Like the lyrics from Paul Simon’s hit song “Call Me Al,” there have been “incidents and accidents, hints and allegations” swirling about The United Methodist Church in the past two weeks, and they add up to some disappointing developments for disaffected forces struggling to leave the worldwide denomination.
Taken together, events foretell an even more acrimonious battle ahead with divided congregations and potential lawsuits.
For months, traditionalist forces marshalled by the Wesleyan Covenant Association have attempted to use a provision in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the collection of church law, that would allow disaffected congregations to leave the denomination without having to pay the “exit dues” mandated by the sanctioned “disaffiliation” process. The proposed alternative allows for the transfer of church property to “another evangelical denomination” through a “comity agreement.”
UMC court says no
On Aug. 23, the Judicial Council, the church’s “high court,” cut the legs out from under the alternative strategy. The council released its ruling that the alternate process, known as Paragraph 2548.2, could be used only to transfer real property, not members, as WCA advocates have claimed. Furthermore, the Council ruled that the UMC has no “comity agreement” with the fledgling Global Methodist Church, a new denomination launched in May by the WCA to which the traditionalists want to transfer their property.
On Aug. 23, the Judicial Council, the church’s “high court,” cut the legs out from under the alternative strategy.
According to a report by Heather Hahn of UM News, “At issue in Decision 1449 is how United Methodist leaders should apply Paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book. The provision, which has been part of the Discipline since 1948, allows an annual conference to direct the local church trustees to deed property to one of the Pan-Methodist denominations or another evangelical denomination.”
A lesson from North Carolina
The Judicial Council decision on Paragraph 2548.2 came just days after an independent episode in which legal counsel for one of the UMC’s regional units demolished the strategy in a 10-page letter to a lawyer representing 31 North Carolina churches that want to leave the UMC.
Documents published on the Western North Carolina Conference website describe the attempt to use Paragraph 2548.2 as the disaffiliation mechanism. They include:
- A redacted five-page letter from an organization called National Center for Life and Liberty in Largo, Fla., announcing the 31 churches’ threat to sue the conference if not allowed to leave via Paragraph 2548.2. The letter is signed by David C. Gibbs III, but his position with the NCLL isn’t specified.
- A 10-page unredacted response from Gregory D. Huffman, attorney for the conference.
- A message from Western North Carolina Bishop Ken Carter, explaining the dispute and reiterating conference leaders’ commitment to following only the disaffiliation process enacted by a 2019 special General Conference.
In his letter to Bishop Carter, Gibbs asserts that Paragraph 2548 is a viable alternative exit process that church leaders are deliberately blocking. Gibbs also contends that leaving the UMC by means of the sanctioned process, known as Paragraph 2553, is “wholly inequitable.” He then claims that for the conference to force the 31 churches to disaffiliate under those terms would violate the conference’s “fiduciary responsibility” to the churches as well as the property covenant known as the “trust clause,” giving them cause to sue the conference.
The “trust clause” is a covenant instituted by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, in which local church property is held “in trust” for the regional unit that provided funds for its establishment. Paragraph 2553 specifies that to leave the UMC “for reasons of conscience,” a congregation must pay its annual conference two years’ worth of “fair share” contributions to ministries beyond the local church plus all unfunded liabilities for clergy pensions. Conferences are permitted to require additional payments from exiting churches depending on their financial commitments.
Paragraph 2553 was proposed and voted in by traditionalist forces at the 2019 special General Conference that tightened bans on same-sex marriage and ordaining LGBTQ clergy. In essence, traditionalists are now rebelling against the same process they instituted because they deem the costs are “onerous.”
Traditionalists are now rebelling against the same process they instituted because they deem the costs are “onerous.”
In response to the 31 churches’ lawyer, Western North Carolina’s attorney Huffman summarized what he saw as errors in Gibbs’ argument, which turned out to be much the same rationale used by the Judicial Council’s ruling.
