An Incoherent Judicial Council Decision
By Thomas Lambrecht
This week, the United Methodist Judicial Council (the equivalent of our church supreme court) handed down Decision 1451 regarding the processes to govern the 2024 meeting of the General Conference. This decision responded to requests from the Kenya-Ethiopia, Western Pennsylvania, and Alaska Annual Conferences.
The Judicial Council decided that the 2024 meeting of the General Conference will be considered a postponed session of the 2020 General Conference, rather than the regular 2024 General Conference session. As a result, all legislation already submitted to the 2020 General Conference remains to be considered by the 2024 session. Additional legislation may be submitted by September 2023. More importantly, there is no need to elect new delegates to serve at the 2024 General Conference. Delegates elected for 2020 will continue to serve.
This decision and its rationale reinforce the idea that the Judicial Council appears to have lost its moorings to church law and is making up its own rules as it goes along. The advent of the Covid pandemic and its resultant meeting and travel restrictions has created a situation not envisioned or provided for in our Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council appears to be taking advantage of that situation to create church law and make decisions based on the whims of the Council, rather than holding to precedent and providing consistent interpretation and guidance of the Discipline, which is their job.
Readers not interested in the technical analysis to follow may skip to the last section on Fallout from the Decision to see its practical effects.
The crux of the matter is whether new delegates needed to be elected for the 2024 General Conference (whether that conference is called a postponed 2020 session or a regular 2024 session). The Discipline is clear. Par. 502.3 requires, “Delegates to the General Conference shall be elected at the
session of the annual conference held not more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of the General Conference.” At face value, this means that delegates elected before 2022 could not serve at the 2024 session of the General Conference. Delegates for the 2020 General Conference were elected, for the most part, in 2019 and therefore should not be able to serve in 2024.
However, the Judicial Council disregards the plain meaning of Par. 502.3 and states, “Under this disciplinary paragraph, elections conducted at either the 2018 or 2019 session of annual conference would be valid and operative for the 2020 General Conference.”
The Judicial Council ignores its own precedent in previous decisions. In Decision 1429, the Council asks, “Hence, the issue boils down to one question: Does ‘opening session’ of the General Conference mean (a) the original date or (b) a future scheduled event?” The decision goes on to find that “it clearly describes the term [opening session] in a way indicating an event, not a date.” The decision cites the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order of the General Conference. “Here too, ‘opening session’ is understood to be an event composed of various segments such as worship and call to order. We cannot find anything in The Discipline or the Plan that would suggest otherwise. The textual basis is sufficient to support the interpretation (b) above.” The effect of this interpretation in Decision 1429 was, “The deadlines for petitions submission in ¶ 507 are based on the date of the postponed General Conference and reset with each postponement.”
Under Decision 1429, the “session” of the General Conference is the “future event” when it actually convenes and is reset with each postponement. In line with that precedent, the election of delegates “more than two annual conference sessions before the calendar year preceding the session of the General Conference” would be illegal. Yet, that is precisely what new Decision 1451 allows. It now defines the “session” as the originally scheduled date. The Judicial Council wants to have it both ways, depending on which outcome it desires.
Why a Postponed 2020 Conference?
The rationale given by the Judicial Council for why the 2024 session of the General Conference should be regarded as the postponed 2020 Conference is very weak.
Decision 1451 states, “The Constitution further establishes the minimum frequency at which the General Conference must convene, not the actual year when this occurs. ‘The General Conference shall meet once in four years at such time and in such place as shall be determined by the General Conference or by its duly authorized committees.’ Constitution. Par. 14. A cancellation would cause the number of General Conference sessions to drop below the quadrennial minimum and violate this constitutional mandate.”
I have news for the Judicial Council: the postponement of the 2020 General Conference until 2024 already causes “the number of General Conference sessions to drop below the quadrennial minimum and violate this constitutional mandate.” We were in violation of the constitutional mandate in 2021 when it had been more than four years since the previous General Conference. Exigent circumstances prohibited the conference from meeting in 2020 or 2021, but not (we would argue) in 2022 or 2023. By postponing the conference until 2024, we are already dropping the number of General Conferences below the quadrennial minimum. The Judicial Council is not requiring the church to hold two General Conferences in 2024 to restore the correct number of General Conferences.
Decision 1451 finds “no basis in Church law” for “cancelling or skipping the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections to be held.” There is no basis in church law for postponing the General Conference beyond the fourth year after the previous conference, either. Yet, the Judicial Council has allowed that postponement. By postponing the 2020 General Conference until 2024 and not holding two General Conferences in 2024, the church is already skipping a session of the General Conference. Fear that church law does not allow skipping a General Conference is therefore not a valid reason for requiring the postponed 2020 General Conference to be held in 2024, since such a postponement already skips a General Conference.
Decision 1451 states, “Viewed from the last regular session of General Conference in 2016, the postponed 2020 session falls squarely within the time window of ¶ 14.” Except that it does not. The time window of Par. 14 requires General Conference to meet “once in four years.” In 2024, it will have been eight years since the previous General Conference met – clearly outside the four-year time window.
Begging the Question
Another reason the Judicial Council gives for treating the 2024 session of General Conference as the postponed 2020 General Conference is the fact that, “From the beginning, the Commission on the General Conference – the body authorized to fix the time and place of General Conference – understood its action to be postponement, not cancellation.” But that simply begs the question. The purpose of the requests for a Judicial Council decision was to determine whether the Commission was correct in styling the 2024 conference as a postponement, rather than a cancellation. The fact that the Commission did so does not form a legal basis for its being right.
