Memorandum Number 1200


October 27, 2011

Request from the Northwest Texas Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision Regarding the Meaning, Application, and Effect of ¶¶ 3, 17, 18 and 101 and Judicial Council Decisions 847 and 871 in Relation to a Congregation's Identification with Unofficial Bodies or Movements


The Judicial Council declines to accept jurisdiction for two reasons. The request has no direct and tangible effect in the work of the petitioning Annual Conference. The Judicial Council may decline to entertain a request for a declaratory decision on policy matters previously decided with clarity when such request is made for mere reiteration of principle, addition of minor details, synonymous to the covered acts, and /or because of disobedience to, or violation of, said decisions. Such a request or petition is improper and redundant.

Statement of Facts

On June 11, 2011, during the regular session of the Northwest Texas Annual Conference a lay member moved that the Annual Conference request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church.

The request asked:

whether it is impermissible for a congregation of The United Methodist Church to publicly identify with, affiliate with, label itself as part of, permit its name to be listed on the website of or in the communications of any unofficial body or movement in light of the Constitution and the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, including, but not limited to, paragraphs 3, 17, 18 and 101, and Judicial Council Decisions 847 and 871. The motion was seconded. Discussion was held. The motion passed.

Paragraph 2610.2 of the 2008 Discipline states that bodies defined therein are authorized to make such petitions to the Judicial Council for declaratory decisions. Paragraph 2610.2j adds "on matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein." The authority of the Judicial Council must also be limited by determining the pertinence of the request on "matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein". The question asked citing ¶¶ 3, 17, 18, and 101 has no direct and tangible effect on the work of the body submitting the petition. See Decision 301. Decision 301 states in pertinent part "that the question must have a direct and tangible effect on the work of the body submitting the petition in order for the Judicial Council to have jurisdiction." This request does not relate to the business of the Annual Conference session at the time the request was made.

There is nothing more to interpret as to the meaning, application, or effect of the referenced constitutional and disciplinary provisions. The Annual Conference has not pointed to anything new in these provisions nor in the situations of parties since Decisions 847 and 871. In the request, there is no justifiable cause to revisit, re-open, alter or abandon the cited rulings. The holdings of the Judicial Council in these two decisions are clear. For the Judicial Council to declare as impermissible similar acts that it has twice ruled may not be done for being divisive would be an unnecessary exercise in redundancy.

Concurring Opinion

I write separately in order to highlight the futility of annual conference resolutions that attempt to determine Church doctrine or policy apart from the legislative processes of the General Conference. My review of Decisions 871, 847, 794 and 665 reveals that each of these situations presented questions that can only be resolved legislatively. Action on the proposed resolution was tabled by the Annual Conference, meaning that there was no action taken by the annual conference session that would frame a valid request for declaratory decision. The subsequent so-called request for a declaratory decision presented a question that is classically moot and hypothetical.

I am critical of the rulings in Decisions 871 and 847 as I am of the pronouncements of Decisions 794 and 665. There is no provision in the Discipline that prohibits an annual conference or a local church from declaring its mission consistent with the Book of Discipline. There is likewise no authority that permits annual conferences or local churches to declare an affiliation outside the units and divisions of the Church specified in the Discipline. Only the General Conference is empowered to authorize or prohibit such designations. An annual conference cannot use the mechanism of a request for declaratory decision to create Church doctrine or policy. Such power is within the sole legislative prerogative of the General Conference. The Judicial Council should remain constrained within its disciplinary jurisdiction and resist the temptation to sit as a Council of Revision. Jon R. Gray I join this concurring opinion.

Katherine Austin Mahle

Concurring Opinion

I agree with the majority that under the procedural circumstances of this case the Council ought to decline jurisdiction. However, I write separately because I do not necessarily agree on each point raised in the majority's rationale. For example, I agree that "[t]here is nothing more to interpret as to the meaning, application, or effect of the referenced constitutional and disciplinary provisions" but I would not further rule that "there is no justifiable cause to revisit, re-open, alter or abandon the cited rulings." Likewise, although the question as posed by the annual conference may have failed to satisfy the requirements that would confer jurisdiction under ¶ 2610.2, I would not automatically infer that the circumstances that compelled the conference to ask the question did not directly and tangibly effect on the work of the body.

In other words, when the record of an annual conference fails to provide that which is necessary to confer jurisdiction, and when the question posed also falls short, then the ruling should focus on those jurisdictional defects. I would hesitate to broaden the ruling to include presumptions as to the motive of those who seek a declaratory decision. However, I join Jon Gray in his analysis and opinion because it more clearly articulates the complexity and array of concerns that have been raised over the years by various and divergent groups of United Methodist as they seek to be faithful in their mission and commitment to serve.

Beth Capen

Concur In Part and Dissent In Part

After a closer hard look at the case, I am impelled to write this dissenting and concurring opinion on two counts. First, on jurisdiction over a petition by an annual conference for declaratory decision. The pertinent Disciplinary provision is ¶ 2610.2(j), viz;

2. The following bodies in the United Methodist Church are hereby authorized to make such petitions to the Judicial Council for declaratory decision: xxx(j) any annual conference on matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein. (emphasis supplied)

Most jurisprudence of the Judicial Council thus far has given this sub-paragraph a limited, narrow, restrained and strict construction. Typically, JCD 301 (1968) held that the Judicial Council is without jurisdiction to grant petitions for declaratory decision filed by one jurisdictional conference and an annual conference on the constitutionality, meaning, application, and effect of a statement on "The Rule of Law and the Right to Dissent" endorsed by the General Conference, "because the statement does not affect either conference or work therein in a direct and tangible manner." This ruling is echoed in some other decisions and memoranda up to this year.

