Church court: Conferences can’t exit unilaterally

May 12, 2022 | by Heather Hahn

Church court: Conferences can’t exit unilaterally


U.S. annual conferences have no authority under current church law to withdraw from The United Methodist Church, the denomination’s top court ruled.

“There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church,” the Judicial Council ruled in Decision 1444.

The church court said only General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly — can set the process and conditions for these regional church bodies to leave the United Methodist connection. 

But as of now, General Conference has not established such a process for annual conferences within the U.S.

“Absent General Conference legislation, any vote and actions taken by an annual conference to separate are unconstitutional, null and void, and of no legal force or effect,” the Judicial Council said.

The church court released the ruling May 10 as U.S. annual conferences are about to begin their season of yearly meetings. 

Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part. Capen concurred with the ultimate holding but approached the issue differently. 

The United Methodist constitution describes an annual conference as “the basic body” of the denomination. Each consists of multiple congregations and other ministries such as camps and college groups in a geographical area. The United Methodist Church has 53 annual conferences in the U.S., and 80 spread across Africa, Europe and the Philippines. A bishop presides at each annual conference. 

Decision 1444 responds to questions brought by the United Methodist Council of Bishops about U.S. annual conferences. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, has a lengthy process for conferences outside the United States to become autonomous.

The bishops are dealing with a splintering in the denomination. After years of intensifying internal disputes around the status of LGBTQ people, the coming General Conference faces proposals for some kind of denominational separation including the disaffiliation of annual conferences. However, not one of these separation proposals has received a General Conference vote. 

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Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umnews.org