Memorandum Number 1448
SUBJECT TO FINAL EDITING
In Re: Question concerning the legality of an Annual Conference Resolution which declares that the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference, part of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference, “withdraws from and severs all ties, legal or otherwise, with The United Methodist Church as of 1 May 2022 and immediately becomes an annual conference of the Global Methodist Church …. This resolution is not made on the basis of ¶ 572 of the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.”
Statement of Facts
At the April 1, 2022 session of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference, the presiding bishop announced that the first item of business on the agenda was a resolution for the Annual Conference to leave the United Methodist Church. The resolution was read by a district superintendent who was one of its proponents.
The bishop then responded as follows:
The resolution that is under consideration has been brought before the Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As such, we are under the jurisdiction of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. In the discussions that were had prior to this session after I received this resolution, I shared with your superintendents that I do not see a legal basis in the Discipline for the acceptance of such a resolution. I shared with them that the only legal grounds that I see for an Annual Conference to leave the United Methodist Church are found in Article 572 of the Discipline. This is the only legal possibility for leaving the United Methodist Church. And because this is the only option, I have to rule that this decision is out of order.
When a bishop determines that something is out of order because it is a violation of the Discipline, it cannot be considered by the Annual Conference. Then those who have submitted such a resolution have the right and opportunity to declare on what grounds they have brought their resolution. Then it becomes a question of law. I declare this resolution to be out of order because it violates the Discipline. You are free to challenge it and say on what grounds you oppose it. (Meeting Minutes, 01 April 2022; emphasis added)
After a motion to appeal the bishop's ruling and a second, discussion continued among the delegates and the bishop as to whether his ruling was “parliamentary” and could thus be overridden by the body. No less that six times during this discussion, the bishop stated that the question of voting on the withdrawal resolution was a question of law. However, he went ahead and let them vote to “refute” his out of order ruling and proceed with the resolution of withdrawal. The vote was 35 for and zero against.
After stating that he would report the question of voting on the withdrawal resolution to the Judicial Council, the bishop removed himself as presiding officer. The delegates then voted to approve confirmation of the election of a temporary president, and proceeded to elect one of the district superintendents as the temporary chair.
The temporary chair stated that we have a basis on which to vote on withdrawal citing JCD 1366. After considerable additional discussion, he called for a vote on the withdrawal resolution which was adopted 35 for, and zero against. [The action taken here preceded our decision in JCD 1444.]
The district superintendent stepped aside as presiding officer; the bishop returned to his place at the table, and after a coffee break, continued the work of the Annual Conference.
On April 8, 2022, the bishop issued his ruling on a question of law which he framed as follows:
The resolutions submitted for voting at the Provisional Annual Conference are all premised on whether there is authority in the Book of Discipline for such actions. These are not parliamentary questions. Notwithstanding that the maker of the motion to adopt the resolutions sought to avoid asking any question of law, the resolutions presented questions of law under the Discipline within the meaning of Paragraph 51 of the 2016 Book of Discipline, and I am obligated to issue a ruling on such questions pursuant to Paragraph 51 regardless of whether a formal request for a decision of law is made, particularly in the context of a proposed separation of the annual conference from the UMC. Therefore, I state the questions of law as follows:
(1) May an annual conference – or a provisional annual conference — in a central conference of the United Methodist Church separate from the UMC if it has not complied with Paragraph 572?
(2) Do Paragraph 33 and Decision 1366 authorize an annual conference – or a provisional annual conference – in a central conference to separate from the UMC other than by complying with Paragraph 572 if the General Conference has not enacted any legislation to prescribe the process and requirements for the separation?
(3) May an annual conference – or a provisional annual conference – continue any consideration of these matters and elect a new chairperson for voting on these matters before a decision of law is reviewed by the Judicial Council?
The Bishop then framed his rulings as follows:
(1) I rule that an annual conference – or a provisional annual conference – in a central conference does not have authority to separate from the United Methodist Church unless it complies with Paragraph 572 of the 2016 Book of Discipline. Here, the Provisional Annual Conference Bulgaria – Romania has not complied with Paragraph 572 and the resolution to separate, and all other actions taken pursuant to that resolution were out of order as unauthorized and are void and of no force or effect.
(2) I further rule that Paragraph 33 of the 2016 Book of Discipline and Decision 1366 do not authorize an annual conference to separate from the UMC other than by complying with Paragraph 572. Even if Paragraph 33 as interpreted by Decision 1366 were to provide some general authority for an annual conference of the UMC to separate from the denomination, that authority may only be exercised to effectuate a separation pursuant to legislation enacted by the General Conference that sets forth the process and requirements for separation. Since the General Conference has not enacted that legislation – except paragraph 572 –, there is not authority for the actions taken regarding separation and related matters by the Provisional Annual Conference Bulgaria – Romania and those actions were out of order as unauthorized and are void and of no force or effect.
