Decision Number 307
Petitions from the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church and the Joint Commission on Church Union for a Declaratory Decision Concerning the Postponement or Cancellation of the 1970 Special Session of the General Conference
The General Conference is the only body within the Church possessing the power to postpone or to cancel a special session of the General Conference in 1970 ordered by the 1968 General Conference meeting in Dallas, Texas.
There is no provision in the Constitution, the 1968 Discipline or the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference permitting the transaction of General Conference business by polling delegates by mail or by similar device. In the absence of such provisions, the business of the General Conference must be conducted as a body in a meeting or session duly convened, and a resolution to reconsider and reverse the action of the 1968 General Conference calling a 1970 special session may be acted on only in such a meeting of the body.
Statement of Facts
The Judicial Council received from the Secretary of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church letters dated November 25, 1968, and December 2, 1968, reading in part as follows:
"At its meeting in Chicago, November 11-14, 1968 the Council of Bishops went on record as judging the 1970 General Conference unnecessary, and voted to request the Judicial Council to give us their judgment as to whether there is any legal way by which a possible cancellation of the Conference can be considered such as a mail poll of the delegates of the past General Conference.
"I believe that you will receive a similar suggestion from the Ad Hoc Commission though not exactly the same form.
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"This letter is supplemental to my letter of some days ago. It occurs to me that probably the Judicial Council would like to know the thinking back of the Council of Bishops affirming that they judged a 1970 session of the General Conference unnecessary. The following reasons should be listed:
"1. It appears now after the Ad Hoc Committee has about completed its work, that the 1968 General Conference did actually act upon legislation that now represents a more complete Discipline than it appeared could be the case at the time of the motion for a special session. In the confusion at that time it appeared that we would have to adjourn the Dallas meeting with a very incomplete Discipline. "2. We are told that the new Discipline will not be out before at least February, 1969 and we doubt that the new body of legislation can be given a sufficient trial in so brief a time.
"3. The three study commissions have only recently been organized and we assume that in the brief time remaining they could do little more than submit a progress report to the 1970 session.
"For these reasons and with the knowledge that the five day session must necessarily be most expensive, we are simply raising with the Judicial Council the question of whether in its judgment there is any legal way by which the 1970 session might be postponed."
The Judicial Council also received from the Joint Commission on Church Union a copy of a resolution adopted by the Joint Commission at its meeting on November 14, 1968, reading as follows:
"Voted: That the Joint Commission, through its Secretary, request a ruling by the Judicial Council as to whether there was any way in which the action of the 1968 General Conference in calling a special session for 1970 could be reconsidered and then reversed."
In a statement accompanying said resolution, the Joint Commission on Church Union made it clear that the Commission took no position concerning the advisability of a 1970 special session.
The special session to which the aforesaid letters and resolution referred was called on the recommendation of the Committee on Conferences in Report No. 46 adopted May 1, 1968 by the Uniting Conference in Dallas, Texas. The report reads as follows:
"This Uniting Conference calls a Special Session to meet in April, 1970 for not more than five days at such time and at such place as the Commission on Entertainment and Program may determine, for the purpose of transacting any business that a Regular Session of the General Conference could transact."
This action of the Uniting Conference became the action of the 1968 General Conference on May 4, 1968 when the latter adopted a blanket resolution ratifying and confirming all actions theretofore taken by the Uniting Conference (DCA, p. 800).
We consider the letters from the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church and the resolution of the Joint Commission on Church Union quoted above to be in the nature of petitions for a declaratory decision, raising questions concerning the meaning, application and effect of the call voted by the 1968 General Conference. Accordingly, we have jurisdiction under Paragraph 1715 of the 1968 Discipline.
Analysis and Rationale
Under the Constitution, the General Conference is the supreme legislative body of the Church and except as otherwise provided in the Constitution, no other body or agency of the Church may regulate its work or determine the advisability or timing of its sessions, whether regular or special. This is a necessary conclusion to be drawn from the Constitution's separation of powers of the legislative, judicial and episcopal branches of the government of the general Church. Accordingly the General Conference alone may postpone or cancel the special session which it has heretofore called to be held in 1970.
In the Discipline of The United Methodist Church, there exists no provision comparable to that in Section 191 of the Discipline of the former Evangelical United Brethren Church, whereby it was provided that if it became necessary to change the time or place of a session of the General Conference of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, the General Council of Administration could determine the change and make due announcement thereof. While in Report No. 46 of the Committee on Conferences, the specific day for convening the special session in April, 1970 and the site of the session, were matters left to the Commission on Entertainment and Program, no authorization was given to that Commission or any other General Conference body or officer to postpone the special session beyond the month of April, 1970 or to cancel the special session.
Since the General Conference alone may reconsider and reverse its action in calling the special session, the question remains whether the individual delegates to the 1968 General Conference could be polled by mail or in a similar manner and a vote taken in that manner to reconsider and reverse the call of the special session.
Any such informal method of conducting the business of the General Conference finds no support in the Constitution, the Discipline, the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference, nor is there precedent therefor in the history of the former The Methodist Church. To the contrary, it appears clear that the Constitution and Discipline of The United Methodist Church contemplate that the business of the General Conference shall be conducted by the delegates, not individually but collectively as a body in actual meeting duly convened.
This requirement and traditional practice is parallel to the requirement of civil law relating to governing bodies of corporations and associations. Numerous court decisions hold that stockholders or members of corporate bodies and associations, and their directors and trustees, may not act individually but must act in concert as a body in meetings duly convened. Only the most limited exceptions are made to this rule. See Fletcher, Cyclopedia of Corporations, Perm. Ed. (1954), Chap. 11, par. 392; also 19 Am. Jur. (2nd) p. 121.
We hold that there exists no authority in the Constitution or Discipline of The United Methodist Church, or in the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the 1968 General Conference, making possible the polling of delegates by mail for a vote to reconsider and reverse the action taken by the General Conference of 1968 in Dallas, Texas. It follows that the 1970 special session of the General Conference should be convened in the month of April 1970 at the time and place determined by the Commission on Entertainment and Program. Of course, when the General Conference has so convened it may take action to proceed to transact business or to recess or adjourn in accordance with the provisions of Paragraph 608 of the 1968 Discipline.
The 1970 special session of the General Conference should be convened in accordance with the call adopted by the 1968 General Conference. There exists no basis or procedure for reversing or reconsidering that call except in a session of the General Conference delegates meeting as a body duly convened.