By Thomas Lambrecht
In a newly released decision, the Judicial Council states, “the process in Par. 2548.2 may not be used as a pathway for local churches to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.” This decision responds to a May request from the Council of Bishops to rule on whether Par. 2548.2 can be used by local churches to disaffiliate from the UM Church. It comes on the heels of an earlier decision that ruled out the ability of annual conferences to disaffiliate from the UM Church.
Par. 2548.2 would allow an annual conference to transfer the property of a local UM congregation to another evangelical denomination. Several bishops and the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association saw this paragraph as one possible means to facilitate local church disaffiliation in light of the further postponement of General Conference. In fact, Bishop Thomas Bickerton indicated to us in December 2020 his desire to explore ways to implement the Protocol without it being enacted by General Conference. He agreed that Par. 2548.2 might be a vehicle for doing that. (The 2019 General Conference also envisioned Par. 2548.2 as a possible means of disaffiliation when it included that paragraph in the pension provisions it enacted in Par. 1504.23. But the Judicial Council ignored that inconvenient fact.)
A task force within the Council of Bishops began working on disaffiliation through several paragraphs in the Discipline, including Par. 2548. A negotiating team of several bishops and WCA leaders worked for nearly 18 months to try to craft a model agreement and provisions that could allow local churches to use Par. 2548.2 to disaffiliate using the terms of the Protocol as much as possible. In the end, the bishops broke off the negotiations when we could not reach an agreement, deciding instead to use only Par. 2553. The Council of Bishops then filed their request for a declaratory decision on the validity of using Par. 2548.2 as a local church pathway to disaffiliation.
Importantly, this week’s Judicial Council decision does not nullify any church disaffiliations that have taken place, nor does it jeopardize any churches who are currently in the disaffiliation process. Up to now, bishops have been unwilling to use Par. 2548.2 for disaffiliation until there was a Judicial Council ruling, so almost no churches have been using the now-outlawed process.
Also, the Judicial Council ruling does not prevent any local church from disaffiliating from the UM Church and joining the Global Methodist Church. While the Council of Bishops has been given the authority to determine if a certain denomination qualifies under Par. 2548.2, the ruling does NOT give the Council of Bishops the authority to say that the GMC is not a real denomination. The GMC has been formed, is incorporated, has a governing Transitional Council, has a Book of Doctrines and Discipline, and has clergy and congregations who have affiliated with it, the number of which are increasing daily.
This Perspective gets a bit technical, so those not interested in following the argument may skip to the last section to understand the implications. Here are the important points of this new Decision 1449.
Who Must Authorize the Use of Par. 2548.2?
The Judicial Council ruled that any agreement under Par. 2548.2 would involve the Council of Bishops and the leaders of the other denomination (in this case, the Global Methodist Church). This is reasonable, since “The Council of Bishops shall have the authority to enter into ecumenical agreements with other Christian bodies” (Par. 431.1).
Further, any agreement signed by the Council of Bishops would have to be ratified by the General Conference before going into effect. This is a stretch, since the Discipline only requires ratification of “formal ‘full communion’ relationships and permanent membership in ecumenical organizations” (Par. 431.1). The Judicial Council reasoned, however, that an ecumenical agreements involving the transfer of property are “ecumenical relations with churchwide implications and, therefore, by their very nature are ‘matters distinctively connectional’ over which the General Conference has full legislative power under ¶ 16.”
The Judicial Council appears to have an inconsistent understanding of when something is “distinctively connectional” and when it is not. Minimum standards of ordination were ruled to be not “distinctively connectional” in Decision 1366, even though clergy are ordained as clergy of the whole church. Here, though, matters of local church property are deemed to be “distinctively connectional” and require General Conference approval.
This part of the ruling automatically postpones any possible use of Par. 2548.2 until after the 2024 General Conference meeting, which has been the goal of the Council of Bishops all along – to delay the possibilities of disaffiliation as long as possible. (But see the other part of the ruling below that disallows Par. 2548.2 entirely.)
What Qualifies as “Another Evangelical Denomination?”