(3) Because the annual conference had no authority to enact the resolution to separate and any other actions related to separation thereafter, I further rule that it was out of order to continue any consideration of these matters after my ruling a decision of law and until such decision of law is reviewed by the Judicial Council. Pursuant to Paragraph 51, my episcopal ruling was authoritative for that annual conference subject to review by the Judicial Council .… The action of the annual conference was contrary to the order of Paragraph 51 and any further consideration of the matters was therefore also contrary to the order of the Discipline. The delegates had no authority to elect another presiding officer nor to continue consideration of the unauthorized matters.
The Judicial Council lacks jurisdiction. The Judicial Council's jurisdiction is limited to those provisions contained in ¶ 2609 and ¶ 2610 of the 2016 Book of Discipline and may only rule pursuant to those paragraphs. Here, there was no question of law properly and duly submitted to the presiding Bishop upon which he could issue a ruling of law, nor was there a request for a declaratory decision that was adopted by the Annual Conference. As such, the submission is not properly before us.
August 22. 2022
The doctrine stare decisis (“let the decision stand”) holds that courts should look to past decisions for guidance and answer questions of law in accordance with precedent. Consequently, when the Judicial Council decides an issue, the ruling sets precedent for future cases presenting identical or similar questions. See ¶ 2611. Stare decisis requires here that the Judicial Council adhere to its long-standing jurisprudence by holding that “there was no question of law properly and duly submitted to the presiding Bishop upon which he could issue a ruling of law” at the session of the Bulgaria-Albania Provisional Annual Conference. JCD 799, aff’d, JCD 867, 927, 1372, 1434. It is stare decisis that compels us to join the majority opinion.
That being said, we are deeply troubled by the actions of said annual conference, which, in our view, are nothing short of a blatant circumvention of Church law, particularly JCD 1444, in which the Judicial Council emphatically stated:
Decision 1366 cannot be construed as creating a self-executing right for an annual conference to separate because the Judicial Council has no legislative authority. 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. 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.
There was no doubt in our mind that the members and leaders of that conference knew exactly what they were doing. They deliberately sought to avoid raising a question of law to prevent the merits of the case from being adjudicated by the Judicial Council on ‘jurisdictional grounds.’ Their strategy was to use a legal technicality to engineer an outcome they could not have accomplished otherwise. We are equally concerned that this could inspire copycats in the future.
In passing, we also note that Bishop Patrick Streiff could have invoked ¶ 2609.4, which would have allowed the Judicial Council to “hear and determine the legality of any action taken by…any body created or authorized by a jurisdictional or central conference, upon appeal by…a majority of the bishops of the jurisdictional or central conference wherein the action was taken.” This process would not require a question of law to be properly submitted by a member of an annual conference. All it would take is an appeal by a majority of the college of bishops to the Judicial Council. Since he is the sole episcopal leader in his central conference, Bishop Streiff would meet the majority-vote threshold and have standing to bring this case to the Judicial Council.
Luan-Vu “Lui” Tran
Deanell Reece Tacha
N. Oswald Tweh
August 22, 2022
I concur with the holding of the majority and write separately regarding the need to be cognizant of the Disciplinary provisions that govern the relationship of Central Conference, and Annual Conferences outside of the United States, to The United Methodist Church. In Decision 1444 I wrote separately to address these issues and hereby set it forth once more.
The United Methodist Church in the United States, and its predecessor bodies, has a long history of building institutions and churches in many regions of the world. Our apportionment dollars and special giving enabled these efforts through the Board of Global Ministries. The Discipline also evidences the recognition that once a regional body has grown strong and self-sufficient, it may desire to exist under its own authority rather than perceiving itself as being controlled by a denomination which is administered by agencies located in the United States. When that occurs, the Discipline sets forth an explicit process that permits the regional church to become autonomous. The process for becoming autonomous is a process of engagement. It also entails procedures to make certain that sufficient resources and structures are in place so as to ensure the on-going Methodist mission and ministry of the former United Methodist region once it become autonomous.
Becoming an autonomous Methodist Church requires a process of dedicated engagement wherein all stakeholders must be in support of the regional church assuming full governing authority. The process of becoming autonomous is not “disaffiliation” wherein a regional body simply leaves the denomination and takes the assets that were provided through apportionment dollars and special giving and moves into the future without any conditions or accountability. Nor is it akin to the process that was made available to local church by the 2019 Special Session of General Conference. It is significantly different in virtually all aspects.
Every Discipline, since the predecessor denominations’ merger in 1968, has contained a section that specifies the steps and process for regional United Methodist Conferences outside of the United States to become autonomous. Given the continued recitation of the dictum in 1366, I believe that it is important to understand the nature of “becoming autonomous” so as to distinguish it from “disaffiliation.”
Our current Discipline provides:
Becoming An Autonomous Methodist,
Affiliated Autonomous Methodist,
or Affiliated United Church from Central Conferences
¶ 572. When conferences outside the United States that are parts of The United Methodist Church desire to become an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist, or affiliated united church, approval shall first be secured from the central conference involved and this decision be ratified by the annual conferences within the central conference by two-thirds majority of the aggregate votes cast by the annual conferences.
