May of 2020 will be a momentous General Conference for those in the United Methodist denomination. This could likely be the Conference where the denomination formally divides into two or three separate expressions of Methodism.
Central to the negotiations of a possible split are issues centered in the Trust Clause of the United Methodist Church. The Trust Clause legally establishes that all buildings and properties do not belong to the local congregation, but to the United Methodist denomination itself (specifically, the annual conference). Thus, the discussions about “leaving” the denomination are important because the group that “leaves” has to accept the fact that they must leave all of their property and buildings behind unless some concession is made by the denomination to allow them to keep their property and buildings if, for example, certain financial payments are made.
However, it is important for all United Methodists to not forget the original purpose of the Trust Clause. When John Wesley had the first house of Methodist worship built in Bristol, he established rather hastily a Trust Clause after the prevailing pattern practiced by Presbyterians. This essentially gave the local church Trustees the rights over the building, property and appointment of preachers. Once George Whitefield saw the Trust Clause that John Wesley had established, he immediately wrote a letter of warning to John Wesley that if this Trust Clause prevailed, it could mean that local congregations could appoint their own preachers and even prohibit Rev. Wesley himself from preaching from the very church he had helped to establish. In response to this, Mr. Wesley made major changes to the Trust Clause so that it resembled what we have today; namely, the denomination owns and controls the building, land, and pastoral appointments of all local United Methodist churches.
This much of the history is fairly well known by Methodists. However, what seems to be lost in the discussion is Wesley’s own reason for why he made this change. Wesley made it clear that the whole reason for this very strict Trust Clause was to protect and preserve orthodoxy in the church. If a pastor failed “in the exercise of their ministry” or in the “proclamation of the gospel” then Wesley did not want his hands tied in removing that pastor from the pulpit of a Methodist church. The Trust Clause was very explicit that only authentic Methodist doctrine should be preached in Methodist pulpits. By 1763 it was required that all Trust Clauses follow the pattern of the Birchin Lane Preaching House in Manchester. In this pattern for all Trust Clauses, it is explicitly required that in order for a local congregation to retain control of the land and buildings, . . . “those so appointed should preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament and four volumes of sermons” (Works of John Wesley, vol. 9).
Thus, the purpose of the Trust Clause was to protect the church from heterodox teaching which was inconsistent with the Scriptures and the received interpretation of the Wesleyan message as found in Wesley’s canonical sermons. Those churches who are refusing to abide by the United Methodist Discipline are the ones who have actually violated the Trust Clause and should be the ones who lose their land and buildings and be required to go and start their own denomination if they wish. However, just the opposite is happening in the United Methodist Church. Our Episcopal leaders continue to appoint and affirm clergy who will not abide by the Discipline and will not teach and preach historic faith. Furthermore, those who long to remain United Methodist, and who long for churches to abide by the express will of the General Conference and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith are faced with losing their land and buildings. The Trust Clause was designed to protect churches from false doctrine. Today, the Trust Clause is being used to pressure churches into embracing false doctrines. The Trust Clause, founded to preserve Wesleyan teaching, is now being used to threaten those who hold to historic faith, so that they will risk losing everything if they do not embrace novel doctrines which stand in clear violation of church tradition and our Discipline. The Trust Clause has been turned on its head.