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 Sept. 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 can 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 — church regional 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 prior to 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 General Conference, originally scheduled in 2020 and now set for 2024.