The United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court,
issued 10 decisions and five memoranda at its October 2011 meeting
in San Diego. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
When annual (regional) conferences of The United Methodist Church decide to change their structures, they are obligated to retain some specific connectional relationships.
That message was delivered to the North Texas and South Carolina annual conferences by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court.
In separate decisions from its Oct. 26-28 fall meeting, the council found that restructuring plans implemented by both conferences failed to comply fully with church law.
The council also ruled that the Northern Illinois Conference does not have the authority to suggest a maximum penalty for any clergy member convicted of officiating at a civil union.
Reversing a decision of law by Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, the council asked the North Texas Conference to revise and complete a strategic plan adopted in 2010.
While an annual conference can adopt rules for its own governance, the boards, commissions and committees mandated by the denomination’s Book of Discipline “shall be maintained, clearly identified and defined and the connectional relationships shall be clear and obvious,” the council said in Decision 1198. “Any equivalent structures must be defined by name, function, connection and membership.”
During an Oct. 27 oral hearing on the North Texas structure, William Herscher, a lay member, said he had raised the issue during the North Texas 2011 Annual Conference session because he believed the restructuring did not maintain the required denominational committees or encourage leadership roles for laity.
Bishop Earl Bledsoe (left)
“One of the ways we transform the world … is (by) providing a connection for ministry beyond the local church,” Herscher told the council.
John Croft, chancellor of the North Texas Conference, argued that Bledsoe’s decision finding the new structure met the requirements of the Discipline was correct. He expressed “serious doubts” that Herscher’s question “was properly before the 2011 annual conference in the first place,” since the restructuring had been deliberated upon and decided the year before.
The Rev. John Fiedler, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Dallas, and chair of the strategic planning team that developed the new structure, noted that working groups now exist for mission areas such as church and society, global ministries, ethnic local church development and Christian unity and interreligious concerns.
“Mr. Herscher’s concerns have been answered but on the leadership team’s timetable and not his,” Fiedler added.
Bledsoe, who was also present at the hearing, confirmed the committees “are up and running” and said while the process for nominating members has been slow, it will be accomplished by the 2012 annual conference session.
He praised the conference’s new operational plan. “I think the structure is a lot more nimble; it’s flexible, and it allows us to accomplish what the North Texas Conference wants to accomplish,” the bishop said.
While not conducting a complete review of the amendments made to accommodate the new North Texas structure, the Judicial Council found its creation of a Center for Missional Outreach “fails to delineate how the function, connection and membership of the operating board or committee of the center will comply with the Discipline.”
The Judicial Council also found “defects” in the South Carolina Conference’s transition plan for new programmatic structures and is requiring the conference to submit a revision no later than 30 days after the council’s October 2012 session.
In Decision 1204, the court cited several examples of how the conference “has failed to match all the disciplinary requirements for conference structure.”
The plan’s deficiencies include lack of programmatic provisions for the mandated commission on archives and history and failure to link a council on youth with a conference council on ministries or an alternative structure, the decision said.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, Judicial Council president, is a member of the South Carolina Conference and recused herself from deliberations on the decision.
The 2011 clergy session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference adopted a resolution regarding a “suggested maximum penalty” for any clergy member charged, tried and convicted of officiating at a same-sex civil union ceremony.
The suggested penalty was “suspension of said convicted minister from the exercise of pastoral office for a period of 24 consecutive hours.”
The Book of Discipline states, “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
In Decision 1201, the Judicial Council declared the resolution “null, void and of no effect.” The Discipline makes clear, the decision said, “that only a trial court has the power to set a penalty in a church trial which results in a conviction.” The trial court can consider “the full legislated range of options” when determining that penalty.
Those options include revoking the minister’s ordination, suspending the minister from exercising the functions of office or imposing a lesser penalty, according to the Discipline.
Any effort by an annual conference, “even by means of a suggestion,” to modify or limit penalties intrudes upon the authority of the Discipline and alters legislative action by General Conference, the court said.
In a concurring opinion, Judicial Council member Jon R. Gray noted that the Northern Illinois resolution “and others of similar ilk are worthy of Macbeth’s commentary: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
For an annual conference to offer an opinion about a standard or customary penalty or suggest a maximum penalty related to a church trial “is wholly inappropriate,” he wrote.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.