Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Feeling Love and Fencing with Property, Methodist Style

 In the fall of 1964, a young musical duo from Los Angeles made recording history with an R&B ballad that went to the top of the charts in the United States and Britain and for two decades held the distinction of being the most-played number on radio and television.  That song by the Righteous Brothers, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’,” still has the power to touch heart strings the world over with its evocative blend of lyrics about a love gone sour, perfectly matched to a mournful melody carried off with a then-new “wall of sound” studio backup.  Little wonder it’s been rearranged and covered by other top artists over time, for it captures with crystalline clarity a certain cry of the soul.

It could also make a good theme song for The United Methodist Church in our time.

On 5 April 2022, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling met via Zoom with board members of the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. At issue was the BW-WCA’s objection to the Bishop’s stated intention of using only the Book of Discipline ¶2553 (as opposed to the much more gracious ¶2548.2), with an added charge of 50 percent of property value, in those instances where churches wish to disaffiliate from the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the UMC for reasons of conscience.  While not disputing that the Conference can add to the provisions laid out in the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” for local churches seeking to retain their property, in the spirit of that Protocol and given the Conference’s history of not upholding certain provisions of the Discipline related to ordination, the BW-WCA board stated its collective belief that the additional requirements imposed by the Conference are excessive and punitive.  Most concerning is the imposition of a payment to the Conference of 50 percent of the church’s property value as part of the disaffiliation process.

Bishop Easterling referred to the 50 percent figure as a matter for the Conference’s Board of Trustees to decide, not the Bishop.  While offering to help facilitate a meeting between the BW-WCA board and the Trustees, the Bishop was clear that she would not insert herself into the discussion to advocate one way or another.

At the end of the call, the Bishop excused herself for another meeting.  It turned out that this next call was with the members of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference WCA leadership.  The Pen-Del Conference under its previous bishop had negotiated disaffiliations with no property value repayment requirement: 20 such cases were approved at the 2022 annual conference session alone, all but one being traditionalist churches.  But after an initial resistance toward making a change, the Pen-Del Trustees were persuaded to institute their own 50 percent assessment of property value for disaffiliating churches, the new policy to begin on 1 July 2022.  A WCA source in Pen-Del informs this writer that it was the Bishop who urged that change.  How this bears on the claim that decisions concerning repayment are the responsibility of the Trustees solely, the reader may well decide.

About a month later, on 10 May, a meeting between the Baltimore-Washington Board of Trustees and the BW-WCA board took place via Zoom, with Bishop Easterling also on the call.  One BW-WCA participant described the experience as like that of a principal’s office for a student in trouble.  Perhaps this was to be expected: when a decision like the 50 percent policy is put in place “prayerfully,” as the Trustees insist, with the unanimous support of that same body of Trustees, who can presume to raise questions about the justice of that course?  But we shall.

The Trustees presented several reasons why they felt their ask of 50 percent of property value to be justified.  On the Trustees’ side, several claims were made.  One was that churches seeking to disaffiliate have had the use of the United Methodist name and all that goes with it, such as the cross-and-flame logo.  The argument holds that people looking for a church home see the UM name and symbol, and it attracts them.  

Sadly, this claim isn’t as true as it used to be.  The Methodist name and related symbols might have been a draw in 1950, perhaps even at the time of the merger that formed the current UMC in 1968.  But the reality is much different now.  If the Trustees wish to appeal to an argument about the power of denominational identification, that’s fair.  But to be credible, it would be better to deploy one that’s not a half-century out of date.  

Granted, the situation in some overseas Central Conferences is different.  The UM cross-and-flame logo is a powerful symbol in Africa, for example.  But here on these shores, one should ask just as forcefully how much of a public relations liability the United Methodist name has become, when claiming it as a marketing asset.

The Trustees also point out that the Conference provides pastors to the churches.  This is true.  But if the trend lines for membership and worship attendance are any indication of the effectiveness of more than a few, one might expect a little more modesty concerning just who it was who credentialed and sent them.  It’s also worth noting that the Trustees’ point could be turned around: it is generally the local churches that provide a place of employment with salary and other support for those pastors that the Conference or Districts credential and employ.  Oddly, that detail does not seem to figure as it might in the conversation.

