Judicial Council (Partly) Faces Reality
By Thomas Lambrecht
In a recent decision, the Judicial Council has partly walked back their earlier resolution that the 2020 General Conference was not cancelled, only postponed. Unfortunately, this walk-back comes too late to remedy the unfair treatment it extended to our African brothers and sisters.
Postponed or Cancelled?
In Decision 1451, issued last December, the Judicial Council declared, “No provision in [t]he Discipline authorizes the cancellation of a regular session of General Conference or the annulment of elections properly conducted by an annual conference. The next meeting scheduled for 2024 is designated as the postponed 2020 General Conference.” This decision was prompted by requests for declaratory decision by Kenya-Ethiopia, Western Pennsylvania, and Alaska Annual Conferences.
This decision repeated the language of postponement adopted by the Commission on the General Conference and in Judicial Council decisions 1409, 1410, and 1429. In stating that the Discipline did not provide for the cancellation of a General Conference, the Judicial Council ignored the fact that the Discipline does not provide for the postponement of a General Conference, either.
In addition, the Council misidentified the years of a quadrennium. The UM quadrennium begins the year after the General Conference session. So, the General Conference met in regular session in 2016, and the ensuing quadrennium was from 2017-2020. The next regular General Conference was to meet in 2020, with the ensuing quadrennium running from 2021-2024. Instead, the Council referred to “the delegates duly elected to the 2020 General Conference for the 2020-2024 Quadrennium.” That is actually a five-year period, not a quadrennium. The Council correctly identified the quadrennium in their Decision 1409, when they ruled, “The General Conference has full legislative authority in matters of quadrennial budgets and apportionment formulas and acted accordingly in 2016 by adopting the 2017-2020 budget.” The same year (2020) cannot be part of two different quadrennia!
By postponing the 2020 General Conference, there was actually no regular General Conference session during the 2017-2020 quadrennium, only the special session of 2019. The requirement that the General Conference meet “once in four years” was already violated by that first postponement. It will in fact be eight years between sessions of the General Conference, which is certainly a violation of the Discipline.
There is no question that the General Conference could not meet as scheduled in 2020, or even in 2021. There was great controversy over the postponement of the General Conference from 2022 until 2024. That did not need to happen and appeared to be driven by concerns other than logistical ones. By that time, centrists and progressives were having second thoughts about the Protocol, and they wanted to keep the more progressive delegation that was elected for the 2020 General Conference. The third postponement killed the Protocol, launched the Global Methodist Church, facilitated wholesale disaffiliations in the U.S., and cleared the way for a progressive agenda for the UM Church.
Unfair to Africa
By calling it a “postponed” session of General Conference, rather than a “cancelled” session, the same delegates elected for 2020 would be able to serve in 2024. It would also mean that there would be no reallocation of delegates, as there would normally have been for the 2024 conference. Delegates were allocated on the basis of 2016 membership numbers, instead of using the 2020 membership numbers. This resulted in an underrepresentation of African members by fifteen percent of their delegation. Where they should have had at least 320 delegates in 2024, they remain at the previous 278. Most of those 42 delegates now represent the U.S., rather than being reallocated to Africa. One could construe this decision as reflecting a U.S.-centric mindset.
An Extra General Conference Session
The Judicial Council compounded its misinterpretation in Decision 1472. In response to a series of questions from the Council of Bishops, the Judicial Council ruled, “The Commission on the General Conference is required to schedule and plan for a regular session of General Conference to be convened after the adjournment of the postponed 2020 General Conference, between January 1, 2025 and December 31, 2027.”
Given that a regular General Conference costs around $10 million, and even a shorter session would cost at least $7 million, the requirement of an extra General Conference was a huge unfunded mandate by the Judicial Council. It is worth noting that four of the nine Council members dissented publicly from this decision.
With those financial considerations in mind, the General Council on Finance and Administration requested the Judicial Council to reconsider its decision to mandate an extra General Conference session.
