Decision Number 387
A Request for a Declaratory Decision on Whether or Not General Boards Have the Right to Support Causes Without Specific Approval of the General Conference.
A general board or program agency of the church may, by action of its voting membership, align its board or a division thereof with an organization whose program or action is designed to implement the Christian social concerns expressed by the General Conference, even though the General Conference issued no specific directive for such action.
Statement of Facts
The Louisiana Annual Conference, meeting in regular session May 30, 1974 adopted by a two-thirds vote, a resolution requesting the Judicial Council to make a declaratory decision on the following question: Does the Book ofDiscipline give authority to the Board of Church and Society to join and give World Service money to a partisan political lobby group, such as the Health Security Action Council, organized for the purpose of promoting a single legislative bill, when the legislation in question has received no endorsement by the General Conference?
Acting on the basis of a General Conference Resolution, duly presented and passed by the 1972 General Conference, entitled Health, Welfare, and Human Development, a section of which passed judgment on the inadequacy of health care delivery systems, the Division of General Welfare of the Board of Church and Society proposed, and the Board approved by a specific line item in the 1973 expenditures budget, a contribution of $1000 to the Health Security Action Council. A like amount was approved for the following year in the 1974 budget. The HSAC is a Washington, D.C. based organization, the purpose of which is to disseminate information about, and to seek support for, the Health Security Act (Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 22) bills now pending. HSAC is supported by a coalition of national organizations now totaling 70, including the Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries and the Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, and a number of national church organizations.
Briefs have been filed by representatives of the Louisiana Annual Conference and the Board of Church and Society. The Council takes note of the concern and extensive research of Dr. J. Robert Kemmerly, a Louisiana layman, who originated the petition and appeared before the Council. A public hearing on the issue was held by the Judicial Council on November 7, 1974.
The Judicial Council accepts jurisdiction under Paragraph 1510 of the Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
At issue here is how much freedom and initiative a program board of the church may exercise in fulfilling the policies and program as established by the General Conference, and at the same time the basic responsibility of such agencies to maintain a broad sense of accountability to the whole church when they act.
Questions that impinge on this decision include the following: Is a programboard free to improvise on General Conference legislation which is more general in its statements than a specific issue requires for adequate treatment? Is such a board to be limited to action solely on the literal statements and actions of the General Conference? How then does a program agency or board deal with unanticipated issues of recognized vital Christian concern which arise suddenly during the four years between sessions of the General Conference? Can the action of any such board commit The United Methodist Church? Does the Discipline provide for any initiative on the part of this or any board in dealing with controversial issues? What recourse does an Annual Conference or local church have if it is in disagreement with an action of a program board?
The particular form of this issue in this case is the action of the Board of Church and Society allocating $1,000 to the Health Security Action Council and authorizing one of its executives to be a member of its governing committee. The question is before the Judicial Council because such action is not specifically to be found in the Discipline nor specifically authorized by the 1972 General Conference. On that basis the Louisiana Annual Conference has petitioned the Council for decision as to the right of the Board of Church and Society to take such action.
Paragraph 955 states the purpose of this Board:
Its purpose shall be to relate the gospel of Jesus Christ to the members of the Church and to the persons and structures of the communities and world in which they live. It shall seek to bring the whole life of man and woman, their activities, possessions, and community and world relationships, into conformity with the will of God. It shall show the members of the Church and the society that the reconciliation which God effected through Christ involves personal, social, and civic righteousness. To achieve this purpose the board shall project plans and programs that challenge the members of The United Methodist Church to work through their own local Church, through ecumenical channels, and through society toward such righteousness; to assist the district and annual conferences with needed resources in areas of such concerns; to analyze the issues which confront the person, the local community, the nation, and the world; and to encourage Christian lines of action which assist humankind to move toward a world where peace and justice are achieved. Prime responsibility of the board is to implement the Social Creed ( 77)
Paragraph 956 defines the authority of the Board of Church and Society:
It shall be the responsibility of the board and its executives to give forthright leadership and witness on those social issues that call Christians to action as forgiven people for whom Christ died. The board shall speak to the Church, and to the world, its convictions, interpretations. and concerns, recognizing the freedom and responsibility of all Christians to study, interpret, and act on any or all recommendations in keeping with their own Christian calling.