I now respectfully disagree. I humbly opine that in order for an annual conference to gain access to the Judicial Council via petition for declaratory decision under ¶ 2610, it is sufficient for jurisdictional purpose that the subject matter relates to annual conferences or their work, not necessarily limited to the petitioning conference. The matter or matters taken up need not be peculiar, exclusive or confined to the business, agenda, or work of the petitioner annual conference. It may also relate to or affect other or all annual conferences, especially those similarly situated. The door of the Judicial Council ought to be open to an annual conference initiative concerned not only with their own valid interest and causes but also with those of other annual conferences. Note is to be keenly taken on the plural form of the connected critical terms - annual conferences - in sub-¶ 2(j). The settled pertinent rules in statutory construction mandate that words should be given their ordinary meaning; general words should be understood in their general sense; when the law does not distinguish, courts should not distinguish. Annual Conferences certainly include one, some, or all such level of conference in the church.

This construction acquires cogency because a petition by an annual conference for declaratory decision pertains to the constitutionality, meaning, application, or effect of the Discipline or part of it or any act or legislation of the General Conference. In principle, such a decision on constitutional or disciplinary issues raised by a petitioning annual conference has a repercussion on many, or possibly all, annual conferences. Considered with our vital tenet of connectionalism, it is discernible that what affects one annual conference can affect other annual conferences, particularly of the same jurisdiction or region. What is good policy for one conference would likely be good for others in the same situation. What salutary principle applicable to one may apply to all. That, hopefully, would redound to the good order and discipline of the annual conferences of the Church linked together worldwide. Second, on redundancy or superfluity. The question posed is essentially a mere restatement or circumvention of the issue squarely determined in JCD 847 and 871.

This is cited in the request holding, respectively, that an Annual Conference, and a local church or any of its organizational units, may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement (such as, but not limited to, a "Confessing Conference", "Reconciling Conference", or "Transforming Conference"). To entertain the request would serve no useful purpose other than to reiterate, re-assert or add verbiage to the clear and plain language of the said two decisions. That would be redundant and superfluous. A congregation is understood in the same way as the local church (¶261). The added words and phrases, namely, "publicly", "affiliate with" and "permit its name to be listed on the website of or in the communications of an unofficial body or movement" are minor details synonymous to, or constitutive of, and makes no real difference with, the digests of 847 and 871.

The brief for the petitioner admits that the motion was made because of the flagrant violation of the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church in these instances, the inconsistent administration of that order and discipline by the presiding bishops of various annual conferences, and the efforts to validate and rationalize actions that are occurring across the church which violate both the letter and spirit of the Discipline. If so, the proper remedy is not another decision but episcopal oversight, supervision, enforcement, and sanctions, as the case may be. Those functions pertain, in the first instance, to the executive and administrative machinery of the Church. (¶¶ 47, 48, 361-363, 403 and 427) An issue definitively decided not once but twice should not be permitted to be raised again, absent a change in the constitutional and disciplinary provisions or situations of the parties. It is no justification to re-litigate simply because the decisions are not being honored, followed or complied with by some annual conferences, organizations, local churches or congregations.

The problem is not lack of a decision but lack of compliance with it; the need is not another jurisprudence but observance of extant ones; the flaw is not paucity or vagueness in church law, it is in the will to implement and enforce the law. As the age-old maxim puts it, it may be exceedingly hard but so the law is written. It commands compliance. As long as it is existing, it deserves obedience. Unless and until it is altered, modified or repealed, it expects everyone's obeisance. There is no reason to hedge or hesitate to follow what has been repeatedly ruled upon by the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council has done its task of interpreting the Constitution and the Disciplinary provisions on the matter.

IF there is any disobedience, disagreement or resistance to its repeated pronouncements, the remedy lies not with the Council but with the Executive and Legislative arms of the Church. If every time a deviation from, or disrespect to our decision is spotted from a sector of the Church somebody will come to us for the same relief or a restatement of what the Judicial Council has previously ruled, we would find little time left for other new cases that merit our study and attention. JCD 847 (1998) and 871 (1999) are both unanimous decisions on requests which originated from the same Northwest Texas Annual Conference. The latter decision is even boosted by the separate concurring opinion by six members. These twin decisions have not been amended or reconsidered. No palpable error, mistake or oversight has been demonstrated against them. The same minority voice, albeit loud, are heard contesting it, but until the minority becomes majority and the necessary Constitutional and Disciplinary changes are brought about, there is nothing the Judicial Council can do but to preserve the status quo. The Church law and jurisprudence on the subject , in letters bold and bright, have remained unchanged. But despite the setback of the unofficial bodies or movements within the Methodist community, the door is open to all people of all sexes and gender orientations, entitled to receive the ministry of grace, love, healing and reconciliation.

Ruben Reyes

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

©2023 United Methodist Communications. All Rights Reserved