Three requests for declaratory court decisions withdrawn during AC

One request had the potential to halt separations under Para. 2549 

By Jessica Brodie

GREENVILLE—Three separate requests for declaratory court decisions were presented during Annual Conference, and all were ultimately withdrawn by their submitters.

Each ultimately had to do with church separations in the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church and Para. 2549 of the Book of Discipline, which the conference has been using to allow the separations.

One request had the potential to halt separations under Para. 2549 if the UMC’s top court, the Judicial Council, got involved and ultimately decided that paragraph did not apply any longer. 

Much debate over the last year and a half has surfaced over either the amount of money separating churches are required to pay or what the conference is doing with that money. The conference received $17.5 million from the 2023 separating churches and another not-yet-released amount from the churches that are separating this year.

Churches that leave must pay 10 percent of the appraised value of its property and assets; all unpaid apportionment giving for the prior year and the year of closure up to the date of the Annual Conference vote to close the church; an additional 12 months of apportionment giving; and more. Some wishing to leave say this is too much money for churches that struggle financially.

The three requests

On Tuesday, June 11, after the vote to allow 112 churches to separate from the UMC, Michael Cheatham made a motion directing conference trustees to amend the current separation agreement to eliminate some of what the local church must pay to leave. Bishop Jonathan Holston ruled this motion out of order, as he said Para. 2512 of the UMC’s Book of Discipline says the conference cannot direct the trustees.

“Conference trustees have the responsibility of trust and the basic responsibility to do that work,” Holston said. “We have to trust our conference trustees as they contemplate going forward.”

Later, Cheatham requested a declaratory court decision on this.

Dr. Reginald Lee stood to address what he called “the elephant in the room,” which he said is Holston’s interpretation of the trustees’ responsibility to the annual conference. Noting he used to teach polity, Lee said the annual conference, not the trustees alone, decide what to do with the funds from separating churches. He called for a declaratory decision of law on this: Do the trustees have the authority to decide the use of funds received from church separations under the conference-approved plan of local church separation and closure, or should that decision be made and/or amended by the annual conference in its regular or called session?

Another request for a declaratory decision was made—now that the language of the Discipline has changed effective Jan. 1, 2025, can Para. 2549 be used to close churches who cannot follow the new Discipline based upon human sexuality? For background, at General Conference, the body voted to remove the statement from its book of law that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The churches that left agreed with this statement, and under Para. 2549, Holston has allowed churches to leave if their members believed the denomination has not upheld this stated doctrine on human sexuality. However, now the language has changed; the rule of law request sought clarity from the Judicial Council on whether Para. 2549 can still apply.

All the requests for declaratory decision were tabled until the next morning.

Debate continues

On Wednesday morning, discussion and debate began anew over the reopened requests for a rule of law. Lee noted further reasons why he felt a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council was needed, including that the justification Holston was using for his interpretation was based upon a paragraph the conference was not using to allow church separations.

After lengthy debate, Lee said he was willing to withdraw his request for a rule of law if the body affirmed a motion made earlier that morning by the Rev. Amiri Hooker.

Hooker had moved, to ensure equity from funds that come from separations, both previous and current, that a minimum of $5 million be considered for Black, indigenous and other people of color congregations, with Black Methodists for Church Renewal and the office of Congregational Development helping as advisors. The body had not been able to vote on that until the rule of law requests had been addressed.

Lee noted that the root of his declaratory decision request came from a desire that the Black church is firmly at the table in advising where the separating church funds are distributed to ensure equity and justice, so he would be willing to withdraw his motion.

He did so. 

Next, his other request for a rule of law was addressed, on whether Para. 2549 can be used to close churches given the change in the Discipline’s sexuality language.

The body prepared for a vote on the matter; if at least 20 percent agreed with Lee’s request, it would move on to the UMC’s top court for consideration.

Two others withdrawn

However, dialogue ensued. Some leaders noted they had urged their churches to wait until after General Conference to discern whether they wanted to separate from the UMC, and they were concerned that if the Judicial Council got involved and ruled Para. 2549 no longer applied, it would effectively prevent the South Carolina Conference from allowing separations next year.

Chancellor Kay Crowe confirmed this would indeed be the case, noting, “We don’t know what that ruling would be, but if the Judicial Council rules it cannot, then this annual conference would end those separations.”

Lee stood to withdraw his request for a ruling, noting he reserved the right to bring it up again next year.

Cheatham also stood to withdraw his request for a ruling.

‘Thank you’

With all three requests for a declaratory decision removed from the table, now the conference considered the Hooker motion to aid in fund distribution equity, ultimately approving it.

With all matters settled, Holston took a moment to thank the body.

“We are trying to do the work of the church and this annual conference, and we want to be sure all voices are heard and people are respected in the midst of that discussion because we want to be the people that God needs for us to be,” Holston said.

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