The Council of Bishops (COB) is expressing its appreciation following the Judicial Council’s ruling that the COB is authorized to set the date to elect bishops in 2022.
The United Methodist Council of Bishops has the authority to call jurisdictional conferences this year to elect and assign new episcopal leaders in the U.S.
However, that authority does not extend to changing the September 1 date when church law says newly elected U.S. bishops officially take office, the denomination’s top court ruled in Decision 1445.
Usually, jurisdictional conferences meet to elect bishops in mid-July every four years following General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.
But amid General Conference’s continued pandemic-caused delay, the Judicial Council said the bishops could call jurisdictional conferences “for the limited purpose of effectuating the continuance of an episcopacy in The United Methodist Church” as required by the denomination’s constitution.
Put another way; the Judicial Council says new bishop elections can occur off their usual schedule to fulfill the United Methodist constitutional mandate that bishops provide continuing supervision.
The Council of Bishops tentatively had set Nov. 2-5 for jurisdictional conferences if the Judicial Council ruled in favor of holding the regional meetings.
To comply with the requirement that new bishops take office on Sept. 1, the Judicial Council decision said the Council of Bishops must either reschedule the jurisdictional conferences so they occur before Sept. 1 this year or assign the newly elected bishops on an interim basis until they officially begin their assignments on Sept. 1, 2023.
The Judicial Council released Decision 1445 on May 20, just as U.S. annual conferences — regional church bodies — begin their spring and summer meetings. Annual conferences frequently nominate one of their clergy members to be a bishop candidate at jurisdictional conferences.
Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part.
Capen concurred with the ultimate holding but dissented that newly elected bishops must assume office on Sept. 1 “because it serves no purpose in these circumstances.”
“Rather, I would suggest that it is much more logical, for the limited purpose of this current situation and for Jurisdictional Conferences held in 2022 only, that just as we had done before 1976, we permit the newly-elected bishops to begin their duties immediately following their assignment,” she wrote.
Decision 1445 responded to questions raised by the Council of Bishops following the third postponement of the General Conference, originally scheduled in 2020 and now set for 2024.
Last year, U.S. bishops who initially postponed their retirements after General Conference’s first delay stepped down because they were taking on new roles with the Council of Bishops or were bumping up against the denomination’s mandated retirement age for bishops.
13 U.S. bishops have since taken on expanded assignments to continue episcopal coverage. Five bishops who planned to retire also agreed to stay on. In the North Central Jurisdiction, Bishop David Bard, assigned in 2016 to the Michigan conference, began an interim assignment to the Minnesota Conference on January 1, 2021. At the same time, Bishop Laurie Haller, Iowa, also assumed leadership of The Dakotas. Bishop John Hopkins came out of retirement to shepherd the Northern Illinois Conference.
In asking the Judicial Council to rule in favor of holding jurisdictional conferences for the purpose of elections, the bishops said the current situation of bishops covering multiple episcopal areas was unsustainable. “The threat to the continuance of the episcopacy and the sustainability of effective episcopal leadership will increase as more retirements are expected,” the bishops added.
The United Methodist Church has five jurisdictions — each encompassing multiple episcopal areas in a geographical region of the United States. Each episcopal area includes one or more annual conferences. Each U.S. annual conference elects delegates to both General Conference and jurisdictional conferences. Half of the delegates are laity, and half are clergy. The delegates to the forthcoming jurisdictional conferences were elected in 2018 and 2019. Meet the Michigan delegates here.
The United Methodist constitution mandates that the Council of Bishops schedule all five jurisdictional conferences to convene at the same time.
“Apart from this stipulation, the constitutional grant of authority is unrestricted,” the Judicial Council said.
The Council of Bishops is “therefore, authorized to call jurisdictional conferences, notwithstanding that the General Conference has not convened since the last election of bishops in the jurisdictional conferences,” the church court continued.
The Judicial Council also noted that the United Methodist constitution lists the election of bishops among a jurisdictional conference’s powers.
The church court said the bishops’ intended purpose for the jurisdictional conferences “is essential” to fulfilling the constitutional mandates in Paragraph 45 of “a unified superintendency and episcopacy” and “the continuance of an episcopacy in The United Methodist Church.”
However, the Judicial Council disagreed with the Council of Bishops that new bishops should assume their duties immediately after election and consecration. Another part of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states: “The date of assignment for all bishops is September 1 following the jurisdictional conference.”
That means the Council of Bishops must either reschedule the jurisdictional conferences or use the provisions for interim bishops, the church court said.
The Judicial Council put it this way: “the Council of Bishops must reschedule the jurisdictional conferences to a date before September 1, 2022, or proceed with jurisdictional conferences in November 2022 as scheduled and assign newly elected bishops on an interim basis under the provisions of ¶ 407 until they begin their assignment on September 1, 2023.”
Paragraph 407 spells out a process for filling bishop vacancies on an interim basis.
The Judicial Council also addressed concerns about the formula and the number of bishops allotted to each jurisdiction.
In a decision last year, the Judicial Council ruled that the budget adopted by the 2016 General Conference remains in effect. That same logic applies to the question of the number of bishops assigned in each jurisdiction, the church court said.
The 2016 General Conference approved supporting 46 bishops in the United States — 13 in the Southeastern Jurisdiction; 10 in the South Central Jurisdiction; nine in the Northeastern Jurisdiction; nine in the North Central Jurisdiction, and five in the Western Jurisdiction.
“Absent General Conference action, the formula and number of bishops for each jurisdiction approved by the 2016 General Conference remain legally binding and effective until replaced by a new formula,” the Judicial Council said.
In a statement released by The Council of Bishops, COB President Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton said: “As with the recent decision related to Annual Conferences, we are once again very grateful that the Judicial Council has acted in a timely matter to address the issue of Jurisdictional Conferences and episcopal elections. In this unprecedented season in the life of our church, the need for vital and committed leadership is unquestioned. As we begin to make plans for episcopal elections, we gratefully acknowledge those who have and will retire even as we pray for a true spirit of discernment for those who will emerge and be elected.”
Bishop Bickerton, who also serves the New York Annual Conference, noted that the church on all levels has had to make significant adaptations and adjustments during the pandemic. “Episcopal areas have had to be nimble as many have shared a bishop with another area. Several bishops have taken on increased responsibilities and are serving with integrity and grace. We are grateful for the determination and spirit with which these areas and bishops have served. This decision will now pave the way for us to provide the leadership needed for the church to fulfill our mission and to position ourselves for the next expression of who God is calling us to be.”