¶ 21 of the Constitution — also known as the Fifth Restrictive Rule — states, “The General Conference shall not revoke or change the General Rules of Our United Societies.” This raises an obvious question: what is the exact text that cannot be changed?
The Judicial Council’s Decision 468 addressed a specific sentence that had been modified by the 1972 General Conference. Ultimately, the Judicial Council determined that the correct language covered by this Restrictive Rule is the language in the Plan of Union forming The United Methodist Church. As the Analysis of Decision 468 states in its closing paragraph,
in 1968 The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, by action of their separate General Conferences and approved by voting in their separate Annual Conferences, adopted a Plan of Union which included a new Constitution and a statement of the General Rules forth [sic] in the original form as set forth in the 1968 Discipline.
Here’s how the General Rules begin in the Journal of the Uniting Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church; Methodist Episcopal Church, South; Methodist Protestant Church (1939), page 417:
The General Rules begin the same way in the Journal of the 1966 Adjourned Session of the 1964 General Conference of The Methodist Church, volume 3, page 3034:
It should be uncontroversial that the two examples above constitute the opening of the General Rules of The Methodist Church.
Despite the above evidence of agreement in the opening text, the 2012 Discipline instead differs (page 75):
In the 2012 Discipline, the first sentence ends with the words “groaning for redemption.” In the other two instances cited above, the first sentence ends with the words “came to Mr. Wesley in London.” Why the change?
We can trace this change to The Theological Study Commission on Doctrine and Doctrinal Standards Proposal that Decision 468 addressed. From page 2009 of the Journal of the 1972 General Conference:
I’m guessing that when the Editors of the 1980 Discipline dealt with Decision 468, all they did was change the sentence specifically addressed by Decision 468. Rather than restore the entire General Rules to the correct text, the Editors merely corrected the one sentence.
I am aware of the “Bibliographical Note” purporting that the text reproduced in the 2012 Discipline is (with two exceptions predating The Methodist Church) the same as that in the 1808 Discipline. Here is how the same text opens in the 1808 Discipline, page 47:
If the 2012 Discipline contains the same text as in the 1808 Discipline, what happened to the parentheses in the second sentence?
The Discipline in its opening pages refers readers to Judicial Council Decision 96, “which declares the Discipline to be a book of law.” The General Rules are an example of law in the Discipline which are not to be revoked or changed. The General Rules are supposed to be from the Plan of Union.
I can imagine someone arguing that I’m merely pointing out “scrivener’s errors”; after all, I’ve only quoted two sentences from introductory material containing minor differences that don’t change any meaning. This objection misses the point. Unless and until there is an understanding of what text shall not be altered, how can we even begin to determine whether any textual difference is “big enough to worry about”?
I have to conclude that the Discipline does not contain the correct text for the General Rules. What’s startling is how obvious this is from only the first two sentences.