By Jessica Connor
Are there any limits on the authority of the secretary of General Conference to decide the number of delegates?
That’s what the United Methodist Judicial Council is being asked to determine when it convenes Oct. 27-30 in New Orleans.
The S.C. Conference is requesting a ruling on whether the secretary has the right to determine the number of delegates to General Conference. Per the United Methodist Constitution, delegates to the quadrennial General Conference must be no fewer than 600 and no more than 1,000, half of which must be clergy and half laity (Para. 13).
Every annual conference is entitled to two delegates. Beyond that, conferences get a proportional number of delegates based on a formula established in the Book of Discipline (Para. 502). But for years, the formula has produced delegates that are more than the 1,000 maximum, said S.C. Conference Secretary the Rev. Tim Rogers, who filed the brief for this conference. So the secretary of General Conference, currently the Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist, is given the authority to adjust the number to bring it within constitutional limits.
But this year, Rogers said, the church is facing two notable issues when it comes to delegates. First, the addition of the Ivory Coast Conference (the newest and largest conference in the world) means other conferences must lose delegates to accommodate it. Second, there is some discussion in the church that General Conference is simply too big or cumbersome or costly, and that the secretary of General Conference might consider reducing the number of delegates to the bare minimum of 600. That would be a huge difference, given that South Carolina sent 20 delegates last year; this state could see its number halved.
“The issue is: Does the secretary of General Conference have the authority himself to reduce the size of General Conference more than is necessary to bring it within constitutional limits?” Rogers said.
Certainly, South Carolina will lose some delegates because of the new Ivory Coast members.
“But to do this (reduce the size more than necessary), you change the nature of the General Conference because you are changing the representation,” Rogers said. “That’s a drastic reduction.”
He said the General Conference actually has already voiced an opinion about whether the size should be reduced to the bare minimum. At the last conference, the Commission on the General Conference proposed a reduction to a minimum of 500 and maximum of 600 delegates, but the Legislative Committee on Conferences voted it down 46-0, and then the full conference voted it down 842-24.
“It was defeated as completely as you can defeat something,” Rogers said.
Regardless of whether the secretary is contemplating this, the top court is being asked to determine if the secretary has such authority.
The Rev. Roger Gramling, president of the S.C. United Methodist Foundation who is a former secretary and former parliamentarian of the S.C. Conference, said the secretary of General Conference is an administrative officer and is therefore limited to the authority given him by the conference.
“The secretary of the General Conference has the authority to remedy a situation, but only in the case where the prescribed calculation results in a number of delegates where it’s below the minimum or above the maximum,” Gramling said. “I think the right to remedy is not the same as the right to set or determine the number of delegates to General Conference, and in doing so, the secretary would be exceeding his or her authority.”
The Rev. Sara White, who was a delegate to the last conference, said she agrees with South Carolina’s filing. She said there are several matters at hand, substantial matters about cost and size that cannot be answered by just cutting the number of delegates.
“What I read in the Discipline does not give the secretary this kind of across-the-board powers,” White said. “It’s a matter for General Conference to decide, not the secretary.”
Thirty other cases are also on the Judicial Council’s fall docket. The top court will revisit a decision allowing a Virginia pastor to bar a gay man from joining his congregation. The court also is being asked to reconsider a decision upholding the dismissal of a S.C. clergyman, Jimmy J. Montgomery, accused of having an ongoing affair with a married woman.