The latest proposal for dealing with the crisis in The United Methodist Church is now public (here). The so-called “local option,” as David Watson called it here, leaves local congregations to determine whether “they will, or will not, allow for homosexual marriages or unions.”
This proposal would turn us into congregationalists. Methodism’s connectionalism is one of the hallmarks of who we are. It’s in our DNA. Connectionalism also locates us squarely in the one, catholic, and universal Church. The idea of leaving to each congregation how it will settle this important and sensitive question reconfigures Methodism significantly, and formalizes an institutional version of ancient Israel’s chaos: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
The United Methodist Church has gradually chipped away at its connectional polity in numerous ways over the last 40 years. This latest proposal now completes the process, officially bringing to an end our connectionalism. This would essentially create a congregationalist polity, at least on this single issue of same-sex practices. Of course, UM local churches are free to engage in diverse ministries in their own individual ways. That is as it should be. But it would be another matter to surrender our unambiguous witness with regard to human sexuality to each congregation. We would be justified in asking further if local congregations would eventually develop and publish their own “position papers” on other topics as well.
This move to congregationalism forsakes our Catholic > Anglican > Methodist heritage, and moves toward a nonconformist, independent, and in some ways, baptistic polity. But the proposal raises another question for me. And that question has to do with Methodism’s “Trust Clause,” which has been part of our identity for 217 years. In light of the “local church” option in this latest proposal, it is important for Methodists to hear again the details of our Trust Clause. The opening paragraph is entitled “Requirement of the Trust Clause for All property,” and opens as follows (Book of Discipline, parag. 2501).
“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 trust requirement is thus a fundamental expression of United Methodism whereby local churches and other agencies and institutions within the denomination are both held accountable to and benefit from their connection with the entire worldwide Church.”
The next paragraph identifies this trust as an essential feature of the UMC’s organization as a “connectional structure.” One of the salient features of the trust clause is the idea that all properties are held in trust for the entire UMC to ensure that their usage is subject to the Book of Discipline. And so it has been for American Methodism since nearly the very beginning, only a few years after the Christmas Conference of 1784. This “fundamental expression of United Methodism” is intended to hold local churches, as well as the UMC boards and agencies, accountable to the whole church, in order that they may benefit from the connectionalism. This is a way of ensure that we as a denomination speak as one voice on the most important issues of our day.
At the very least, this new proposal, the “Way Forward” document, would require significant changes to the Trust Clause. I believe it would necessitate changing the Trust Clause beyond recognition, and with it, Methodism as we know it. If local congregations have the freedom to decide whether its buildings and properties will be used for same-sex weddings, the logical corollary is to remove the Trust Clause altogether. Why maintain the appearance of Methodist connectionalism? If each congregation determines the proper use of its buildings and properties, why then shouldn’t that congregation have full ownership of those properties? Anything less is thralldom, pure and simple.
I offer these comments merely as a thought experiment, in order to illustrate the numerous problems with the “Way Forward” proposal as it relates to the central identity of what it means to be Methodist. My question is a simple one. If we accept the “local option” in this latest proposal, why wouldn’t we also simply drop the Trust Clause from Methodism altogether?
To be clear, I do not support either of these ideas. I hope neither of them happens. I will not be signing the “Way Forward” document, nor do I support removing the Trust Clause.
Instead, I hope we will develop proposals that will empower the Council of Bishops to hold its members accountable to their vows. We might also find ways to help clergy who are unhappy with our church’s stance on human sexuality to exit our system gracefully, and to suspend the Trust Clause for local churches who cannot in good conscience uphold our Social Principles. But for now, at least, I do not support calls for amicable separation, nor do I support this latest “local option” proposal. We must keep thinking and praying together as connectional United Methodists who can no longer ignore the dysfunction in our body, in order to find solutions that do not strike at the root of Methodism itself.
Bill T. Arnold is an elder in the Kentucky Annual Conference, and professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary. He recently published Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate over Sexuality (Franklin, Tenn.: Seedbed, 2014).