WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Judicial Council has ruled the Council of Bishops is authorized to set the date of regular jurisdictional conferences for the election and assignment of new bishops for the limited purpose of effectuating the continuance of the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church.
In Decision 1445 released May 20, the UMC’s top court noted that the bishops’ authority may be exercised under Para. 26, 27.2, and 45 of the Constitution even though the General Conference has not convened since the last election of bishops in the jurisdictional conferences.
The last election of bishops at jurisdictional conferences took place in 2016.
While in their initial ruling May 20 the top court said the date of assignment for all bishops would remain Sept. 1 following the jurisdictional conferences, according to Para. 406.1, the court issued Memorandum 1446 June 1 modifying their decision and changing the date to Jan. 1, 2023, as the date when U.S. bishops facing mandatory retirement must step down and their newly elected successors take office.
That means new bishops will be able to begin their assignments in the usual timespan of nearly two months after U.S. jurisdictional conferences.
The Council of Bishops has scheduled the regional meetings that elect bishops for Nov. 2-5 this year, including the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, South Carolina’s regional meeting, slated for Nov. 2-4 at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
The June 1 memorandum says that given the postponements of three General Conference postponements and the later jurisdictional conference date (in November), the typical the Sept. 1 and mandatory retirement date of Aug. 31 “cannot be applied without disrupting the constitutionally mandated episcopal supervision for the church. When it enacted those paragraphs, the General Conference neither anticipated nor made provision for a global pandemic and continuing conference delays.”
Therefore, to harmonize constitutional and disciplinary requirements and to meet the needs of the church in this unprecedented situation, the court holds that Jan. 1, 2023, shall be the effective date of assignment for all bishops and mandatory retirement for bishops whose 68th birthday has been reached on or before July 1, 2020.
In response to the decision, COB President Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton said the bishops are grateful 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,” Bickerton said. “As we now 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.”
The number of bishops to be elected will be determined by the contextual needs of each jurisdiction and will be guided by formula determined by the 2016 General Conference and found in the 2016 Book of Discipline (Para. 404.2).
The request for the ruling came after the postponement of the General Conference from 2022 to 2024, heightening the burden of bishops attempting to provide effective episcopal oversight and leadership.
Because of vacancies created by retirements after the postponement of General Conference in 2020, special assignments to cover vacant episcopal areas in the United States have been faithfully served by bishops who continue to serve their residential areas.