- The conference shall prepare a historical record with reasons why affiliation and/or autonomy is requested and shall consult with the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (¶ 2201) on proceedings for affiliation and/or autonomy.
- The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters and the conferences involved shall mutually agree on the confession of faith and the constitution of the new church. These shall be prepared with care and shall be approved by the conferences.
- Preparation of its Discipline is the responsibility of the conference(s) desiring affiliation and/or autonomy.
- Upon recommendation of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, when all disciplinary requirements for affiliated and/or autonomous relationship have been met, the General Conference through an enabling act shall approve of and grant permission for the conference(s) involved to become an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist, or affiliated united church.
- Then the central conference involved shall meet, declare the present relationship between The United Methodist Church and the conference(s) involved dissolved, and reorganize as an autonomous Methodist, affiliated autonomous Methodist, or affiliated united church in accordance with the enabling act granted by the General Conference. The Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters shall assist in this process and, when the plans are consummated, report to the Council of Bishops. The proclamation of affiliated and/or autonomous status shall then be signed by the president of the Council of Bishops and the secretary of the General Conference.
- A plan of cooperation shall be developed in accordance with ¶ 571.4.
[2016 Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church]
It is critical that we remain cognizant of the difference between a Central Conference, or an Annual Conference within a Central Conference, becoming “autonomous” and a local church becoming “disaffiliated.” The Central Conference, or Annual Conference located outside of the boundaries of the Jurisdictional Conferences, seeking autonomy is governed by the processes that are referenced in ¶ 572, whereas a local church seeking disaffiliation is governed by the provisions contained in ¶ 2553. Paragraph 572 contains the applicable church law which governs and controls in Central Conferences. There is no other method or means contained in the Discipline nor its Errata because there is not now, nor has there ever been, a process of “disaffiliation” of an annual conference from the denomination, particularly given that the concept of disaffiliation is inconsistent with our polity of connectionalism.
August 22, 2022
I join the majority’s disposition of this case but on the ground that the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference has departed the United Methodist Church, not to be heard from again, and we therefore do not have jurisdiction because of mootness. However, the majority holds that “there was no question of law properly and duly submitted to the presiding bishop upon which he could issue a ruling of law…” and that the Council therefore lacks jurisdiction.
I am nevertheless of the opinion that in cases with this factual scenario, (i) a proper question of law has been present to the presiding bishop, and (ii) we should take jurisdiction under ¶ 51 and ¶ 2609.6 of The Discipline and rule on the merits.
¶ 51. Article VII of the Discipline provides that presiding bishops in an annual conference “…shall decide all questions of law coming before the bishop in the regular business of a session, provided that such questions be presented in writing and that the decisions shall be recorded in the journal of the conference.” ¶ 2609.6 provides that the Judicial Council shall have jurisdiction to pass upon and affirm, modify or reverse such rulings upon questions of law “… submitted to [bishops] in writing in the regular business of a session….” (emphasis added).
The majority misreads ¶ 2609.6 and ignores the plain language of ¶ 51 that the presiding bishop “shall decide all questions of law coming before the bishop in the regular business session….” The question of law as to whether an annual conference can just up and willy-nilly withdraw from the denomination was submitted to him as required by ¶ 2609.6), in writing, in the form of the first agenda item, the withdrawal resolution, and his decision is in writing and was made a part of the official minutes. There is nothing in The Discipline which requires that there must be a request for a ruling of law from the floor that can only be made by a delegate. Any such rule is judge-made law which is wrong and which I would not follow and, if necessary, overrule. (Emphasis added).
With respect to the merits of the case, the delegates arrived at the April 1, 2022, session of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference “loaded for bear,” the district superintendents having presented the bishop with the withdrawal motion two weeks earlier at a cabinet meeting. Notwithstanding the facts that the bishop told them during the session that (i) an annual conference in a central conference could only withdraw by following the process set forth in ¶ 572 and (ii) JCD 1366 did not solve their problem because even though ¶ 33 gives an annual conference the right to vote to withdraw, it must be done pursuant to legislation enacted by the General Conference that sets forth the process and requirements for separation, the delegates went forward anyway and adopted their withdrawal motion.
In this portion of his ruling the bishop said:
Even if Paragraph 33 as interpreted by Decision 1366 were to provide some general authority for an annual conference of the UMC to separate from the denomination, that authority may only be exercised to effectuate a separation pursuant to legislation enacted by the General Conference that sets forth the process and requirements for separation. (Meeting Minutes 01 April 2022)1
He obviously anticipated our decision in JCD 1444 wherein we held that:
Decision 1366 cannot be construed as creating a self-executing right for an annual conference to separate because the Judicial Council has no legislative authority. 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. 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.2
I would therefore hold that the action of the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference was a violation of church law and unconstitutional which rendered it null, void, and of no legal force or effect.
W. Warren Plowden Jr.
1 The presiding bishop’s ruling of law was issued on April 8, 2022.
2 Our decision in JCD 1444 was issued thirty-two days later on May 10, 2022.