News analysis by Thomas Lambrecht

In a highly anticipated decision, the Judicial Council has ruled that annual conferences in the U.S. cannot unilaterally withdraw from The United Methodist Church. The Council of Bishops had asked for a declaratory decision on six questions related to that issue.

In Decision 1366 (pages 43-44), issued in the run-up to the 2019 General Conference, the Judicial Council had ruled that annual conferences could withdraw from the denomination. “An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. This reserved right, however, is not absolute but must be counterbalanced by the General Conference’s power to ‘define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences’ in ¶16.3.”

Traditionalists had argued that a right reserved to the annual conference could not be nullified by the fact that General Conference had failed to act. Just because General Conference had previously declined to adopt a process for annual conferences to withdraw did not mean that such withdrawal could not take place. 

The recently-issued Decision 1444 now clarifies that “the General Conference must first enact enabling legislation to establish the right to withdraw.” The decision goes on to say, “An annual conference has the right to vote. However, the right to vote is constitutionally distinct from the right to withdraw – the former being a ‘reserved right’ under ¶33 and the latter a right granted and regulated exclusively by the General Conference through exercise of its ‘full legislative powers’ under ¶16.3” (emphasis original).

This reasoning is basically a way for the Judicial Council to walk back its plain statement in Decision 1366 about an annual conference’s right to withdraw without saying that it had changed its mind. Decision 1366 says, “An annual conference has the right to vote to withdraw.” The purpose of the vote is withdrawal. The idea of voting is meaningless without the effect of the vote being withdrawal. To separate the two and say an annual conference has the right to vote but not to withdraw is pure sophistry.

The Judicial Council has essentially changed its mind and now believes that the matter of annual conference withdrawal is a “distinctively connectional matter” (¶16) and therefore needs General Conference action before it can take place.

In a side note, the decision implies that annual conferences outside the U.S. must follow the process outlined in ¶572 to become “autonomous Methodist churches.” “Autonomy – that is separation – of an annual conference outside the United States can be granted and effectuated only through enabling legislation passed by the General Conference” (emphasis original). Even though annual conferences outside the U.S. would not become autonomous, but would join the Global Methodist Church, Decision 1444 implies that separation is the same as autonomy, and annual conferences would be expected to use the ¶572 process.

The Bulgaria-Romania Annual Conference has already withdrawn and changed its legal standing, so Decision 1444 will not affect them. Other annual conferences, however, will need to secure the approval of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters, their particular central conference, a two-thirds vote by the annual conference members in their central conference, and the General Conference before separation can be achieved.

The fact that General Conference approval is required for annual conference withdrawal both within and outside the U.S. demonstrates how egregious the decision was to postpone General Conference for a third time until 2024. Again, the church is hamstrung and unable to act to end decades of conflict over theological and ethical issues. 

Impact of the Decision. What will this decision mean for the church going forward? It will force some traditionalist churches to remain in the denomination that would otherwise prefer to withdraw and join the Global Methodist Church – at least in the short term. Some churches that had a majority in favor of withdrawal but could not reach the two-thirds vote required under ¶2553 were hoping that they could exit as a part of their annual conference withdrawing. Those “stuck” churches will be reluctant participants in United Methodism going forward. They might even reduce or eliminate their financial support of the denomination through apportionments.

Many will pin their hopes on passing the Protocol or something like it in 2024 that would include a process for annual conferences to withdraw and ease the requirements for local churches under ¶2553. Such a strategy pins hope on the support of some centrist and progressive delegates to enact it, as traditionalists may not hold a majority of delegates at the 2024 General Conference. 

A few annual conferences in states with favorable trust law may look at the possibility of ignoring the Judicial Council decision and moving ahead with disaffiliation through the legal process. There have been instances in some states where whole Episcopal dioceses (the equivalent of our annual conference) were able to withdraw from that denomination under neutral principles of trust law. Of course, that moves us into a more adversarial strategy, which we were hoping to avoid. But the punitive response of some UM bishops and annual conferences in stoutly refusing to allow local church disaffiliation under any kind of reasonable terms has already brought us into a confrontational situation.

It would have been a cleaner and more amicable process of separation if annual conferences had been allowed to withdraw. Absent that possibility, we find ourselves in an increasingly adversarial environment. Our hopes for a mutual “bless and send” approach to separation in some places is being replaced by a “tear and rend” approach that will only do harm to local congregations and backfire against the United Methodist desire for a “big tent” welcoming posture and a positive future.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.


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