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SIMS v. GREEN

July 1, 1947

SIMS
v.
GREEN



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WELSH

The plaintiff and defendant in this action are bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, both of whom are highly respected and much beloved men and leaders in their respective districts. Each seeks to enjoin the other from presiding over conferences of the first Episcopal District of said church.

The question submitted to us presents problems that are not usually presented to a Chancellor in the Civil Courts. In a strictly legal sense the problem may not be unusual yet a Chancellor cannot remain entirely oblivious of the far deeper questions that are raised by the pleadings and the evidence. Those deeper problems do not affect our judicial judgment but they are consciously present and call for the greatest wisdom in making a decision. There is ever present before the Chancellor the thought that while this contest is one involving persons and personalities, the greater question is one that transcends personalities -- we refer to the long established philosophies of our courts that must govern us in deciding a question in which the administration and interpretation of the supreme law of the Church is involved. That philosophy must be the pole-star that guides us in mapping our course through such a troubled sea of internal church conflict as has been presented in this case. Therefore, in our reasoning and in our interpretation of facts and theories, and in our conclusions we feel that we should frankly state our adherence to that philosophy.

 The African Methodist Episcopal Church is a voluntary association claiming approximately one million communicants throughout the United States and foreign countries. It is divided into seventeen episcopal districts, each of which is presided over by a bishop. The episcopal districts are composed of several annual conferences. The First Episcopal District comprises the Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, New England, Delaware, Burmuda and the Maritime Conferences. The government of the church is established by its Book of Discipline, which contains all laws and by-laws relating thereto.

 The supreme governing authority is the General Conference, which meets every four years. It is composed of bishops, clergymen, laymen, college officials and delegates elected from the episcopal districts. A Bishops Council composed of the bishops presiding over the episcopal districts regulates the affairs of the church and has full supervision during the interim between the General Conferences. The powers granted to the Bishops Council include the hearing of complaints against any of the bishops, and the power to remove or transfer a bishop to or from a district by two-thirds vote if the good of the church demands it.

 The plaintiff has served as bishop of the First Episcopal District since 1940, his last formal assignment being by the General Conference of 1944 and extending to 1948. In June, 1946 the Bishops Council formally determined that a change should be made in the administration of the New York Conference and designated Bishop Wright as associate bishop with full authority to act in that Conference. Although Bishop Sims had subscribed to the resolution making such charge, he caused an action to be instituted in the Supreme Court of New York, to enjoin Bishop Wright from assuming full presiding authority in said Conference. Bishop sims contended that because accusations had been made against him he could not be removed from the Conference except upon trial.

 By reason of such controversy the Bishops Council held a special meeting on August 15 at Washington, D.C., for the purpose of clarifying the earlier resolution by expressly describing the extent of Bishop Wright's authority. The meeting failed of its purpose and was adjourned because certain of the bishops sought to withdraw their approval of the resolution previously adopted, and challenged the power of the council to relieve Bishop sims of jurisdiction in the New York Conference.

 Thereafter charges were preferred against Bishop Sims accusing him of rebellion against the Bishops Council, maladministration and other offences. The charges were served upon him on September 15 and a trial committee was appointed to hear the charges on September 25. On that date the trial committee convened but was prevented from proceeding by the boisterous conduct of persons in attendance, whereupon the committee adjourned to another place. Before the trial committee could proceed it was temporarily restrained by an order of court obtained upon complaint of parties favoring Bishop Sims in the controversy. Ecclesiastical charges were also preferred by Bishop Sims' group against nine of the bishops opposed to them.

 The restraining order precluding the trial of Bishop Sims in New York on September 25 was dissolved and the trial committee sought to change its venue, fixing October 22 and Cincinnati as the time and place for its hearing. Just prior to that date Bishop Sins obtained a restraining order from the Federal District Court of Ohio enjoining the trial committee from holding the trial.

 An extra session of the General Conference was held at Little Rock, Arkansas, November 20 to 23. The actions taken included the trial and conviction of Bishop Sims and his dismissal from the bishopric of the church. Thereafter the Bishops Council replaced him in conference of the First Episcopal District by appointing Bishop Green to such district.