“The letters (Gibbs sent three, on Aug. 8, 10 and 16) begin with a fundamental set of underlying premises that are wholly in error, specifically, that: (a) a local church has some inchoate, absolute right to leave The United Methodist Church and (b) Paragraph 2548.2 of the Discipline is a ‘disaffiliation’ pathway for local churches. Simply put, neither of these is correct.
“We are aware that some of your clients have expressed a desire to leave The United Methodist Church and join the Global Methodist Church, and they have expressed a strong desire to use Paragraph 2548.2 of the Discipline to achieve those ends. While that seemingly concedes the point that a local church holds all of its property (real and personal) in trust for the benefit of The United Methodist Church and cannot ‘disaffiliate’ outside of some release of the denominational trust, there is no absolute right built into the Discipline which grants a church any right to ‘disaffiliate’ or obtain a release of the denominational trust, nor is there any such right under North Carolina law. The Discipline extends only a limited right to disaffiliate, which is clearly set out at Paragraph 2553 as adopted by the General Conference in 2019.”
Specifics of the rebuttal
Huffman then enumerates the flaws he sees in Gibbs’ argument:
“First, the GMC has not been recognized by The United Methodist Church as an ‘evangelical denomination,’ a term that is not defined in the Discipline. The lack of that definition has been used by certain parties associated with the GMC to essentially spread disinformation and confusion surrounding the state of the relationship between the GMC and The United Methodist Church and the authority of various actors within the system of governance of The United Methodist Church.”
And second, he wrote: “Your letters state that an Annual Conference could enter into a ‘comity agreement’ with some ‘evangelical denomination’ per Paragraph 2548.2. Again, the term ‘comity agreement’ is not defined in the Discipline, thus a point of disinformation and disagreement.
“In addition, it is entirely unclear with what entity you expect the Conference to enter a ‘comity agreement.’ To date, it does not appear to me as though the Global Methodist Church is any sort of organized Christian denomination.”
“To date, it does not appear to me as though the Global Methodist Church is any sort of organized Christian denomination.”
And third, Huffman said, “Your letter cites selective portions of Paragraph 2548.2 and ignores key, operative parts of that paragraph. Most notably, you fail to include the very first sentence of the provision: ‘With the consent of the presiding bishop and of a majority of the district superintendents and of the district board of church location and building. …’ Nothing happens in the process without all of these consents. Clearly, your clients do not have those consents.”
Only 1.6% of congregations seeking to leave
In addition to these setbacks in church law matters, the tsunami of disaffiliations predicted by traditionalist forces – intended as a source of funding for the new GMC – hasn’t materialized. To date, only 470 congregations out of the 30,000 local churches in the United States have completed the required disaffiliation process, according to Hahn.
These developments bode ill for the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s announced strategy to pursue alternatives, including lawsuits, in 18 annual conferences.
In an Aug. 12 blog post, WCA President Jay Therrell denounced annual conferences he claims have added “punitive” additional financial requirements as allowed by the sanctioned exit process: Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific (including Hawaii and Guam), Eastern Pennsylvania, Greater New Jersey, Illinois Great Rivers (southern Illinois), Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mountain Sky (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah), New England, Northern Illinois, Oregon-Idaho, Peninsula-Delaware, South Carolina, Susquehanna (central Pennsylvania and part of southern New York), West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania.
Therrell then called on disaffected congregations in these regions to withhold their “fair-share” contributions, known as “apportionments,” to church-wide ministries. However, according to Rick King of the General Council on Finance and Administration, many traditionalist congregations already have withheld apportionments or failed to pay the full amounts assessed by their annual conferences, so the financial impact of this strategy is expected to be less than the WCA may have anticipated.
Therrell wrote Aug. 12: “The time has come to stop supporting agendas that seek to hurt the orthodox, theologically conservative movement. It is time for us to send a collective message that we will not stand for this anymore. Bishops and other progressive leaders, when you choose to treat theologically conservative churches fairly and let us go, this can end. The choice is yours.”
For now, though, it appears UMC church law has trumped the moral outrage of traditionalists. United Methodist congregations that want to leave with their church property can pay up, depart without the real estate, or file a civil lawsuit that has little apparent likelihood of succeeding.
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.