The Trustees also pointed out to the WCA leadership that when the Methodist movement started in Britain, later separating from the Anglicans, it didn’t look to claim property but went out on its own.  Frankly, this is hilarious: people should blush to say things like this.  The Wesleyan societies were organized as what today would be called parachurch bodies.  They were never congregations of the Church of England, even if members of the Methodist societies were for years still communicants in their local parishes.  In a country with a state church like Britain, all church property was under the direct control of the diocese or the occasional patron.  Methodism in Britain was not an established free (independent) church at the time of is separation from Anglicanism; and the Church of England was not organized, built, funded or maintained by free, disestablished congregations, as is the case for American Methodism in all its forms.  To compare the Anglican situation in the eighteenth century with the American context today goes even beyond comparing of apples to oranges.  Think perhaps apples to footballs.

Naturally, the Trust Clause came up in the conversation.  (How could it not?)  In her earlier meeting with WCA leadership, the Bishop observed that the existence of the Trust Clause should be no surprise, especially to clergy, as it has been there since 1968.  A similar point was made in the Trustees-WCA meeting.

Well, then.  That’s a slam dunk, right?  Hardly.

In one sense, the Bishop was more correct than the history she acknowledged: the Trust Clause goes way back before 1968 to the beginning of denominational Methodism in America.  Since the UMC in its Discipline justly claims to be the legal successor of its predecessor Methodist churches going back to the start, all of that history is also on the table, and its origin  was not in 1968 but in 1784.  In fact, the timeline stretches back further still: the roots of our Trust Clause are to be found in the Model Deed from Great Britain.  The Model Deed was John Wesley’s safeguard to protect the movement’s investments in property after the painful experience of the Fetter Lane Society, where asset control (and the related quality control over the preaching and teaching) was lost.  Beginning with the Foundry in London, Wesley made sure his previous mistake wasn’t repeated.  Still, only the immediate purpose of the Model Deed and Trust Clause was to maintain control of the property: it was actually designed to pursue a much deeper purpose, which was to place boundaries around the integrity of Methodism’s teaching and practice.  In other words, it was created to ensure that property would be used for the exclusive, faithful use of congregations loyal to the doctrine and discipline of the church.

Fast-forward to the present.  The BWC landscape is blanketed with property that was provided for at great expense and with much trouble and sacrifice by Methodists across the intervening generations who were faithful to that doctrine and discipline.  Only now, the Trust Clause is being used to bully into submission those congregations who want to retain the doctrine that it was instituted to protect.  These churches resist their annual conference’s pursuit of policies that are the at odds with the Discipline, to say nothing of Scripture, on points of moral teaching.  The Trust Clause has been converted from a safeguard into a bludgeon to compel compliance with Conference actions that have defied the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.  It is being used to punish them severely if, on the basis of those same doctrines faithfully held, such churches decide to leave what they discern to be a connection whose fidelity to its roots has been seriously compromised.  

Who could have anticipated such a situation?  Who indeed might have foreseen that the very property clause designed to maintain integrity would be used against the faithful who hold to the church’s order and discipline, and in fact have taken them so much to heart that they are willing to sever ties with the denomination rather than abandon them?  The apple has fallen far from the tree of 1784, that the Trust Clause could be made to work this way.

The Trustees have further suggested that, if the traditionalist concern is really a matter of conscience, as opposed to actually being about property and finances, then people are free to go their own way at any time.  There is some truth to this, particularly for the laity.  Clergy have a different kind of skin in the game, with professional investment and economic vulnerability that can make it much harder just to walk away; but at day’s end, no one is locked into a church building or chained to a pulpit.