 The principal question raised by the pleadings and the evidence is whether the plaintiff was legally unfrocked as a Bishop, and the defendant assigned as his successor in the First Episcopal District. The answer to that question is dependent upon a determination as to the legal propriety of the extra session of the General Conference, whether the church judicatories were constituted and functioned in accordance with the rules of the Discipline, and whether the plaintiff was provided with proper notice and an opportunity to defend his position.

 We are not concerned with the controversies and litigation between the contesting parties prior to the steps taken to call the extra session of the General Conference, except to recognize them as evidence of serious disputes within the church and of the necessity for some affirmative action by the church leaders. The open differences then existing between the factions of the bishops group involved interpretation of provisions of the Discipline and of the powers and functions of the Bishops Council. The minority group opposed the construction of the church law and the proposed actions of the majority group because they adversely affected the interests of the minority. None of the disputes concerned spiritual or doctrinal matters.

 One of the leading cases on this subject is that of Krecker v. Shirey, 163 Pa. 534, 546, 555, 30 A. 440, 29 A.R.A. 476, wherein Mr. Justice Williams after declaring the principles that should govern the civil courts in a church dispute, used the following language: 'The conduct of the parties and their sympathizers on both sides seems to have been hasty, uncharitable, and ill-tempered. It affords a travesty, rather than an illustration, of the precepts of the religion of peace for the support and diffusion of which the church was organized and the parties on both sides profess to have devoted their energies and their lives. But our concern is with the legal aspects of the case presented to us, and to them we turn, leaving the moral side of the controversy to the consciences of the combatants.'

 Whether there is a parallelism between the facts as above outlines and whether the language of Mr. Justice Williams in that case is applicable here, I leave to the Christian conscience of the clerical and lay members of the great Church that is involved in this unfortunate controversy.

 We are concerned here with the controversies over the call of the extra session of the General Conference and the propriety of its procedure. But before analyzing the issues it is important to recognize that the differences between the factions of the bishops groups and their followers had affected the affairs of the church in certain sections and precluded the church authorities, the Bishops Council especially, from effectively performing their normal functions. Bitterness had arisen. The majority deemed the minority a rebellious group and the minority believed that the majority sought autocratic power and the destruction of Bishop Sims' position and influence in the First Episcopal District. The majority was in the stronger position to apply the church law according to its interpretation and to accomplish its objectives by the weight of numbers; and the minority was thus impelled to resist and defendant by challenging the legal propriety of the actions taken by the majority. Charges and countercharges intensified the conflict and, whether made in good faith or not, they were of strategic importance in the contest between the factions.

 It has been determined that the pleadings in this case present a justiciable controversy as to whether the plaintiff was legally installed and later expelled as a bishop, and the defendant legally appointed in his place, under the laws of Pennsylvania; and that this court has jurisdiction by reason of the diversity of citizenship of the parties. Sims v. Green, 3 Cir., 160 F.2d 512. The present inquiry is confined to the ascertainment of the pertinent church law and the determination of whether such law has been construed and complied with by proper church tribunals.

 The A.M.E. Discipline, like other constitutions, codes and regulations contains some uncertainties, ambiguities and inadequacies as to details, and it may be expected that church tribunals untrained in legal philosophy may arrive at conclusions at variance with those which a court of law might reach. But if the church law has been construed and applied reasonably by the church itself, a different construction or application by the civil courts could not be justified upon any theory which recognizes the essential principle of the separation of church and state.

 The first irregularity charged is that the majority of the bishops, assuming that the senior bishop was disqualified from presiding over the council by charges against him, chose the next in seniority, Bishop Ransome, to act in his stead in arranging for the extra session. Plaintiff contends that the pending charges only precluded the senior bishop from appointing or sitting on his own trial committee, and that he was therefore the presiding officer of the council; only a legally constituted Bishop Council could propose an extra session of the General Conference, and since the moving bishops did not constitute a Bishops Council, they were without authority to propose a special conference. In support of this contention the plaintiff cities Section 172 of the Discipline granting to the Bishops Council full supervision over the entire church during the interim of the General Conference.

