for this case is Decision 323, the last sentence of which reads, “A rule which substitutes discretionary for mandatory authority to that extent is in conflict with the Discipline and invalid.” The action of the 2008 General Conference to amend ¶ 225 by changing the word “may” to the word “shall” transformed a previously discretionary authority into a mandatory one. As it now reads, “A member in good standing in any Christian denomination who has been baptized and who desires to unite with The United Methodist Church >b>shall be received as either a baptized or a professing member.” [Emphasis added.] Left unchanged is ¶ 214, which addresses eligibility for church membership and says, “All people may attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments and become members in any local church in the connection (¶ 4).” [Emphasis added.] Decision 1032 found that both ¶ 214 and ¶ 225 in the 2004 Discipline were “permissive” and did not mandate the receipt of persons into membership. The action of the 2008 General Conference removed any doubt about the nature of ¶ 225, which uses the word “shall” and is now clearly a mandatory statement. In keeping with Decision 323, therefore, any rule in an annual conference that would attempt to substitute discretionary authority for the mandatory authority in ¶ 225 is in conflict with the Discipline. Not covered by Decision 323 is whether an annual conference may adopt a rule with the word “shall” when the Discipline uses the word “may” (¶ 214). Moreover, although ¶ 214 still has discretionary language, ¶ 214 does not explicitly state with whom discretion resides. Decision 1032 found that discretion resides with the pastor in charge, even though no explicit statement appears in ¶ 214. Decision 323 says “A rule which substitutes discretionary for mandatory authority…is invalid.” It did not address what might appear to be a rule that substitutes mandatory for discretionary authority. Decision 1032, which was based in part on an interpretive reading of ¶ 214 and ¶ 225, has at least in part been superseded by the 2008 General Conference in its amendment of ¶ 225. William B. Lawrence I join in this concurring opinion. Katherine Austin Mahle I join in this concurring opinion. Susan T. Henry-Crowe October 30, 2010

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