The Judicial Council ruled that the Council of Bishops is the body that must determine if an entity qualifies as “another evangelical denomination” under Par. 2548.2 to which local church property can be transferred. The Judicial Council thought this was consistent with the fact that the COB is the body empowered to enter into ecumenical relationships. This gives a lot of power to the Council of Bishops without any check or balance. The COB could arbitrarily decide that the GMC does not fit their definition of “another evangelical denomination” and thereby prohibit any ecumenical relationship or transfer of property. And the dissenting opinion by Judicial Council member Dennis Blackwell advocates that “The majority’s ruling invests authority within the Council of Bishops that the General Conference has not given them in the Book of Discipline.” We agree.
A Convoluted Process?
The Judicial Council ruled that Par. 2548.2 is constitutional because it does not violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of church government. The General Conference may confer legislative “authority on an annual conference to enforce the transfer of church property. However, this annual conference authority is neither unrestricted nor unqualified.” In order for Par. 2548.2 to be executed, an ecumenical agreement must be in place signed by the COB and ratified by General Conference, the local church must request the property transfer, the bishop and a majority of district superintendents, as well as the district board of building and location, must agree, and the annual conference must approve by majority vote. Unless all these conditions are satisfied, Par. 2548.2 cannot come into use.
This process outlined by the Judicial Council may be legal under church law, but it illustrates one of the terminal maladies of The United Methodist Church. Our denomination has set up a system with so many approvals required as to make changes in the system nearly impossible. There are so many ways to block action from occurring that many times we do not even try. That is why often bishops, district superintendents, and clergy ignore provisions of the Discipline because they are so unwieldy and seem designed to block constructive changes rather than facilitate adaptation to changing environments.
This is why Good News has come to the conclusion that the UM system is not reformable. Reform can be blocked by so many entrenched special interests in so many different ways that it does not even pay to try. We have concluded we are better off starting fresh with a new system that is more permission-giving and offers more flexibility to local churches and annual conferences. When there is basic agreement on our theological framework (as in the GMC), it is unnecessary to impose all kinds of restrictive rules and processes.
A Realistic Option?
The Judicial Council ruled that an ecumenical agreement would have to be in place before any annual conference could consider transferring UM local church property to the other denomination. Since only two such agreements are currently in place – with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Moravian Church – property transfers could occur only with those two denominations. Any other transfers under Par. 2548.2 would have to wait for the COB to negotiate and sign such an agreement and then have it ratified by General Conference. There is no realistic chance for such an agreement to be put in place with the GMC by 2024. Given the rapidly accumulating hard feelings and resentful atmosphere surrounding this separation, it may be decades before any such agreement could be considered.
The lynchpin question the COB asked of the Judicial Council was whether Par. 2548.2 could be used as a separate process of disaffiliation or termination of a local church’s alignment with the UM Church. The Judicial Council answered a resounding NO. Their reasoning is that Par. 2548.2 addresses the transfer of property, not the transfer of members. As such, “any use or application of Par. 2548.2 to accomplish the disaffiliation of local churches would not only defy logic but also subvert the clearly stated purpose of this disciplinary paragraph.”
Of course, Par. 2553 (the current disaffiliation pathway) does not address the transfer of members, either. It allows for the disaffiliation of a congregation as a corporate unit through the release of the trust clause. It is assumed that the members of the congregation would remain so in their newly independent (or later newly affiliated) relationship, unless specific members requested otherwise. The same could be assumed of Par. 2548.2, that the members would remain with the congregation’s property unless they requested otherwise. But the Judicial Council reasoned otherwise.
The Judicial Council further reasoned that, if Par. 2548.2 provided a disaffiliation pathway, there would have been no need for the 2019 General Conference to pass another one – Par. 2553. This ignores the fact that the existing Par. 2549 on church closure has been used for decades to allow particularly small local congregations to leave the UM Church with their property. The conference would “close” the church and then sell the property back to the congregation for a reasonable amount. It also ignores the fact that Par. 1504.23, also adopted at the 2019 General Conference, lists Par. 2548 and 2549 as ways in which “a local church or charge in the United States changes its relationship to The United Methodist Church.”
