Church court rules on constitutionality of bishops' proposal
(UMNS) -- The United Methodist Church's "supreme court" ruled as
unconstitutional a legislative change permitting the president of the
Council of Bishops to serve a four-year term free of residential duties.
the nine-member Judicial Council, said in its ruling that the proposal,
which would allow one bishop to work for four years solely on behalf of
the bishops and their representation of the church--without also having
to oversee a specific episcopal area -- could be secured via an
amendment to the denomination's constitution.
The Council of
Bishops had asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality
of legislation the bishops planned to place before the church's highest
legislative body, the General Conference, next spring. The request for a
declaratory decision was one item on a short docket the council dealt
with at its spring session April 26-27.
The judicial body cited a
statement from the church's constitution in part of their decision:
"The bishops shall have residential and presidential supervision in the
jurisdictional or central conferences in which they are elected or to
which they are transferred (Par. 47 of the Book of Discipline)."
a change could be adopted as an amendment to the constitution in
accordance with the procedures outlined in division five of the
constitution," the Judicial Council said in the digest of its unanimous
The council overruled an earlier decision that had
held implementing or enabling legislation could not be passed by the
same general conference pending ratification of such an amendment, but
must be enacted by the succeeding legislative session. (General
Conference, made up of lay and clergy delegates from United Methodist
judicatories around the world, convenes every four years to set church
law. The next session will be held April 27-May 7, 2004 in Pittsburgh.)
church's constitution may be amended by a two-thirds majority in the
General Conference "and a two-thirds affirmative vote of the aggregate
number of the members of the several annual conferences present and
voting," the Book of Discipline says.
Opening the oral
presentation April 26, Bishop Sharon A. Brown Christopher, president of
the Council of Bishops, cited "new and increased expectations" placed on
United Methodist bishops. The demands of the times conflict with the
ongoing demands of residing and presiding in an assigned geographic
area, she added.
"The Council of Bishops as a council is
responsible for leading the entire church," declared Bishop William B.
Oden. He said that in 1940, the Council of Bishops numbered 60, of whom
40 were actively assigned and 20 were retired. Today, he said, there are
68 active bishops, of whom 50 are in the United States, and 78 retired,
but staffing has not changed since 1940. The bishops' proposal would
add an active bishop who would not have an episcopal area for the
four-year term of presidency.
Bishop John G. Innis, who serves
the Liberia Area, said he believed having a full-time president "will
serve the church well." He reported that although the church is growing
in Africa, it is often undermined by crises and wars. Some African
bishops have been denied visas to attend the meetings of the bishops.
The continuity of a president of their council who could speak for them
and to them would be beneficial, he maintained.
Bishop Jack E.
Tuell said in response to a question, "I don't think there is anything
in the constitution that prohibits this." He added, "All we are doing,
in a way, is changing the term of presidents of the Council of Bishops
and relieving them of residential responsibility."
the president's speaking for church, Tuell said that the president of
the council already does that in a sense as "the president is supposed
to speak to the church and for the council." Only General Conference
speaks for the whole church, he noted.
Sandra K. Lackore, chief
executive of the denomination's finance agency, was also present to
answer questions at the request of the Council of Bishops delegation.
When asked by a member of the Judicial Council, she said General Council
on Finance and Administration estimates the cost of such a position at
$1.2 million for the quadrennium.
In other action, the Judicial
Council ruled that an annual (regional) conference must hold a clergy
session at the site of the regular session of the annual conference each
year. In the case of West Ohio Annual Conference, Bishop Bruce R.
Ough's decision of law as to the legality of the conference's clergy
sessions were "affirmed in part and reversed in part."
business conducted at a special clergy session cannot take the place of
or make irrelevant the regular annual session of the clergy members of
the annual conference," the council's decision noted. That had been the
case in West Ohio. The council also stated, "The actions taken at the
1999-2002 clergy sessions are not invalidated by this decision."
Judicial Council reviews all bishops' decisions of law. Another such
review involved a question about the use of a fund deposited by the West
Virginia Annual Conference Board of Pensions with the churchwide Board
of Pension and Health Benefits.
In a case continued from its
fall 2002 docket, the council ruled that fund in the deposit account in
question were unrestricted, and could be used to satisfy conference
health claim liabilities.
In a case from the Virginia Annual
Conference, the council affirmed the bishop's decision of law that ruled
cited paragraphs in the church's Book of Discipline were not in
conflict with the conference requirements for eligibility in the retiree
health care plan. The provision in question stated that, in order for
the conference to provide this retiree benefit, the retiree needed to
have 10 years of consecutive service in a full-time appointment under
that conference's bishop where his or her salary-paying unit has
contributed to the full apportionment rate for the Clergy Health Plan.
of an Alaska Missionary Conference church was at issue in decisions of
law by Bishop Edward W. Paup. The Judicial Council affirmed the bishop's
decision and agreed, "A missionary conference may discontinue a church
where all of the procedural steps are not followed." The council also
noted that the local congregation should be informed of such a
recommendation, but meetings involving the discontinuance that include
discussion of real estate and potential litigation may be closed, and
the sharing of verbatim accounts of such meetings is inappropriate. The
council agreed that a district superintendent, the cabinet or the
administrative unit of the Alaska Missionary Conference does not have
the authority to discontinue a congregation.
council of the Philippines Central Conference had asked for a
declaratory decision as to whether a Judicial Council member was
eligible to serve on the board of trustees of Wesleyan University in the
Philippines. The council ruled that the Discipline does not prohibit
such service. The member in question, Rodolfo C. Beltran, recused
himself and left the room, returning after the council had made its
A request from GCFA for a declaratory decision on
disciplinary paragraphs dealing with the number of bishops assigned to a
jurisdiction was withdrawn prior to the meeting. Another case
concerning an appeal of a decision from the Western Jurisdiction Court
of Appeals that had originated in the Pacific Northwest Conference was
deferred to the fall session.
Information about the Judicial
Council is posted at http://www.umc.org/churchlibrary/judicial but the
editing process delays current decisions.
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