(RNS) — No, an annual conference in the United States can’t just up and leave the United Methodist Church. At least not yet.
While the denomination’s Book of Discipline has provisions for individual churches wishing to leave the United Methodist Church with their properties, there’s nothing within church law that would allow an annual conference — one of the United Methodist Church’s 53 regional networks of churches and ministries within the United States — to do the same, according to the denomination’s Judicial Council.
The Judicial Council ruled Tuesday (May 10) that only the General Conference, the denomination’s global decision-making body, can determine the process and conditions for annual conferences to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.
And the General Conference hasn’t done that.
“There is no basis in Church law for any annual conference to adopt stopgap policies, pass resolutions, take a vote, or act unilaterally for the purpose of removing itself from The United Methodist Church,” Decision 1444 reads.
The decision by the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, comes just over a week after the launch of the Global Methodist Church, a new denomination formed by theologically conservative Methodists.
It also comes ahead of annual conferences’ yearly meetings, which take place in May and June.
At least two annual conferences — Northwest Texas and South Georgia — were set to consider resolutions to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church at their meetings this summer, the Judicial Council noted in its decision. The Northwest Texas Annual Conference also approved a nonbinding resolution last year indicating it planned to leave the United Methodist Church for a conservative denomination should the General Conference pass a proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, according to United Methodist News Service.
And the Bulgaria-Romania Provisional Annual Conference already has voted to leave and join the Global Methodist Church over its bishop’s objections, according to United Methodist News Service.
Bulgaria-Romania Bishop Patrick Streiff has requested the Judicial Council rule on whether an annual conference in one of the denomination’s central conferences — including those in Europe, Africa and the Philippines — has the authority to vote to separate from the United Methodist Church. That question remains on the council’s spring docket.
Keith Boyette, who chairs the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church and will step into the role of its chief executive next month, told Religion News Service he was “very disappointed” by the Judicial Council decision.
The ruling, he said, will lead to the kind of litigation the 16 United Methodist bishops and advocacy group leaders who negotiated a proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation — including Boyette — had hoped to avoid. Now churches and annual conferences potentially will challenge the denomination’s trust clause, which maintains that the denomination — not the churches or their conferences — own church properties, he said.
“We have worked so hard to have a different witness to the world,” said Boyette, referencing the challenges faced by other denominations that have split over differing beliefs about the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ members.
The 2020 General Conference was set to consider the proposed protocol, which would create a pathway for churches and annual conferences to leave with their properties to form new denominations. Conservative United Methodists had announced preparations to launch the Global Methodist Church after a General Conference vote.
But when the General Conference was pushed back to 2024 by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Methodist Church pushed up its timeline.
“Unfortunately, what is transpiring is exactly what we have tried to avoid through the protocol,” Boyette said.