General Conference as Doctrinal Authority
For 10 years I served on the Commission for Dialogue Between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. They asked deep questions about how Methodists in the WMC family decide doctrinal issues. For Roman Catholics, it is the bishops who listen to the church and decide matters in Council under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. The Pope also teaches at a lower level through encyclicals. Each bishop teaches in his diocese so long as he does not contradict what the Council has said or what the Pope has taught.
Who has the ultimate teaching authority for the United Methodist Church? The answer is the General Conference. Part of what happens at each General Conference is prayerful discernment about what we should teach as the gospel of Jesus Christ. This goes back to one of the questions Wesley asked at the first Conference in 1744.
Because our General Conference no longer has all of the traveling elders of the Connection present (we have had delegated general conferences since 1812) and because not all of the lay members of annual conference are present, some of our doctrinal statements are protected by restrictive rules that require a ¾ vote of all annual conference members to change them. The Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Sermons and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament are covered by these rules. Other doctrinal statements are not protected in these ways. The rest of Part II of the Book of Discipline, Part III (The ministry of all Christians, including the mission statement) and the Social Principles are doctrinal statements of the General Conference. They are binding on the worldwide church and are official church teaching.
Thus, when we ask candidates for ordination, “Have you studied our doctrines? Will you preach and maintain them?” These are the beliefs we are referring to. It is General Conference that has the authority to establish our doctrine. In fact, for most of our history our book was called not the BOD, but “The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church”. It is a chargeable offense for clergy to disseminate teachings that are contrary to our doctrinal standards.
I hope that we will talk about doctrinal matters more and get a better understanding of what we believe. Many of the conversations about our church have doctrinal implications and the General Conference is engaged in those conversations in many different legislative committees.