Decision 1451 further argues, “Likewise, the Judicial Council adhered to this understanding by consistently referring to ‘the postponement of the 2020 General Conference’ in JCD 1409, 1410, and 1429.” Again, this begs the question of whether this remains true regarding a session held in 2024. The earlier decisions were issued before the conference was postponed until 2024 for the third time. That third postponement fundamentally changed the situation and the facts of the case. The first two postponements were required by government actions restricting travel and meetings due to Covid. The third postponement was discretionary, not required by government actions.
Negating Annual Conference Rights?
Finally, Decision 1451 argues that “the members of an annual conference have not only the constitutional duty but also right to vote ‘on the election of clergy and lay delegates to the General and the jurisdictional or central conferences.’ Const. ¶ 33.” But requiring new elections for delegates does not nullify the right of the annual conference to vote to elect delegates. It simply insists that, due to exigent circumstances, new delegates need to be elected by those annual conferences.
Any number of delegates who were elected in 2019 are no longer able to serve for the 2024 conference. Tragically, some have died. Some were elected bishop and are no longer eligible to be delegates. Some laypersons have since been ordained clergy and can no longer serve as the lay delegates they were elected to be. Some have moved away from the annual conference in which they were elected and transferred their membership, making them ineligible to serve. And recently, some delegates have disaffiliated from the UM Church, making them ineligible to serve. The Judicial Council cannot seriously maintain that it is “essential to open and fair elections, the cornerstone of our connectional and democratic polity” that all those delegates originally elected in 2019 must serve in 2024. The passage of time and changing circumstances have made that impossible.
Decision 1451 goes on, “Cancelling or skipping the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections to be held would be tantamount to overturning the results of the 2019 elections and disenfranchising the clergy and lay members of an annual conference who voted in good faith. It would also deprive delegates of their right to be seated and serve at the session of General Conference for which they were duly elected.”
It is not this Judicial Council decision that “deprives delegates of their right to be seated and serve.” In the first instance, it was Covid and resulting government actions that caused the postponement of the conference. And it was the decision of the Commission on General Conference not to meet in 2022 or 2023 that then “deprived those delegates of the right to be seated and serve.” Jurisdictional and central conferences have met in 2022. General Conference could have, as well. That was the Commission’s decision.
Further, the Judicial Council’s decision not to require new delegate elections deprives the current annual conferences of the right to vote to elect delegates and for delegates who might have been elected for 2024 to serve in that capacity. They now must wait until 2028. That is just as unfair, and to quote the decision, “There is no basis in Church law for such course of action” of skipping elections for 2024 delegates.
Fallout from the Decision
One might wonder why this decision matters. Why spill so much ink dissecting a decision that only a small percentage of United Methodists would be passionate about?
The primary fallout from Decision 1451 is to disenfranchise United Methodist members in Africa. The number of delegates is based on the number of clergy and lay members in each annual conference. The 2020 delegates were based on 2016 numbers. The 2024 delegates would have been based on 2020 numbers.
The 2020 delegation included 278 from Africa and 482 from the U.S. African delegates hold 32 percent of the delegation, and the U.S. 56 percent.
Based on preliminary calculations, a new 2024 delegation would have included 322 from Africa and 440 from the U.S. That shift of 42-44 delegates would have taken African representation to 37 percent and reduced U.S. representation to 51 percent. That five-point shift is a very significant shift in representation and power that the African church will be deprived of. (Through a quirk in the delegate formula, although African members now comprise 52 percent of the global church membership, they would only have 37 percent of the delegates, a separate and further injustice. African membership in 2020 stood at 6.8 million, and the U.S. had 6.2 million.)
It is unconscionable that our African brothers and sisters are being systematically deprived of equal representation in the church by this decision. Now they will not be allocated the number of delegates to which they are entitled by the formula. One cannot escape the impression that this was one of the motivating factors for the Judicial Council decision. The desire to hang on to progressive U.S. representation at the expense of fair African representation bodes ill for the future of the church. It provides a “raw power” explanation for an otherwise incoherent Judicial Council decision. One wonders if the African members of the Council were unaware of the implications of this decision, or they would surely have spoken up against this injustice against their part of the church. In an era when people are rightly concerned about voter suppression in secular elections, one could hardly come up with a better example than what the Judicial Council decision does.
A second and more far-reaching fallout of this decision is to potentially delegitimize Judicial Council decisions. In all the rationales put forward by the Council for its decision, as analyzed above, there is not one solid church law basis for the decision. Instead, the Council twists the Discipline to accommodate its desired outcome and disregards previous recent decisions when they are inconvenient.
A Judicial Council that makes its decisions based on church politics rather than the Discipline is dysfunctional. It joins a Council of Bishops that is dysfunctional and a General Conference that has not been allowed to function (through postponement). All the major institutions of our church government are unable to give consistent, principled leadership to the church. Instead, they have been usurped by an inability to provide stability and legitimacy to denominational processes. The result is chaos, with different parts of the church and different leaders doing what is right in their own eyes, sacrificing any sense of a unified approach. The Covid crisis has given an excuse for different parts of the church to make exceptions to following the Discipline where they want to, while in other instances holding to the extreme letter of the church law. This failure of consistent, principled church leadership is why many lay and clergy members do not trust the institutional United Methodist Church or its governing processes. It provides yet another compelling reason to seek separation, rather than continue in a denomination that has run amok.
Update of Last Week’s Perspective
In last week’s survey of various Methodist denominations, an error was made regarding Free Methodist bishops. They do not serve until retirement once elected. Instead, they serve four-year terms and may be reelected. The online version of the article has been corrected. The one-page comparison chart has also been corrected, which gives it a new link. The corrected chart may be accessed HERE.
Some have wondered why other Methodist denominations were not included in the comparison. There would not have been space to include the dozens of U.S. Methodist denominations, most of them fairly small. It would also have increased the confusion. Those denominations that have attracted some interest from disaffiliating United Methodists as a potential landing spot were included.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.