But aside from being harsh and cynical, this contention of the Trustees is also more than a little superficial.  A proper and faithful theology of wealth can never say, with a toss of the head, “Oh, it’s just money. It’s just property,” as though it really were nothing. (Not incidentally, if that were true, could the Trustees not say it themselves just as easily!)  But let’s set even that aside.  The assets in question are, in many cases, the endowment of generations of faithful Christians.  These resources were donated, raised, or provided with great effort and with real costs to persons and families.  They came into being by the loving sweat of young and old alike across decades, even centuries in some instances.  The use to which they would be put if surrendered, and the ideologies behind that use, are frequently not just somewhat at odds with the hearts that gave it.   They can reflect purposes and goals that are diametrically opposed to, even contemptuous of the vision of the givers of those gifts to the glory of God. Seeking to retain it for faithful use by the continuing body of worshipers in that place, whatever label they bear, is not a function of greed or a matter of convenience for the departing congregation.  It is a recognition that just to surrender these resources, or even a substantial portion, would be ethically problematic, and would testify that the effort, labor, generosity, and love behind those resources it is now a trivial matter at best.  And this would be wrong.

Sometimes, the division of the UMC is compared to a divorce.  There are, after all, divisions of property in a divorce.  (I speak with some experience here.) In such a situation, the aim of any court or judge is to be equitable to both parties.  So why isn’t 50 percent a fair figure?

Consider a hypothetical scenario.  A couple marries.  He has a respected name and worthy reputation.  She is thrilled to be joined to his future, and they start a life together with high hopes.  So in love is she that she doesn’t mind that, while he has the name, she is bringing all the funds – every cent -- that will build their home, and manage their household.  

But then, by degrees, things begin to go sour in their life together.  While she hangs on patiently and hopefully, he begins unilaterally to change the terms of their union, to the point of betraying his promises to her.  Of course, he claims that his understanding has evolved and that he should not be held to such outmoded notions of fidelity.  He begins to criticize her and her view of their life together: he suggests that she is slow-witted, hopelessly old-fashioned, and unattractive, and that she is bad at other things, too, like driving or cooking.  He intimates that she’s not really very smart – kind of dumb, actually -- and will never amount to anything; that everything she’s ever done or achieved is either by accident of the circumstances of her birth, or because she wears his name.  Their children get an earful, too; and by degrees, some of them come around to his point of view.

Anyone in ministry has known of situations similar to this.  They are as heartbreaking as they are unjust, a travesty of the bonds of love and faithfulness that are supposed to undergird a marriage.

So what does she do?  She waits; she pleads; she prays.  She reminds him of their covenant together.  But he has “moved on,” he says; and he does what he wants, because he can.  And when she objects, when she pleads the nature of the sacred bond between them, he tells her she can leave any time she wishes.  Of course, she’ll need to leave everything behind.  His name, first of all, of course; but more than that, everything she brought to the union over the years.  And even though it was her nest egg that provided the family home, she has to leave that, too – though there is one “generous” provision: if she wants to keep the dwelling she has paid for, and the contents thereof, she must pay him an additional half of the value she has already given, and follow the exact process for doing so that he sets out for her.  Else, he keeps it all.

Any reasonable person, particularly someone with a strong sense of justice, would howl with outrage over such an abusive situation in marriage.  Given an opportunity, a good person would use their influence to try to effect a different outcome.  While such an arrangement might be technically legal under a close reading of the laws that pertain, it is anything but just or right.

Yet this is very much the situation in which our traditionalist churches find themselves.  After much patience and prayer amid a deteriorating situation over years, they have determined that their best and most faithful course is to leave a relationship with The United Methodist Church that has become toxic and abusive for them.

The congregations built and purchased the houses of worship to begin with, and have maintained them across time.  Year by year, these congregations financed the continuing ministry, and supported, through their apportionments or “mission shares,” the work of the Annual Conference and the general Church.  They also supported the clergy sent to them.

But the terms of that relationship have been changed by the Conference, which was to have been to them a benevolent partner in their work.  A new pattern has emerged.  The Conference takes actions which are unfaithful to the covenant, doing so knowingly, willingly, and because it can. When the congregants of these churches object, they are given to understand that they just need to grow a bit, to evolve, and not be so backward or slow-witted.  They may have it intimated to them that anything they’ve been able to do is because of the circumstances of their birth, or because they have carried the name: the UMC label.  If they really want to leave, of course, they are able to do so; but they take nothing with them for their re-establishment or support: not the name, not the goods -- unless, of course, they follow a process that has been dictated to them, and pony up another 50 percent of the value they have already raised in real property over the church’s lifetime.

