March 30, 2022 | by Heather Hahn
Even in these days of instant communications, an annual conference must wait until it is in session to vote on any changes to its standing rules.
“Anything else would be tantamount to proverbially ‘putting the cart before the horse,’” the Judicial Council said in Decision 1440.
The United Methodist Church’s top court released that decision and four other rulings March 29 — almost all reviewing bishops’ decisions of law during the 2021 annual conference season.
During church meetings at which they preside, United Methodist bishops often face questions about church law. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, requires that the bishops’ resulting decisions go to the Judicial Council for review. The church court then has the option to affirm, modify or reverse each bishop’s decision.
In Decision 1440, the Judicial Council reversed in part a decision by now-retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many annual conferences met online over the past two years. Ward determined that it was “permissible” under church and state law for the North Carolina Conference to vote by email on standing rules ahead of the 2021 annual conference session to allow the meeting to be virtual.
On the matter of church law, the Judicial Council disagreed. The Discipline’s Paragraph 605 establishes that an annual conference must have an opening session before conducting business, the court noted. That business includes receiving and acting upon reports. Any proposed changes to the standing rules usually come from the report of the conference’s rules committee.
“An annual conference may not approve changes to its standing rules or conduct any other business prior to the opening session,” the Judicial Council ruled. It added that the ruling “shall be prospective and not affect any actions taken by the North Carolina Annual Conference at its 2021 session.” That means the church court's decision has bearing on future annual conference sessions but does not invalidate the annual conference's other actions taken in 2021 after the standing-rules vote.
In a concurring opinion, Judicial Council member Beth Capen agreed that no business may be conducted before annual conference officially starts. However, she differed from her colleagues, who held that the bishop’s mention of the legality of online meetings under church and civil law went beyond the scope of the question.
“I interpret the Bishop’s ruling as providing the contextual framework of the events,” Capen wrote.
The Judicial Council also has faced multiple questions related to the deadline for submitting proposed legislation to the coming General Conference, which because of the pandemic is now postponed to 2024. In February, the church court ruled that any postponement of General Conference resets the submission deadlines for such proposals.
In Decision 1437, the Judicial Council reversed Bishop Gary Mueller’s decision that said an Arkansas Conference petition submitted past the original deadline would still meet the requirements for consideration by the coming General Conference. The Judicial Council said the Discipline’s Paragraph 507 reserves the determination of whether a petition meets submission requirements to the General Conference secretary or designated petitions secretary.
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