Conflict Between General Conference and Annual Conference Authority?
I do not have the minutes of the plenary session in which the question was raised for this decision. Again, this is an illustration of the flexibility of the Council regarding what questions it chooses to answer. It is hypothetical because it is not going to resolve anything related to a specific petition or action of the General Conference. In fact, the Council even points out the question is vaguely phrased but is taken as a request for a declaratory decision.
The one raising the request perceived a conflict between a couple Council decisions from the early 1980s as well as a lack of clarity between the powers of the General Conference and the annual conference.
Regarding the conflict between the two decisions, the Council found none. The annual conference determines whether a candidate or pastor has passed the qualifications for ministry. qualifications set by General Conference. That is what JCD 542 affirms. JCD 544 affirms the authority of the General Conference to set the qualifications. Just because some delegates the General Conference would disagree with a particular annual conference’s decision about a pastor does not mean the two decisions are in conflict.
Similarly, the possible violations identified in Paragraphs 304 and 2702 are uniquely understood and enforced by each annual conference for ordination or handling of complaints. This separation of powers is part of the “multiple sources of authority” built into our system where no one source is absolute and controls any of the others. The annual conference may not ignore a qualification set by the General Conference but the General Conference may not set the priorities of the annual conference in determining the seriousness with which an annual conference takes those qualifications.
This stance by the Council represents the longer history of law in the United Methodist Church. And it does not go unchallenged. I think I can safely speculate that there was serious discussion about deferring a decision on this to the next session in 2017 when the new Council will begin working. The question came up near the end of the General Conference. Even the briefs were only two page papers, unheard of in Judicial Council annals! The “Separate Opinion,” which is neither concurring or non-concurring, seems mild enough in its critique of the prompt action of the Council.
I am inclined to see Decision 1321 as simply affirming settled law. The challenge points to a desire to overturn it. The key word in the “Separate Opinion” is “coordinate.” Can the “multiple sources of authority” coordinate their efforts? We will see how the newly elected Council will handle decisions on this contentious set of issues.