And sadly, some of the same people who would rightly cry, “Injustice!” if the situation were about an actual married couple, find it a perfectly acceptable course when those on the receiving end are a congregation of Christians, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, who take a different view which they want to hold in peace.  It is a view, in fact, which is actually in keeping with the doctrine of The United Methodist Church, in alignment with its discipline, and faithfully reflects the evangelistic and social-Christianity mission of that denomination stretching back to its beginning.

Such is the case with the Conference’s emergent policies, as evidenced by the tenor and substance of their conversations with the BW-WCA leadership.  What might once have been a spirit of charity expressed amid profound disagreement – “that lovin’ feelin’” that once bound us together – has given way to high-handed hostility on the part of those who claim to speak and stand for an organization that purports to be about spreading God’s love through the Gospel of Christ.

The Trustees also took issue with a BW-WCA board member’s having raised a question about breach of covenant as shown by the ordination of persons who are not eligible under the Discipline.  This aroused some annoyance, it seems, even though the WCA members were clear that the Trustees were not being tasked with that occurrence, which fell under the responsibility of the Board of Ordained Ministry.  “We are all one Conference,” came the reply.  The WCA member was trying to give the Trustees an “out,” but they clearly didn’t want it.

In that case, then, the situation is even clearer, and the remedy suggests itself readily. Since the doctrine of the church is what is upheld by the traditionalists, if anyone should be paying a usage fee for the display of the name and logo, it should be those who are teaching and acting at variance with the Book of Discipline.  That would be the Baltimore-Washington Conference, to the very churches who are upholding the Discipline and who desire to depart.  Any fees should be covered in full by the Conference which is now usurping the use of the name and logo for a different agenda.

A WCA member also questioned the morality of the 50 percent charge.  The Trustees didn’t like that, and indicated that some offense was taken over the question. The Bishop also indicated that it was inappropriate to speak of morality, and hoped that would not come up again.

It is totally understandable, that there would be a desire to avoid speaking of morality on the part of the Conference leadership, because it is on the wrong side of this question.  This is seen from its flagrant violations of the Discipline, from the deceptive misappropriation of Methodist history, and from the fleecing of congregations for resources that the Conference had little, if any, real role in building and yet has been benefiting from since the day that those local churches were first chartered.  It is on the wrong side in the dismissive contempt it has shown to faithful United Methodists who choose to uphold the teaching represented by the Book of Discipline, and in the leadership’s insinuation of sub-Christian motives on the part of those who dare to take a different view.

The BWC’s leadership is on the wrong side in a larger sense, too: not only concerning matters of human sexuality, but also respecting the church catholic’s broader and deeper cherishing of the authority of sacred Scripture back to the witness of the Apostles, and the rooting in the divinely revealed religion of Israel.

So, yes, it’s completely understandable that the leadership should find discussions of morality embarrassing, troubling, and burdensome, and express a powerful desire to avoid them at all costs - understandable, but unsupportable.

The Conference can, and should, yet stand to the full height of its capacity for mercy and peace, availing itself of the wisdom that would come with a more gracious strategy for allowing churches to exit.  Such a plan would rely less on the politics of power and more on the recognition that there are no real winners along a road that can only lead to deepened divisions and a more profound bitterness, as we have seen in other denominational splits in recent years.

My prayer and plea is that the BWC through its committees and officers will do the right thing and abolish the 50 percent penalty, even refunding it to those separated churches that have already paid such a crippling price.

Perhaps in all the controversy, “that lovin’ feelin’” has been lost in the hearts of many, toward those who see the issues before the denomination in ways different from themselves.  But we are all supposed to be grounded in that greater “Love you don’t find everyday,” a love which, even amid sharp disagreement, can find a way to be generous of heart and bless the other as we go in different directions, each convinced that we are following God’s call. That’s how we can even now prove to be “righteous brothers” and “righteous sisters” to one another across the debates and divides, and bless those who find that their local church’s future draws them in a new direction, toward a new expression of Methodism. 

It’s the higher road, for all concerned.  Let’s take it.


Charles L. Harrell

Prince Frederick, Maryland

On the Day of St. Joanna, 27 June 2022


No comments:

Post a Comment