Bill T. Arnold: The Latest Proposal, Connectionalism, and the Trust Clause (Guest Blog)

bill_arnoldThe 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).

24 thoughts on “Bill T. Arnold: The Latest Proposal, Connectionalism, and the Trust Clause (Guest Blog)

  1. Thanks for your honest engagement of this issue . I am a supporter of marriage equality, so I would quibble with some of what you have said, but I am sure my thoughts come from my different perspective rather than anything substantive in the argument you’ve shared. I do have two questions.

    1. With regard to the trust clause , how is it better, practically speaking , for the trust clause to be waived in certain circumstances so that congregations can leave the denomination (and thus the denomination “loses” the value and potential usage of the property involved) than for flexibility to be given to churches one one issue to prevent a bright-line crack in the foundation of the denomination? It would seem to me that the Hamilton proposal is not a proposal born out of ideal circumstances, but one crafted to help us hold together during significant societal change. So we aren’t talking ideals here–both options deal with the trust clause in significant ways.

    2. Ecclesiologically, it seems to me that the issues we are talking about related to congregations already exist at a jurisdictional level, at least as it relates to the leeway given to the central conferences to craft structures and policies consistent with their cultural contexts. If the church decided to try decentralization again–that is, allowing the USA portion of the UMC to adapt culturally relevant structures and policies–would you be supportive of that effort if it meant the US UM’s might change course on sexuality? I hope this reads like a sincere question, as I mean it to be! Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Excluding the Middle | Eremitic Musings

  3. I know it’s not the main point of the article, but can you explain what it means “to suspend the Trust Clause for local churches who cannot in good conscience uphold our Social Principles”?

  4. David or Bill: Why are we treating this matter as a peripheral “social policy” concern when there are major doctrinal issues embedded in it? If the Methodists could relieve themselves of the impasse by suspending the trust clause and relinquishing property to other parties for a sop, would that “satisfy” you with respect to historic Christian teachings and the Church catholic?

    • I agree Gary. Anyone who speaks about the issue of homosexuality as a peripheral issue is living in make belief land. It is one of the most pressing issues in our culture and churches right now.
      Also, as the Good News article about the 80 pastors stated, the issue of homosexuality is just one part of a larger divide.

      This last semester at seminary, I befriended a young mother who was progressive/liberal in her thinking. She went to the same college as I did about the same time and experienced some ungracious actions and behavior from conservatives. She responded to it by becoming angry and opposing anything that was seen as “conservative/evangelical” in nature. I totally understood that and experienced a time in my life of feeling that way as well. But I found that we had taken two separate paths in life. By the grace of God, I had grown into a deeper relationship with God and experienced more of the fruit of the Spirit in my life. Instead of going down a path of responding negatively to ungracious fundamentalism, I went down a path of spiritual transformation that was shaped by the Great Tradition, the Holy Scriptures, orthodoxy, and the Wesleyan way. She, on the other hand, had went down the dark path of anger, blind opposition, and bitterness.

      I prayed for her the entire semester and always tried to steer our conversations toward something that we both found joy in – like our children, cooking, or something like that. And I also refused to argue with her in her preordained way of arguing. Instead, I sought to bring new paradigms of thinking to the conversation and challenge assumptions. The conversations really began to change when she understood that I deeply loved people and wanted the best for them. What we disagreed on was how to best help and love people. When we talked about that, she would use words like “sexual orientation” and “marriage equality” and other such words that are found in our Western, libertine culture. I pressed her on the use of these words and challenged her to deeply think about her beliefs in light of some of our core beliefs such as original sin and sanctifying grace. There was not a whole lot of time to talk in the class and I hope she turns away from this path of anger and cultural thinking and turns back to a simple devotion to Christ. When we prayed together at various times in the class, I noticed that she had a hard time praying to God and got very angry quickly when we talked about maintaining our personal devotional life.

      Sorry for the long post but my point is this: this issue that is dividing our church is just a part of a bigger problem. Many in our church are spiritually bankrupt, they worship ideologies instead of the living God (I saw this when I ministered in the SBC except they were worshiping politically conservative ideology rather than the liberal/progressive type), and they are full of anger, bitterness, and resentment – it’s what drives them and that’s why many are so focused in on this one issue. If they “win,” they’ll just go on to focus their anger, bitterness, and resentment on something else.

      As a church, we’ve got to step up and prophetically proclaim that this spiritual darkness cannot continue to be so blatantly present in the church. If we truly love those on the other side, the most unloving thing we can do is to excuse their godless living and the anger that drives them. They need to know the peace of Christ and that will not happen if we continue to cowardly act like it’s O.K. to act like they do and believe the things they do.

      I don’t how things are going to work out but I love people way too much to let them destroy themselves living this way. We are all going to stand before the judgment seat of God one day and I do not want anyone’s “blood” on my hands because I wanted to stay in my “comfort zone.”

      • Thank you for your words, PastorJ. You have deftly summarized my concern: “As a church, we’ve got to step up and prophetically proclaim that this spiritual darkness cannot continue to be so blatantly present in the church.” I believe we are CALLED to speak the truth into this darkness, call it what it is, and do so in love and clarity. I believe David Watson and Bill Arnold (and others) are of this same mind. They are doing their part, as much as lies within them to do, to tell the truth. This is the hour for prophetic witness, even as you are doing. If not now, when? If not us, who? A big deception is at work (darkness posing as light), and should be exposed for what it is.

  5. I try to reflect on Jesus in this. I think anger and resentment is exactly what the adversary likes. Seeking to destroy from within. I pray for a Christian resolution to this, however I am not equipped to add any theological wisdom and learning. I only know to follow Christ.

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