U.S. annual conferences have no authority under current church law to withdraw from The United Methodist Church, the denomination’s Judicial Council court ruled.
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“There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church,” the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1444.
The church court said only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — can set the process and conditions for these regional church bodies to leave the United Methodist connection.
But as of now, General Conference has not established such a process for annual conferences within the U.S.
“Absent General Conference legislation, any vote and actions taken by an annual conference to separate are unconstitutional, null and void, and of no legal force or effect,” the Judicial Council said.
The church court released the ruling May 10 as U.S. annual conferences are about to begin their season of yearly meetings.
Decision 1444 responds to questions brought by the United Methodist Council of Bishops about U.S. annual conferences. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, has a lengthy process for conferences outside the United States to become autonomous.
But with no General Conference-approved separation plan in effect, the bishops asked whether U.S. annual conferences can leave under current church law.
As the Judicial Council notes, resolutions already have been filed in at least two U.S. annual conferences — Northwest Texas and South Georgia — seeking their disaffiliation. The Northwest Texas Annual Conference, which encompasses the Texas Panhandle, held a nonbinding vote last year signaling its aspirations to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church.
The Judicial Council rejected arguments made in some briefs that an annual conference should be able to set its own rules for departure. Without enabling legislation passed by General Conference, the church court said, an annual conference disaffiliation “is contrary to Church law.”
Annual conferences elect General Conference delegates, deal with matters related to clergy ordination, manage church discipline and, in the U.S., serve as pension plan sponsors for their clergy members. Annual conferences also are responsible for handling the disaffiliations of individual United Methodist congregations.
They are part of The United Methodist Church’s connectional form of church governance and any separation has “serious ramifications” for both the departing annual conference and beyond its boundaries, the Judicial Council said.
“The question of annual conference withdrawal from The United Methodist Church is a connectional matter and requires a churchwide legislative solution primarily because General Conference has ‘full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional,’” the church court said, quoting the United Methodist constitution.
“An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church,” Decision 1366 said. “This reserved right, however, is not absolute but must be counterbalanced by the General Conference’s power to ‘define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences.’”
In short, General Conference has not approved any legislation that provides a process for U.S. annual conferences to exit The United Methodist Church.
excerpt from a story by Heather Hahn, assistant news editor, UM News
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