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Top court rules on bishops’ authority


7:00 P.M. EST April 26, 2010 | MORRISTOWN, N.J. (UMNS)

UMNS Graphic
UMNS Graphic

United Methodist bishops in the Philippines have the authority to handle a complaint against one of their own.

The United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, ruled that the Philippines College of Bishops could handle such complaints – contrary to references in the 2008 Book of Discipline declaring United Methodist bishops in the central conferences from Europe, Africa and Asia constitute one college of bishops in such matters. The court ruled that the references are unconstitutional.

The ruling was one of 10 decisions made during the council’s April 21-24 spring meeting in Morristown.

The complaint against Bishop Lito C. Tangonan, who leads the Manila Episcopal Area, accused him of misconduct under Paragraph 2702 of the Discipline. No details were provided by the council.

Tangonan was elected bishop in November 2008 at the age of 51, and began a four-year term on Jan. 1, 2009. He had previously served as district superintendent of Quezon City District of the Philippines Annual Conference East.

Bishop Lito C.
Bishop Lito C. Tangonan

Bishop Rudolfo Juan, president of the College of Bishops of the Philippines Central Conference, received the complaint on July 2, 2009. Both the supervisory committee of the college of bishops and the committee on episcopacy of the Philippines Central Conference requested a declaratory decision from Judicial Council as to whether the college of bishops had the authority to handle the complaint.

Ruben T. Reyes, a Judicial Council member from the Philippines, recused himself from the discussion and decision making regarding the request. The council called in Jay Arthur Garrison, the first lay alternate, to take his place.

Paragraph 413.2 in the 2008 Book of Discipline directs that any complaint against a bishop be processed through the college of bishops in that jurisdictional or central conference. The sentence at the end of that paragraph, however – and in Paragraphs 2704.1d and 2712.7 – states, “For the purposes of this paragraph, the United Methodist bishops of the central conferences shall constitute one college of bishops.”

As Judicial Council member Jon R. Gray points out in a concurring opinion, General Conference did not intend for members of central conferences in the Philippines, Africa and Europe, separated by distance and, in some cases, language, “to function effectively as a close collegial body.” Gray does not believe a constitutional decision is needed to “avoid an absurd result.”

But the Judicial Council ruled the provision unconstitutional. The complaint will be handled by the college of bishops in the Philippines Central Conference.

Authorizing retirement program

In other action, the council addressed the issue of who can authorize an early retirement program for an annual (regional) conference of the church.

During an April 22 oral hearing, the Rev. Jim Foster, senior pastor of John Wesley United Methodist Church in Houston, complained that the 2009 Texas Annual Conference was not given the opportunity to discuss or directly vote on the conference’s Early Retirement Incentive Program.

Such a financial proposal “could mean spending $1 million to $2 million from the reserve funds,” he said. “Doesn’t the annual conference have a responsibility to decide an expenditure of funds?”

During the annual conference session, Foster requested a ruling of law from Bishop Janice Riggle Huie regarding the report of the conference’s Core Leadership Team and the decision to offer retirement incentives. Huie denied the request, ruling that it was “not germane” to the proceedings.

Gib Walton, the Texas Conference chancellor, explained to Judicial Council members that the early retirement program was financed through an unrestricted pension reserve fund managed by the Conference Board of Pensions and the Group Health Benefits Committee. The fund was approved by the 2007 Texas Annual Conference “to meet an unexpected financial need” related to pension or health benefits, he added.

In the end, 17 pastors accepted early retirement under the incentive program, at an eventual cost of $600,000. Walton argued that the Conference Board of Pensions, whose report was adopted by the annual conference, had the authority to make the funding decision regarding the program.

Reversing the bishop’s decision, the Judicial Council cited Discipline Paragraph 613 in ruling that “decisions related to annual conference clergy support – in this case, post-retirement benefits – are to be made by the annual conference after receiving a recommendation from the council on finance and administration.”

Such a recommendation is required “even if the requisite funds are not from apportionments,” the council’s decision added. Authorization by the Conference Board of Pensions and the Core Leadership Team is not enough.

Indiana Conference budget

One decision and a memorandum were related to the new Indiana Annual Conference, a merger of the former Indiana North and Indiana South conferences.

Reversing a decision of law by Bishop Michael Coyner, the Judicial Council found that the 2010 budget and financial policies adopted by the conference amounted to reductions in the apportioned general church funds.

Church law requires that conferences build budgets that include items mandated by general church apportionments. It is clear, the council said, that the Indiana Conference Council on Finance and Administration used “the poor apportionment performances” of the two former conferences rather than the full apportionment amount to project income levels for a new budget.

“It is laudable for a conference to seek means for increasing revenue,” the council said. “But creating devices to generate higher revenue for the annual conference that might lead to full payment of apportionments established by the general Church does not relieve the annual conference from fulfilling the church law.”

In other business, the Judicial Council:

  • Decided that the new structure of the Dakotas Annual Conference must abide by all mandates of the Discipline and past Judicial Council decisions and, in this case, include a Conference Commission on Archives and History.
  • Affirmed the decision of law by Michigan Area Bishop Jonathan Keaton that the West Michigan Annual Conference has the authority to implement a mandatory conference-wide property and casualty insurance plan.
  • Declined jurisdiction in a case from the California-Pacific Annual Conference regarding voluntary termination of conference membership.

The full text of the Judicial Council decisions will be posted online within the next few days at http://archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp?mid=263.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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