When a person brings up the Book of Discipline in a United Methodist meeting, most eyes glaze over. A seminary professor teaching a course on UM polity (church government) suggested that the Discipline makes good bedtime reading. And parts of it are extremely hard to follow and seem disconnected from everyday reality in the church. (Other parts of the Discipline can be encouraging and even inspirational.)
Two cases coming before the Judicial Council at its meeting October 22-25 in Memphis, Tennessee, will have far-reaching implications for how the church operates.
The first case involves the number of delegates elected to General Conference. For many years, there have been just under 1,000 delegates elected from all over the world. For 2016, however, the Commission on the General Conference (CGC) decided to reduce the number of delegates to 864. Delegates are elected according to a formula established by the General Conference. According to ¶511.5e, the CGC has the authority to apply the formula in a way that brings the number of delegates within the Constitutionally-specified range of 600-1,000. The North Alabama annual conference is asking the Judicial Council to rule on whether the CGC is supposed to just bring the number of delegates within the range (yielding a number near 1,000 delegates) or whether they can arbitrarily set the number of delegates anywhere within the range of 600-1,000. This question obviously has implications for how many delegates each annual conference is allowed to elect to General Conference. Many annual conferences saw their number of delegates reduced for 2016. And some are proposing to further reduce the number of delegates in 2020 or 2024 to nearer 600. Such a drastic reduction of over 35 percent would make for unfair representation for parts of the church, due to quirks in the formula.
The second case involves a question of whether it is lawful for the General Conference in ¶101 to specify which parts of the Discipline are adaptable by central conferences and which are not. This paragraph, enacted in 2012, is an attempt to begin to implement the plan to live more fully into the reality that we are a worldwide or global church. What works in the U.S. may not work as well in other countries, due to differences in law and culture. ¶ 31 in the UM Constitution allows central conferences to make “such changes and adaptations … as the conditions of the respective areas may require.” ¶101 says that central conferences (conferences located outside the U.S.) may not unilaterally change the UM Constitution, our doctrinal standards, the paragraphs on the mission and ministry of the church, or the Social Principles. Further action in 2016 will determine which other parts of the Discipline are not open to adaptation. But the request for declaratory decision maintains that the restrictions of ¶101 change the powers and duties of the General and central conferences without amending the Constitution (and thus illegally restricts the ability of central conferences to adapt parts of the Discipline).
If the Judicial Council affirms this reasoning, then it is possible that the central conferences might be able to adapt any part of the Book of Discipline, essentially freeing them from operating under our common covenant. It would mean that any attempt to limit the ability of central conferences to modify the Discipline for their local setting would require a constitutional amendment, which is a difficult process requiring 2/3 approval of both the General Conference and all the annual conferences. A Judicial Council decision like this could create chaos in the church and allow each part of the church to evolve separately into entities functioning in radically different ways.
That gives a clue as to why the request may have been made. The author of the request, a well-known progressive in the Upper New York Annual Conference, may envision a proposal to make the U.S. its own central conference, which would then give the U.S. blanket permission to modify the Discipline (perhaps in the areas of sexuality and marriage?) as we see fit. This would truly be a significant decision.
So the interesting and complicated cases coming before the Judicial Council in October are not just legal mumbo jumbo or insignificant arcane details. The decisions of the Judicial Council will affect how our church operates and can create conditions allowing the church to move into greater faithfulness and fruitfulness—or not. Stay tuned to hear the results!