Court Acts on Delegate, Clergy Issues
November 04, 2010
By Linda Bloom*
Regional United Methodist officials, questioning how much authority a key Church executive should have in setting the number of delegates to the denomination's lawmaking body, may have to wait and see.
The Judicial Council at its fall meeting ruled it had "no jurisdiction" to act on a request from the South Carolina Annual (regional) Conference inquiring about the General Conference secretary's authority to adjust the number of delegates participating in the legislative gathering. The General Conference, which gathers every four years, will next meet in 2012.
Among other actions at its Oct. 27-30 meeting, the denomination's top court ruled that the Baltimore-Washington Conference violated the fair process rights of one of its clergy members, and deferred to its April 2011 meeting a request from the New York Conference related to same-sex marriage.
In oral hearings on the case involving the General Conference secretary, the Rev. Tim Rogers of South Carolina asked the council whether the secretary could ultimately determine the exact number of delegates to be elected by each Annual Conference and possibly "become the single most powerful person in the denomination." Rogers is the South Carolina Conference secretary.
General Conference has set a range of 600 to 1,000 delegates and a ratio for representation, with each Annual Conference allowed to send at least two delegates. The concern, Rogers said, is if the language in Church law is interpreted to allow the secretary the latitude to fix any number of delegates, even within the range.
The Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist II, the current General Conference secretary, told the Judicial Council he understood the concerns, but said that legislation from the legislative body itself would be needed to correct any problems. He added that the secretary does need "a wide enough margin to allow for adjustments" as Annual Conferences select delegates.
Reist said he consults with the Conferences regarding representation because the final delegate count has financial implications. If General Conference has 750 delegates instead of 1,000, for example, "we can save a million dollars," he explained.
The Judicial Council ruled that it has no jurisdiction in the matter because the South Carolina Conference had taken no action that affects the authority granted to the secretary of the General Conference.
"In the absence of a specific action of the Annual Conference, a request for a declaratory decision is nothing more than an invitation to answer a moot and hypothetical question," the ruling said.
In other business, Judicial Council ruled that the Baltimore-Washington Conference violated the rights of a suspended pastor. The court ordered that compensation and benefits be restored to the Rev. Helen Steiner Smith, retroactive from Feb. 11, 2010, "until she receives another appointment or is declared ineligible for appointment."
Smith had been suspended from her position as pastor of Benevola United Methodist Church in Boonsboro, Maryland, in May 2009 after allegedly failing to carry out pastoral duties by not fully disclosing her husband's status as a registered child sex offender. According to news reports at the time, David Alvin Smith pleaded guilty the previous year to a sex offense charge after his adult daughter told authorities he had sexually abused her as a child.
Smith was placed on a voluntary leave of absence by the Conference, an action "reversed and vacated" by the court, which found the case to have been mishandled by the bishop, superintendent, and Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and "replete with errors, omissions, flaws, and disciplinary violations."
Judicial Council also deferred to its April 2011 meeting a request from the New York Conference on a policy it adopted this year allowing any of its clergy members to be "legally married at their own discretion, as permitted by Paragraph 103 of the Articles of Religion." The Conference asked the council for a declaratory decision regarding the policy, which affirms that Paragraph 103 takes precedence over Paragraph 2702, which prohibits same-sex marriage for clergy.
Requests to reconsider two decisions from the Judicial Council's meeting last April – upholding the trail court verdict against Jimmy J. Montgomery, a former South Carolina clergyman, and allowing United Methodist bishops in the Philippines to handle a complaint against one of their own – were denied.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.