How is it that the second largest protestant denomination has gotten to the point that nearly all agree that separation is the only path?[i] How has the United Methodist Church lost nearly half of its 12 million members it had in the United States since its formation in 1968? And what will happen to the $65 billion dollar’s worth of real property and other assets of the United Methodist Church?
There is no question that the denomination is already split. The Bishops are hopelessly divided, the local Churches have no direction and there is little leadership from the Council of Bishops as to how to proceed. Some experts point to the origins of the Methodist movement where it is clear that Methodism was never intended to be a denomination. Others will focus on the flawed 1939 merger of three Methodist denominations which carved out jurisdictional conferences electing their own Bishops who are accountable to no one. Whatever the reason, the United Methodist Church is hopelessly fractured into many separate and independent parts that do not work together.
The Methodist movement grew out of the effort in the 1700’s by John Wesley, an Anglican priest, to instill holiness within the Church of England by providing for small groups known as “societies” to meet regularly to study scripture and hold each other accountable.[ii] Neither Wesley nor any of his followers who were the eventual leaders of the movement desired Methodism to be a denomination.[iii] Wesley himself remained an Anglican priest until he died.[iv] Even though he did not want to start a denomination, Wesley was compelled to undertake two acts which involved separation from the Church of England: the ordination of ministers in the United States, and, the creation of a “model deed” (now known as the Trust Clause) which gave independent legal status to the Methodist Conference in England that had, in 1784, nearly four hundred Methodist Preaching houses.[v] These two decisions created the backdrop of the governance issues that are at the forefront of the schism in the denomination today.
The Model Deed, now known as the “trust clause,” was created by Wesley to address the Conventicle Act of Charles the Second (1664), which, made it a criminal offense for five or more people to meet together in worship unless they strictly followed the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.[vi] Given the pressing issue of finding a place for Methodist to worship without violating the Conventicle Act of Charles the Second (1664), Wesley created the model deed so that his followers could worship at “meeting houses,” hold prayer meetings and remain in compliance with the laws of England.[vii]As noted theologian, Professor Thomas Oden, recognized in this paper on the history of the Model Deed, was never intended to be a “yoke” on local Churches who sought to leave the denomination.[viii] Rather, the Model Deed addressed the issues related to meeting in England without violating the law.
As the Church of England would not ordain Wesley’s followers as Anglican Clergy in the United States, Wesley’s followers created the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784 and began ordination of the local ministers.[ix] Between 1784 and 1844, numerous schisms within the denomination occurred based on the opposition to Bishops who exercised unreasonable control over local Churches – most notably the 1828 schism that resulted in the creation of the Methodist Protestant.
The largest schism that occurred, however, was in 1844 over the issue of slavery.[x] The delegates to the 1844 General Conference adopted a “Plan of Separation,” resulting in the formation of two denominations, one of them being the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South.[xi] The Plan of Separation included the following:
Article 9. All the property of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in meeting-houses, parsonages, colleges, schools, conference funds, cemeteries and of every kind, within the limits of the Southern organization, shall be forever free from any claim set up on the part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, so far as this resolution can be of force in the premises.[xii] (Emphasis added).
Subsequent to the 1844 General Conference, the Northern churches sued to invalidate the property ownership provision of Article 9, quoted above, within the separation plan. After years of litigation, the United States Supreme Court settled the issue in Smith v. Swormstedt, 57. U.S. 288 (1853), holding that the property ownership clause within the 1844 Plan of Separation is enforceable and local Churches of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South could retain their property free and clear of any claim of the denomination. The Swormsted decision is still good case law today.[xiii]
In 1939, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church of the South and North decided to rejoin and form The Methodist Church.[xiv] To address concerning over control of Bishops and Annual Conference, the parties agreed to add “jurisdictional conferences” to the Methodist structure without a corresponding office of overseer, chosen and sent from General Conference. Once approved, the General Conference lost the ability to directly oversee the Bishops. As a result, there was no mechanism of accountability of local Bishops or Annual Conferences and the connection was broken. This gave rise to the situation the Church is now facing – separate pillars within the denomination wherein some Bishops enforce the Discipline and others do not.
[ii] E. Benson Perkins, Methodist Preaching Houses and the Law: The Story of the Model Deed. The Wesley Historical Society Lectures, No. 18 Preston Conference, 1952, Epworth Press, London, p. 14.
[iii] Bishop Jack M. Tuell, The Organizations of The United Methodist Church, 2009-2012 Edition, Abingdon Press, p. 11
[v] Methodist Preaching Houses and the Law, supra, p. 14
[vii] Id at p. 15
[viii] Dr. Thomas Oden, The Trust Clause Governing the use of Property in the United Methodist Church, the Scriptorium, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1973)
[ix] Methodist Preaching Houses and the Law, supra, p. 15
[x]Gordon, The First Disestablishment: Limits on Church Power and Property Before the City War, Univ. of Penn. Law Review, Vol. 162 (2014), p. 307, 360-370.
[xii] The 1844 Methodist Episcopal Plan of Separation
[xiii] Smith v. Swormstedt, 57. U.S. 288 (1853). See also, Gordon, The First Disestablishment: Limits on Church Power and Property Before the City War, Univ. of Penn. Law Review, Vol. 162 (2014), p. 307, 360-370.
[xiv] Methodist Preaching Houses and the Law, supra, p. 15