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Church court rules on constitutionality of bishops' proposal


FORT WORTH (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.

However, 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)."

"Such 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 decision.

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.)

The 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."

Asked about 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."

"The 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."

The 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.

Discontinuance 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.

The coordinating 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 decision.

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 but the editing process delays current decisions.

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