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Top court backs conference on church closure (UM News)

November 7, 2023

A church’s intent to leave The United Methodist Church does not prevent that church from being closed if conditions warrant, the denomination’s top court ruled.

In Decision 1490, the Judicial Council said that no conflict exists between the denomination’s disaffiliation policy in the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553 and its policy in Paragraph 2549.3(b) for a church’s closure under “exigent circumstances.”

The church court added that “until a local church is disaffiliated, the provisions of ¶2549.3(b) remain available in appropriate circumstances.”

The Judicial Council decision, addressing a controversial church closure in the North Carolina Conference, was among the six rulings the church court released Nov. 7 after its fall deliberations at Africa University.

The session at the pan-African United Methodist university was the first time the international denomination’s top court, which includes members from Liberia, Mozambique, Norway and the United States, met on the continent of Africa.

The fall meeting also likely marks the last time the Judicial Council will rule on questions related to Paragraph 2553 before that disaffiliation policy expires on Dec. 31.

For more than 200 years, The United Methodist Church and its predecessors have maintained that church property is held “in trust” for the entire denomination — meaning people could leave the denomination at any time but typically could not take church property with them.

In Decision 1490, the church court reviewed rulings of law by North Carolina Conference Bishop Connie Mitchell Shelton, responding to questions related to the closure of Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church near downtown Wilmington.

At issue was whether North Carolina Conference leaders violated church law — including Paragraph 2553 — in approving an interim closure of Fifth Avenue in March after the church asked in February to hold an official vote on disaffiliation.

Bishops routinely face questions of law during the sessions at which they preside. The Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — requires that any bishop’s decision of law must go before the Judicial Council for review.

In this case, the church court affirmed Shelton’s decisions of law in response to the questions before her.

Paragraph 2549.3(b) allows conference leaders to close a church between annual conference sessions if they declare that “exigent” — that is, pressing — circumstances exist “that require immediate protection of the local church’s property, for the benefit of the denomination.” Under the provision, the conference leaders then vest the closed church’s property and assets in the annual conference board of trustees.

Annual conferences are regional bodies encompassing churches and other ministries that meet at least once a year.

In addition to Decision 1490, the Judicial Council also released five other rulings stemming from its six-item fall docket.

In Memorandum 1488, the Judicial Council said it did not have jurisdiction to rule on a California-Pacific Conference matter also involving disaffiliation.

During the annual conference, a clergy member made a motion seeking to have the conference board of trustees adjust its requirements for disaffiliating churches. California-Pacific Conference Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank ruled the clergyperson’s motion out of order. The following day, the clergy member asked for a ruling of law concerning her determination that the motion was out of order.

The Judicial Council said the clergy member’s questions concerned parliamentary procedure rather than a matter of law.

Quoting from an earlier memorandum, the church court said, the “appropriate method to challenge a parliamentary ruling by a presiding bishop” is to appeal the decision of the chair to the legislative body in which the ruling has been made.

During the fall session, Deanell Tacha and the Rev. Luan-Vu Tran were absent. Kent Fulton, first lay alternate, and the Rev. Timothy Bruster, first clergy alternate, participated in the rulings.