The highest court of the United Methodist Church has ruled that annual conferences, the denomination's regional bodies overseen by bishops, cannot unilaterally disaffiliate from the Church.
The United Methodist Judicial Council ruled on Tuesday that annual conferences cannot legally depart the UMC unless the General Conference provides a way for them to do so.
The decision comes as the Global Methodist Church, a conservative counterpart to the UMC, was officially founded in early May, with many churches and annual conferences pursuing affiliation with the new denomination.
The UMC has been divided on whether it should revise its stated position that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," which includes prohibiting noncelibate gays from being ordained and clergy from blessing same-sex weddings.
The decision, known as Decision 1444, found that there was no foundation in Church law for an annual conference to establish interim rules, pass resolutions, have a vote, or act unilaterally to withdraw from the UMC.
It was also indicated in the decision that any vote or measures taken by an annual conference to separate are unlawful, null, and void, and have no legal power or effect unless General Conference legislation is passed.
Although paragraph 572 of the UMC Book of Discipline allows conferences outside the United States to become "independent," Decision 1444 highlighted that this provision only applies to conferences held outside the United States.
The Judicial Council said that there is no similar framework or process in place for yearly conferences in the United States, noting whether or not this was the intention, the judge must avoid interfering with the legislature's constitutional powers. As of the moment, paragraph 572's process and demands cannot be perceived as basic standards for any annual conference seeking to leave the UMC.
Separation Plans At Stake
According to UM News, the UMC currently has 53 annual conferences in the United States, as well as 80 annual conferences in Africa, the Philippines, and Europe.
Northwest Texas and South Georgia, two annual conferences, have attempted to quit the UMC, with the former taking an aspirational vote last year to join the GMC once it was created. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative United Methodist organization, recently reported that 107 congregations in Florida have started the process of leaving the UMC for the GMC.
According to the Florida chapter of the WCA, 107 Florida Methodist congregations have opted to begin the process of leaving the Florida Conference of the UMC. The number represents roughly 20% of the Florida Conference's 560 United Methodist Churches.
Large and small congregations, as well as Anglo, African American, Latino, Korean, and other ethnic faith communities, make up this diverse set of churches. These congregations will be affiliated with the new Global Methodist Church, which will begin operations on May 1, 2022.
However, without a separation plan authorized by the General Conference, the bishops wondered if annual conferences in the United States could leave under present church law.