The highest court of the United Methodist Church has ruled that annual conferences cannot legally disaffiliate from the denomination unless the General Conference first approves it.
The ruling, which was issued by the United Methodist Judicial Council on Tuesday, follows the recent launch of the theologically conservative Global Methodist Church on May 1. The GMC denomination was launched because of the UMC’s long-standing debate over LGBT issues, including same-marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.
The GMC had intended to wait until the General Conference to officially disaffiliate from the UMC, but the conference, initially scheduled to take place this fall, was postponed until 2024 due to COVID-19 concerns.
According to the ruling, also known as Decision 1444, there was “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.”
“Absent General Conference legislation, any vote and actions taken by an annual conference to separate are unconstitutional, null and void, and of no legal force or effect,” the decision continued.
As reported by The Christian Post, annual conferences are the regional bodies of the Methodist denomination led by bishops. According to UM News, the UMC has 53 annual conferences across the U.S and 80 annual conferences around the globe in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines.
One exception to the ruling applies to annual conferences outside of the U.S. As stated by the Judicial Council, a section of the UMC Book of Discipline, known as paragraph 572, states that annual conferences abroad can become “autonomous.”
“There is no parallel provision or process for U.S. annual conferences,” the council explained. “Whether or not this was intended, the judiciary must take care to not encroach on the constitutional prerogatives of the legislature.”
“Therefore, we hold that the process and requirements of paragraph 572 cannot be viewed as minimum standards for any annual conference to separate from The United Methodist Church.”
So far, Methodist churches in several states, including Virginia, Oklahoma and Florida, have left the UMC for the GMC. Annual conferences in Northwest Texas and South Georgia have also sought to disaffiliate, with the former taking a vote last year to join the GMC once it was established.
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Milton Quintanilla is a freelance writer and content creator. He is a contributing writer for Christian Headlines and the host of the For Your Soul Podcast, a podcast devoted to sound doctrine and biblical truth. He holds a Masters of Divinity from Alliance Theological Seminary.