Par. 2553 was adopted in order to provide an even clearer pathway for disaffiliation by local churches that could not support the actions of the 2019 General Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. In other words, it was for congregations that are more progressive. It was never the intent of those who proposed and supported that paragraph that annual conferences could add onerous requirements to the process. It was intended as a smooth, well-defined, reasonable disaffiliation path. Only, churches that are more progressive refused to take that pathway of disaffiliation, leading to the situation where now traditionalist churches are doing so. And some annual conferences are turning a simple process into a much more complicated one and adding requirements that the General Conference delegates never envisioned.
It seems the Judicial Council is penalizing General Conference for trying to do something to clarify processes, while not intending to make other options obsolete. Once again, it shows the impossibility of reforming the UM structure or processes. At every turn, there are individuals and bodies poised to try to block the changes, and the inherently judicially conservative Judicial Council is ready to favor the status quo.
The appeal of using Par. 2548.2 was to circumvent the complexity and the onerous requirements, allow for a different mechanism for handling pension liabilities (such as payment over time), and facilitate the disaffiliation of congregations to be true to their conscience. Instead, some bishops and annual conferences have weaponized the process in an effort to coerce congregations into remaining United Methodist or giving up their property.
The bottom line is that the Judicial Council has essentially ruled out the use of Par. 2548.2 as a realistic pathway for local congregations to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.
That means essentially the only pathway for congregational disaffiliation with their property is Par. 2553. Once that paragraph expires at the end of 2023, there will be no viable disaffiliation pathway out of the UM Church, unless General Conference enacts a new one sometime in 2024.
That means any church that might want to disaffiliate must do so quickly. Some annual conferences have September 1 deadlines for entering the discernment process. Only 15 annual conferences contemplate holding special annual conferences in 2022 to approve disaffiliation. Only a couple annual conferences have said they would schedule special annual conferences late in 2023 to approve disaffiliation.
If a local church does not finish the disaffiliation process in time to be approved by the last annual conference session in 2023, that local church may be unable to disaffiliate at all in the future. As I have written before, there are no guarantees that the 2024 General Conference will pass a new disaffiliation process. Good News hopes it will do so, and we remain committed to working toward that end. At the same time, there is also no guarantee that any new process would be more equitable or less expensive than Par. 2553.
The COB has accomplished its objective of choking off as many avenues for disaffiliation as possible. It is concerning that the COB during the pandemic has appropriated to itself more and more authority. The legislative branch of our church government has been silenced by the continued postponement of General Conference. In its absence for now eight years, the COB has used the Judicial Council to control the direction of the church. In this instance, the Judicial Council decision followed almost exactly the arguments of the COB in their briefs, along with a supportive brief from a conference chancellor. The Judicial Council made almost no reference to any opposing briefs, nor did it engage with the arguments and objections of the opposing briefs. It rubber stamped what the bishops wanted. The loss of the legislative power and the coopting of the judicial power enables the COB to essentially run the church according to its own understanding. This sets up an unhealthy dynamic within the denomination that will not be easy to correct, once life gets back to “normal” with the resumption of General Conference meetings in 2024.
There is a sentiment among some of our church’s bishops and other leaders that disaffiliation itself should not be on the table. The concurring opinion by Judicial Council member Beth Capen states, “The act of disaffiliation is in direct contradiction to this denomination’s long-standing polity of connectionalism. It is an anathema to that connectional cornerstone which distinguishes our denomination from most other Protestant Churches.” If it were up to persons who think this way, there would be no pathway for local churches or annual conferences to disaffiliate at all from The United Methodist Church.
One hopes that this sentiment against any sort of disaffiliation is a minority position in the church. Or at least that people will recognize the practicality of allowing churches that can no longer be part of the UM Church due to objections of conscience to disaffiliate with their property. Coercion should play no role in maintaining institutional United Methodism.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo: Shutterstock.