This session of the Council held in conjunction with General Conference had several interesting features. Several decisions put up barriers to creeping episcopal overreach. There are more examples of the meaning of “moot and hypothetical” in several decisions. Some new legal terminology has appeared. There were several questions about the respective powers of General Conference and annual conferences. And, personnel cases still have a long way to go to be handled fairly.
Several decisions put up barriers to creeping episcopal overreach.
When in power, people tend to presume they have more power than they do. The Judicial Council disapproved of actions by bishops such as thinking they could set up conference committees without the permission of the conference and without having to let conference agencies review their actions prior to conference, setting the time of a conference that has already been set by the conference, and triangulating the Council into their agenda to get major legislation passed at General Conference. But it takes alert members of the various conferences to spot the creeping power grabs and get the Council to shine a light on them. The price of membership in our Church is vigilance.
There are more examples of the meaning of “moot and hypothetical” in several decisions.
Because the Council persists in using JCD 799 despite its terrible flaws, it will continue to get cases where the bishops call questions challenging their behavior moot and hypothetical. The Council is thus stuck with a large number of these kinds of cases every term. Personnel cases will continue to end in disaster for the pastors involved. And bishops will continue to get away with practically anything they want. The Council will have to stay on its game to prevent more episcopal everreach.
Some new legal terminology has appeared.
“Balance of multiple authorities” is the most significant new legal term entering the Council’s lexicon. It covers competing authorities in handling issues by reminding each entity involved that its power has barriers that are relatively clear. If each does just what its job is, there will be a result that works even if any one entity thinks it knows best what the others should have done.
Another new statement seems so obvious that one can not believe it comes as a surprise. In JCD 1312 is the following quote: “By definition, nothing in the Constitution is unconstitutional.” I’m so used to seeing conflicting passages in the Discipline that I am sure there are conflicting passages in the constitution. I worry that those who disagree with me will feel they now have the upper hand if they say. “If it’s in the Discipline, it is Disciplinary” and then beat me over the head with it. It will be interesting to see if this passage is used that way in future arguments.
There were several questions about the respective powers of General Conference and annual conferences.
The issues surrounding homosexuality have led to annual conferences asserting their authority in ways some at the General Conference level did not imagine. The Council in this term has tended to defend the authority of the annual conference. That should not be surprising since the annual conference is “the basic body of the Church” (Paragraph 33). Not the Council of Bishops and not the General Conference!
Personnel cases still have a long way to go to be handled fairly.
There remains the lack of appeal for administrative ways of removing pastors and the use of “moot and hypothetical” to avoid accountability in “ensuring fair process” (after all, Paragraph 415.3 is in the Discipline and bishops both should work at keeping the process running correctly and have the responsibility to answer for it on the floor of the clergy session) as illustrated by the East Ohio case. Would that the Council had been better able to sustain a consistent level of sensing injustice and find more creative ways to overturn it.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON THE LAWRENCE COURT
In some ways, I feel spoiled by this past quadrennium’s work. I was happy to see exactly what the Council was being asked by the posting of the full requests in the docket. The prior use of simple titles did little to help anyone to understand the real concerns. Each case has its very human aspects and this group let them come through in many cases.
Another thing I am spoiled by is history. A number of times, the Council’s historical analysis added to the detail of the “Statement of Facts” and “Analysis” so that the concern could be seen in greater depth.
And the best spoiler was the detail of legal analysis that became serious teaching experiences. Church law can be complicated. It is tempting to ignore it, especially those bishops who are in a hurry to be boss or whatever. This Council has worked hard to help us understand why something was illegal and what the law means so that it is more easy to follow it.
From the point of view of those of us who “seek justice always, reconciliation and restoration where possible,” this Council with the group from 1992-1996 stand out as concerned about justice in personnel cases. Advocates have a lot of work to do yet. Church law needs to be changed so that justice is more possible. Our hearing bodies need more freedom to operate without influence of command and our appellate bodies need fewer legal barriers which prevent them from being able to bring justice. As happened with the 1992 -1996 group, this Council group’s progress may not be sustained.
But no one ever said justice was easy. And we need to be grateful for the time and talent of the men and women who served the Church by being on the Council these past four years. They helped the Church pick its way through a minefield of egos, ambitions, and partisanship. God bless them, every one.