Authority for action in the field of health care by the Board's Division of General Welfare, is found in Paragraph 971.1:
It shall be the responsibility of the Division of General Welfare to conduct a program of research, education, and action, centering around the following Christian social concerns:... medical care... and such other related concerns as the board may specify.
Guidance for implementing Paragraph 971 in the area of health care is found in the Book of Resolutions. (pp. 3741) A resolution passed by the 1972 General Conference expressed concern about the existing health care delivery system and stated, the health care delivery system in the United States is seriously deficient. The resolution also contains nine criteria for a satisfactory health care delivery system. However, there was no endorsement of any specific legislative proposal.
According to the reports in the Board of Church and Society's brief to this Council, exhaustive analysis was made by its staff of the proposed legislation pending before Congress, using the nine criteria stated in the General Conference resolution as a basis. The Board's decision was that the Health Security Act could best meet the conditions set forth by the General Conference. It thus affiliated with the National Health Security Action Council as a means of supporting the kind of legislation which the Board had determined would meet the demands of the General Conference legislation.
The Judicial Council is concerned that, though the action was finally approved by the Division and the Board, it appears that steps were taken linking the name of the Board to the HSAC prior to the Board's formal approval because it had been assumed that approval of a budget line item in support of HSAC denoted full authority for such action. We remind the Board that only its elected members have the right and responsibility to make such decisions. No staff person may thus commit the Board without the vote of the membership who themselves are responsible to the General Conference for their action and to the Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences for their election as Board members.
On the matter of speaking for The United Methodist Church, there is no indication that the Board assumed it was speaking for the church. Indeed, when the executive learned that the name of The United Methodist Church was being used to support the organization, he took immediate steps to correct this.
In the judgment of this Council, the Board of Church and Society was acting within its disciplinary functions and authority to conduct a program of action centering around the Christian social concern about medical care. It made no commitment of The United Methodist Church as such, only the commitment of one of its program agencies. This latter commitment the Board had a right to make, in spite of the confusion of press reports as to the use of the name of The United Methodist Church. Moreover, it appears that the Board exercised its program initiative with proper recognition of the expressed concerns of the General Conference. That its decision and subsequent action with regard to the National Health Security Action Council resulted in differences of opinion across the church with regard to the wisdom of such action, is no evidence that the Board acted illegally in terms of its disciplinary mandates.
The mandate of the Board of Church and Society is to act on behalf of the General Conference both within and without the Church. Naturally, it is expected and necessary that the expression or act of the Board of Church and Society be within the guidelines set forth in the Discipline.
The Judicial Council must agree with the argument which holds that the reason for elected membership is to permit and enable general boards during the quadrennium to act positively and creatively in the world. If a general board were not to be allowed to make judgments and take actions as in this case, why elect representative members from across the church? These board members are expected to make significant and consequential administrative and promotional decisions.
To restrict a board as required by this petition would substantially curtail the activities of the general boards and agencies. With General Conference meeting only every four years it would be impossible for the church to be continually responsive and current with the world and its issues.
The law and its due process in The United Methodist Church provides means whereby the membership of the church may express themselves affirmatively or negatively with regard to the functioning of any of its program agencies. That means is legislative. The General Conference is the final arbiter on issues in this case as in others.
Inherent in this process is the election of basic members to the general boards by nomination of the Annual Conferences and election by the Jurisdictional Conferences. In addition, any member of The United Methodist Church may directly petition the General Conference for legislative action to change a situation or program of any board or agency which is of concern to the individual church member or a group of members. Until legislation changes the present situation, this Council deems the rights and responsibilities of the program boards and agencies to include the responsible use of initiative and creativity in implementing the concerns of the General Conference as expressed in the Discipline.
The Board of Church and Society was acting within its disciplinary purpose and authority under Paragraphs 77, 955 and 956 in supporting the Health Security Action Council as a means of implementing the expressed concern about the health care delivery system as stated by the 1972 General Conference, even though the General Conference issued no specific directive for such support.
Theodore M. Berry, Florence Lucas Edwards and Ralph M. Houston concur with the decision but dissent on the acceptance of jurisdiction