A United Methodist Lament

I am one of those cradle Methodists. I will also soon be approaching forty years of ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. For those of us who have been in the denomination that long, we have had front row seats to the slow and tortuous decline of the UMC. We have watched our beloved church, in our own lifetimes, go from vibrancy to its current demoralized state of division, decline, and false teaching. This is a time for lament.

The COVID-19 delays in General Conference from 2020 to 2021, and now to the fall of 2022, have created time and space for even more dysfunctionalism and self-destructive activity. This is a time for lament.

Those of us committed to historic faith have been slow to recognize the true nature of the forces arrayed against us. We were originally told that the One Church Plan was about creating a denomination where both the progressives and traditionalists would have their views respected side by side, despite the post-modern view of truth that would nourish. It is now clear that the OCP was actually just another step toward normalizing same-sex behavior and gender reassignment in the church and the actual goal was to silence our voices within the UMC. The Protocol, after all is said and done, shows us the door. The “open table” of love and respect is extended to many, but not to those committed to historic orthodoxy. This is a time for lament.

We all remember that rare moment of transparency when on the day before the vote on the One Church Plan at General Conference in 2019 the orthodox were referred to by a prominent UM pastor as a virus that must be exterminated. It was one of the most honest moments of the General Conference. This is a time for lament.

After orthodoxy was upheld yet again in 2019, the forces arrayed against us became even more committed to our demise. Forty years ago, I could not have imagined that we would come to a time in which episcopal leaders (in the UMC, the Episcopal Church, and in the PC USA) across this nation would take actions that would end in the seizure of land and property. Some of the most vibrant congregations in the country have found themselves, after all is said and done, locked out of their own facilities. This is a time for lament.

The Protocol is the latest delay tactic to lull us into thinking that someday we will be given a grace-filled exit ramp. There may be no grace-filled exit ramp in our future. We were already prepared to walk away from our denomination; now we must be prepared to walk away from our buildings and land as well. This is a time for lament.

We know that someday God will set things right. We all realize that this includes us, because we will also be judged by how we respond in these perilous times. Jesus Christ is the only truly Righteous One. But, in the meantime, we must “endure hardship and struggle” (Heb. 10:32). We must endure “false accusations, reproach and affliction” (Heb. 10:33) and we must find space to “joyfully accept the plundering of our property” (Heb. 10:33). This does not mean that we do not cry out to God to set things right. The struggle is real. There will be courts in the country who will stand by us, but most will not. There will be a few faithful bishops who will refuse to allow their evangelical churches to be scattered and plundered, but most will not. We do praise God for those faithful voices committed to historic orthodoxy within the Council of Bishops. Nevertheless, this is a time for lament.

We must remember that we stand in solidarity with William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, John Bunyan, and thousands of others who were burned at the stake or imprisoned by the church because of their commitment to stand with the Word of God. Should we expect that we will be spared from this? Are we prepared to not only lose our livelihoods and property, but our very lives in this struggle for the rebirth of apostolic Christianity in the midst of a pagan and ever-increasing hostile world? This is a time for lament.

My wife, Julie, is an amazing, prayerful Christian and a great musician. Together we have cried in recent days over the anguishing events taking place around the country. We realized that despite the great hymnody of Methodism, we really do not have many hymns that capture the lament we are currently in. But I found myself singing a lament Julie had written a few years ago when we were in another challenging season, and I thought it would be encouraging to share it with the wider church. The hymn is entitled, “O Sovereign God, Thy Constant Care” and is taken from images found in the book of Habakkuk. It can be sung to tunes you know, like Tallis’ “Canon,” the “Doxology,” or “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Brothers and sisters, let us not turn to bitterness or hatred or despair. Let us walk the way of love and learn the language of lament. It is here dedicated to all United Methodists across the entire denomination who are in lament.

O Sovereign God, Thy constant care is with us in our deep despair,
and keeps us ever in Thy sight through hidden ways and darkest night.

Lord, guard our hearts that they may be protected in Thy constancy;
keep us from giving way to fear, and fill us with your Spirit here.

Though evil prosper for a time, and proud ones seem to ever shine,
The righteous still will live by faith, by daily trusting in Thy grace.

Though trees are barren in the field, and vines and plants refuse to yield;
Yet we will still exult in Thee, our strength and shield you’ll always be.

O Sovereign God, Thy plans unfold as we have seen through ages told.
For none can thwart Thy sovereign ways, O keep us faithful all our days.

Lament is the song of faith. Lament is the doorway to hope. Lament is the promise of a brighter day to come.

The Trust Clause in the United Methodist Church

One of the key features of the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (hereafter referred to as the Protocol) is the suspension of the Trust Clause, which is permitted within the current Discipline of the church. The Trust Clause is a provision in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church which states that all properties held by the local church are actually held in trust for the entire denomination. The relevant statement in the Discipline is as follows:

¶ 2501. Requirement of the Trust Clause for All Property-1. All properties of United Methodist local churches and other United Methodist agencies and institutions are held, in trust, for the benefit of the entire denomination, and ownership and usage of church property is subject to the Discipline. This trust requirement is an essential element of the historic polity of The United Methodist Church or its predecessor denominations or communions and has been a part of the Discipline since 1797. It reflects the connectional structure of the Church by ensuring that the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline.