 The defendant's position is that by reason of the existing circumstances the Bishops Council was unable to hold formal meetings or to function effectively because of the hopeless division between the factions, that necessity induced the majority group to initiate the required steps to call the conference, and that the general power of supervision given to the council did not preclude the majority of the bishops from proposing such a conference.

 The Discipline authorizes extra sessions of the General Conference and presumably intended that they be proposed by the incumbent senior bishop or the bishops council as the ruling church authorities. The circumstances however precluded them from taking such action and of necessity the proposal as issued by ten of the bishops was a practical expedient. We do not find that their course of conduct is in conflict with either the provisions of the spirit of the Discipline and find no patent irregularity in the proposal and invitation issued. The collateral question as to whether the senior bishop was disqualified by the pending charges is therefore immaterial.

 The contention that special sessions of the annual conferences were illegal because they are not authorized by the Discipline and because they failed to transact all of the business prescribed would, if sustained, require a strained and unnatural interpretation of the law of the church, and we decline to adopt it. The authorization of the special sessions of the Annual Conferences for a specified purpose neither expressly nor by inference precludes the holding of special sessions for other necessary purposes, and the custom of this and like organizations confirms the legal propriety of such special sessions. Nor do we believe that the Discipline by prescribing the order of business renders void those special sessions which fail to formally proceed according to the outline stated for the annual conferences.

 The returns of approval by the annual conferences are challenged by the plaintiff on the grounds that they were made to an irregular and unconstituted authority, that they were informal and defective, and were so burdened with discrepancies as to create doubt as to their propriety and authenticity. He urges that the burden of proving the propriety of the action of two-thirds of the one hundred and eleven annual conferences is upon the defendant and unless it is affirmatively shown that the eighty-six approving conferences actually and formally approved and made proper report thereof, the call and the subsequent conference were of no effect. The defendant differs from the plaintiff over the burden of proof, and points out that the reports of approval of the annual conferences were verified by a committee of five of the majority group of bishops and by the Credentials Committee of the conference, and that the Discipline is silent as to the method to be used in determining the fact of the two-thirds approval.

 The approval of the call by two-thirds of the annual conferences is a question of fact. There is no provision in the Discipline as to how or to whom the returns of approval shall be made, nor is any special tribunal designated to determine their authenticity. These matters are obviously left to the judgment and integrity of the incumbent administrators of the church affairs, subject however to the approval of church judicatories acting within the scope of their authority. Having concluded that the ten bishops were justified in inviting approval of the annual conferences, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the returns of the annual conferences might, with equal propriety and in the absence of disciplinary direction, be made to the source of that invitation, subject of course to official court and verification. The evidence in support of approval, consisting of formal and informal resolutions, letters and telegrams, was sufficient to convince a committee of the bishops and later the Credentials Committee of the General Conference that two-thirds had in fact advised and approved the call for an extra session. No substantial evidence to the contrary was offered at the trial. We do not believe it is the duty of the court to examine into the place or procedure of the special sessions of the annual conferences nor to undertake to count and verify the authenticity of the returns. Any doubt as to such matters by reason of discrepancies and informality must more properly be left to those bodies responsible for the enforcement of the church law.

 Considerable emphasis is placed by the plaintiff on the contention that the call for the Extra Session was made by ten of the bishops acting without the authority of the Discipline, and that by reason thereof the call and the actions taken at the Conference were illegal and wholly void. The basis of this contention is that the language of Section 162 of the Discipline authorizing 'The Bishops, with the advice of two-thirds of the Annual Conferences', to call an Extra Session must be construed to mean 'all' of the bishops and not merely a majority or quorum. The defendant replies that there is nothing in the Discipline requiring the bishops to act unanimously or as a council in issuing such a call, the functions of the Bishops Council as outlined in the Discipline ...


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