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Members of the United Methodist Judicial Council pose for a group photograph during their Oct. 22, 2014 meeting in Memphis, Tenn. The men, from left, are: Ruben T. Reyes, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, the Rev. Belton Joyner, N. Oswald Tweh Sr. and the Rev. William B. Lawrence. The women, from left, are: Sandra Lutz, the Rev. Kathi Austin Mahle and Beth Capen. Not pictured is the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko. Photo by Mike Dubose, UMNS

Photo by Mike Dubose, UMNS

Members of the United Methodist Judicial Council pose for a group photograph during their Oct. 22, 2014 meeting in Memphis, Tenn. The men, from left, are: Ruben T. Reyes, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, the Rev. Belton Joyner, N. Oswald Tweh Sr. and the Rev. William B. Lawrence. The women, from left, are: Sandra Lutz, the Rev. Kathi Austin Mahle and Beth Capen. Not pictured is the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko.

Plan UMC Revised still partly unconstitutional

By Linda Bloom
May 10, 2016 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

One of the proposed plans to re-align the structure of The United Methodist Church will need yet another revision if the denomination’s top legislative body decides to adopt it.

In a May 9 ruling, the United Methodist Judicial Council declared, “Plan UMC Revised contains components that fail the test of constitutionality and components that are, as stated, entirely constitutional.”

Whether church delegates want to take action on the “constitutionally adequate” parts of the plan “is a legislative matter left to the processes of General Conference,” the denomination’s top court said. General Conference meets May 10-20 at the Oregon Convention Center.

Decision 1310 was one of eight decisions issued after the Judicial Council’s May 6-9 spring meeting at the convention center.

Another General Conference-related decision addressed questions posed by the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops regarding episcopal areas within a jurisdiction. Decision 1312 found that several different provisions of the constitution “address separate, not conflicting, aspects of the connectional pattern in which The United Methodist Church establishes and forms its episcopacy.”

Reaction to the ruling

The 2016 General Conference now has the responsibility of determining what happens to three commissions that Plan UMC Revised has put on the chopping block. Read the reaction to the Judicial Council ruling. 

Who has the authority?

The United Methodist Council of Bishops initially made a request for a declaratory decision on Plan UMC Revised last fall, but Judicial Council declined to rule at that time, fearing any action “could potentially place a constitutional seal of approval on one proposed legislative item,” as noted in Decision 1303.

Some of the constitutionality concerns are over issues of authority. “Plan UMC Revised” gives new authority and power to the Connectional Table, a church coordinating body; re-aligns the general agencies and eliminates three commissions.

In the May 9 ruling, the council found “problematic” a proposed addition to Paragraph 705 in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, which would add a responsibility to “determine mission and purpose” to the duties of the church’s boards and general agencies.

But that could infringe upon General Conference’s authority “to initiate and direct all connectional enterprises,” as stated in Paragraph 16.8, and expand beyond the stated tasks of boards or agencies of “promotion and administration.” The plan’s amendment to 705(a) “lacks the limits intended in Para. 16.8 of the constitution and thus is unconstitutional,” the court said in its decision.

Another potential problem is how Plan UMC Revised assigns “monitoring and reviewing” responsibility to the Connectional Table, since the constitution gives “general oversight” to the Council of Bishops.

If monitoring and reviewing is limited to the program agencies the Connectional Table oversees, the provision is constitutional, but if the assigned responsibility reaches beyond that, it is not. “Any clarification of this tension would need to be resolved legislatively by the General Conference,” the council pointed out in its ruling.

Because Paragraph 16.3 gives General Conference the authority to establish commissions “for the general work of the church,” it also could discontinue the current commissions on the Status and Role of Women, Religion and Race and Archives and History, the decision said. That action would occur if that current recommendation in Plan UMC Revised is retained and the plan approved by delegates.

But the plan’s proposed Paragraphs 901.3 and 901.4 allowing the Connectional Table to consolidate overall administrative and programmatic leadership, along with administrative services “…for all general church activities,” are unconstitutional, the court declared, as well as the Connectional Table’s proposed power to elect and dismiss general secretaries of program boards.

“Although coordination of program functions is highly desirable and is constitutional, any loss of a board’s decision-making authority is a usurpation of the General Conference’s prerogative in establishing such boards,” the council noted in its decision.

“Plan UMC Revised has dimensions that are constitutionally sound and dimensions that are constitutionally uncertain or defective,” the decision’s analysis and rationale section concluded. “The Judicial Council does not take a position on the wisdom and soundness of the proposals of Plan UMC Revised; that is a legislative determination to be made by the General Conference.”

Two oral hearings

The request by the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops to rule on two paragraphs in the Book of Discipline related to episcopal areas was the subject of one of the two oral hearings held by Judicial Council on May 6.

The college believes the two paragraphs are in conflict, but the denomination’s top court disagreed.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton explained that the college’s request was made to seek clarity “for what appears to be an inconsistency in our Book of Discipline” about the formation of episcopal areas after a modification to Paragraph 40 in 2012. “Rather than creating a clear line of authority,” he noted, the new version of Paragraph 40 seems to raise points of conflict.

The Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops already had been informed by the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration that the number of bishops in the jurisdiction would be reduced from 9 to 8 in the next quadrennium, due to the loss of membership. The jurisdiction’s committee on episcopacy has appealed “for a missional exception to allow the NEJ to retain nine episcopal areas.”

The Judicial Council’s decision in this case noted the complexity of connectional balances, particularly as new legislation is enacted. “When the constitution changes by the method of amendment, the balances among and between authorities in the church will experience changes,” the decision said.

Judicial Council found that Paragraph 404.2, “which legislates the ‘uniform plan’ for electing bishops in the jurisdiction,’ is constitutional.”

During the second oral hearing, the Rev. Thomas Griffith of the California-Pacific Conference presented its request for a ruling on wording in the Book of Discipline that, the conference says, allows General Conference to usurp a constitutional right of a conference’s committee on investigation and trial court.

In Memorandum 1316, Judicial Council said it was unable to obtain the required number of votes needed for establishing the unconstitutionality of the two paragraphs in question — 2702.1 (a) and 2702.1 (b) — so the paragraphs “remain constitutional.”

Other decisions

In other business, Judicial Council:

  • Upheld the process followed by the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals to uphold a verdict by a Rocky Mountain Conference trial court to terminate the membership of the Rev. Filimone Havili Mone.
  • Declared that an annual conference lay leader in the Desert Southwest Conference has the right to be present at cabinet meetings “when coordination, implementation or administration of the conference program is on its agenda” and also can give a laity address or report during the annual conference session.
  • Reversed part of a decision of law in the California-Pacific Conference, say that a bishop “does not have the authority to create a task force, nor select its members nor chair such a group that reports directly to the annual conference.
  • Affirmed a bishop’s decision of law in the East Ohio Conference regarding an involuntarily retired elder, ruling that “the questions raised deal with administrative and judicial matters that are not proper questions for a substantive ruling by a bishop.”
  • Denied reconsideration of a decision from the council’s Fall 2015 meeting.

Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at https://twitter.com/umcscribe or contact her at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org