The Protocol agreement was originally intended to be voted on at the 2020 General Conference. Due to COVID-19, the General Conference was delayed to 2021 and now delayed again until 2022. Many churches have expressed concern that the appointments made during the long interim period (officially caused by the COVID-19 delays) seem to be aimed at removing evangelical leaders from large churches in the country.

The delay has put several churches in states across the country in the unenviable situation of resisting the removal of their pastor against their will because they know the power of the pastoral influence over the vote to leave the denomination. The Protocol does not require any church to vote, so merely by avoiding a vote all churches, by default, will remain within the United Methodist Church. Many leaders of the churches in this situation know that the unwelcome appointment of a moderate or progressive pastor to their churches will result in countless people leaving their congregations, thereby destroying effective ministries that have been built up over many generations.

The Discipline seeks to protect churches from potential Episcopal abuse of authority by requiring due process and consultation with the church before the appointment is finalized. The Discipline states that “the District Superintendent should meet together or separately with the pastor and the committee on staff-parish relations for the purpose of sharing the basis for the change and the process used in making the new appointment” (¶ 428.3); “Consultation is not merely notification” (¶ 426); and “The process of consultation shall be mandatory in every annual conference” (¶ 426.1). Failing to adhere to this process of the Discipline could spawn a number of pre-Protocol lawsuits around the country, which will place this matter before the courts in expensive, public, and drawn-out litigation, the very scenario the Protocol was designed to avoid.

The question is this: Will the courts uphold the Trust Clause of the United Methodist Church in the face of a legal challenge? It is difficult to know the answer to this question, but there are two reasons why a challenge to the Trust Clause may be successful and churches should weigh this carefully when making the decision to defend their claim to their property and land.

First, the original intention of the Trust Clause. It is important that all lawyers representing the local congregations contending for their land remember the original intention 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 Reverend 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.

However, Wesley made it clear that the chief 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. Today, this is being turned on its head. Those churches committed to abiding 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.

Second, the link between the Trust Clause and the Discipline. The United Methodist Church’s Discipline does not actually give a blanket protection for the denomination in exercising the Trust Clause against a local congregation. Many of the churches faced with losing their building and land have one thing in common: they adhere to historic Christian teachings regarding marriage. The problem that the denomination has in exercising the Trust Clause is found in the explicit language within the Discipline which states the following: “the property will be used solely for purposes consonant with the mission of the entire denomination as set forth in the Discipline.” For a conference to legally exercise the Trust Clause it would have to prove in a court of law that the local congregations that they are attempting to take control of are leading the congregation away from the mission and teaching of the United Methodist Church as set forth by the Discipline. Yet, this is precisely what these conservative churches are not doing. They are actually devoted to maintaining and defending the current official stand of the Discipline. Twelves times over a fifty year period General Conference delegates have deliberated proposals to change or eliminate the language in the Discipline stating “homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teachings,” and each of the twelve attempts were not successful, including the famous special-called 2019 General Conference convened to focus solely on this single issue.

It can be clearly proven that such churches are not guilty of leading their congregations away from the Discipline, but are actually seeking to adhere to the current Discipline, which is the official position of the denomination. Local churches that find themselves in this situation could consider passing a church-wide resolution, which addresses two things: first, the local church must affirm their commitment to adhering to the Discipline and the teachings of John Wesley. Second, it should put in writing the pledge made by every elder and bishop at their ordination; namely, that they pledge to defend the “order, liturgy, doctrine and Discipline of the United Methodist Church.” It can, once again, be demonstrated in a court of law that it is the bishops, not the local congregations, who have failed to keep their trust. Moreover, some bishops have actually publicly expressed their intention to bypass the Discipline and have acted with undue hostility toward those churches that stand their ground. The fact is that these faithful churches cannot be found in violation of the Discipline’s Paragraph 2501, the grounds upon which a conference could assert the Trust Clause.

We have all witnessed the messy legal conflicts which broke out in the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) when they separated over the same issues we are faced with today. We would be wise to take a deep breath and seek to work out an amicable separation that avoids these lawsuits. Many of the churches who have been threatened with the Trust Clause are open to paying a settlement with the denomination to address appropriate financial obligations. However, if it comes to a lawsuit, the United Methodist Church should know that, unlike some of our sister denominations who have fought (with mixed success) with their own versions of a Trust Clause, our Trust Clause puts conservative churches who are committed to adhere to the Discipline in a favorable situation. The other increasingly progressive denominations had the advantage over the conservative wings of their denominations because they had been successful in changing their church’s official position on these social issues. This has not happened in the United Methodist Church.

It would be a great witness to the wider culture if the bishops resisted using the unavoidable delays caused by the ravages of COVID-19 as a source of more pain and suffering. Some churches are willing to leave their buildings and land and start afresh. However, our shared hope as a denomination is that we  model before the world a grace-filled and peaceful transition from the United Methodist Church to multiple new expressions of Methodism in the world.