Now in the just released Decision 1485, the Judicial Council has rescinded its requirement for an extra session of the General Conference. The next “regular session of the General Conference that is to be convened following the upcoming 2024 regular session, would be held four years thereafter, in 2028” (emphasis original).
In making this change, the Council adopted some of the language and logic of the dissenting opinion in Decision 1472.
Delegate Elections Remain Unchanged
Predictably, the Council left intact its ruling that the delegates elected in 2019 to the 2020 General Conference remain the delegates to serve for the 2024 session of the General Conference. However, in this recent decision, they appear to have changed their reasons for doing so.
Decision 1451 states, “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. There is no basis in Church law for such course of action.”
Of course, there is no basis in Church law for any of the other actions the Judicial Council took to deal with the pandemic emergency. They chose which emergency actions to sanction, such as allowing the postponement of the 2020 General Conference, and which ones to deny, such as cancelling the 2020 General Conference and requiring new elections.
Their rationale in Decision 1451 appears to be, that for the sake of democracy and honoring the elections that took place in 2019, those delegates must be enabled to serve. Again, many of these delegates will not be serving four years later due to death, change of status from lay to clergy, or withdrawal from the denomination (among other reasons). It seems fruitless to preserve the sacredness of the 2019 elections, when many annual conferences needed to hold supplemental elections this year to fill vacancies in the delegation.
Now in Decision 1485, the rationale for maintaining the 2020 delegates appears to have changed. The decision states, “The reason for this determination … is that the names of all those persons who were elected to serve as General Conference delegates in 2020 were duly submitted in a certified report, by their Annual Conference Secretary, to the General Conference Secretary who was then prepared to issue the credentials for said persons. … the names of all of the duly elected delegates had been certified and submitted to the General Conference Secretary” (emphasis original).
In other words, the reason for keeping the 2020 delegates is “paperwork.” The names had already been submitted and certified. Therefore, we must keep those names. Again, most delegations will have experienced a significant turnover of delegates since 2020 and new lists of delegates will need to be submitted by the annual conferences.
There is no reason why new elections could not be held, since supplemental elections were indeed held this year. There is no reason why new delegates could not be certified, since in many cases new delegates are being certified this year. The only reason for keeping the 2020 delegates was because the Judicial Council declared that it must be so.
At Last – Cancellation
Hidden in the rationale for keeping the 2020 delegates, the Judicial Council has finally admitted that the 2020 General Conference was cancelled, not postponed. “… the global pandemic triggered travel bans and international restrictions and thereby necessitated the cancellation of the regular session of the General Conference that was scheduled to convene in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020.” It would have been much simpler had the Judicial Council faced this reality in 2021, when it first issued rulings on the fact that the 2020 General Conference could not be held. Unfortunately, this belated acknowledgement of reality comes too late to rectify the injustice done to the African part of the denomination.
This decision by judicial fiat deprived the African part of the church from its fair representation. It also deprived the whole church of having delegates who reflect the current thinking and desires of annual conferences. A lot has changed in the past four years. Yet the delegates serving at the 2024 General Conference will have been elected under the conditions of 2019 (before the pandemic, before postponement, before disaffiliation) and may not reflect the best current views of the annual conferences.
It is unfortunate that, over the past several years, the Judicial Council has become a legislative body making decisions on behalf of the whole church that only the General Conference can make. At the same time, the Council of Bishops has assumed similar powers to stand in for the General Conference that was not allowed to meet, making such decisions as deciding Par. 2553 did not apply outside the U.S.
This troubling trend establishes precedents that do not bode well for the future of United Methodism. For non-representative bodies to assume powers that are not theirs will diminish the power of the General Conference and of the annual conferences to act in the future. Coupled with the willingness of some bishops and annual conferences to outright ignore or defy the Discipline, these developments spell the potential for chaos in the future governing of the denomination.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Good News graphic.