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How does a Court decide who owns the property of a local church departing from The United Methodist Church? Part 3

In the first blog, I discussed Supreme Court precedent addressing religious property disputes and how they are handled. The second blog addressed Methodist governance.  And in this blog, I will discuss the Trust Clause set forth in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The Trust Clause was created by Wesley as he was compelled by the pressure of circumstances and spiritual necessity to undertake two acts which involved separation from the Church of England: ordination of ministers in the United States and the creation of a model deed which gave independent legal status to the Methodist Conference in England that had, in 1784, nearly four hundred Methodist Preaching houses. Thus, the Trust Clause was never intended to apply to local churches or to be used as a yoke to keep the local church in the denomination. Rather, it only applied to meeting/ preaching houses.

The classification of Methodist “meeting houses” presented him with a reoccurring legal complication as the Conventicle Act of Charles the Second (1664) made it a criminal offense punishable for five or more people to meet in worship unless they strictly followed the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. Given the pressing issue of finding a place for Methodist to learn without the fear of imprisonment for violating the Conventicle Act of Charles the Second (1664), Wesley created the Model Deed, now commonly known as the Trust Clause, so that the local meeting houses would follow the law of England.

Furthermore, the Trust Clause was originally designed as a missional tool.  If the mission of the Church, as described by John Wesley, himself—”to reform the nation, and in particular the Church, to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (Minutes of Several Conversations between the Reverend Mr. John and Charles Wesley and Others in Wesley 2011, p. 845.2.)—wasn’t being accomplished, that local church could be closed and/or put in the hands of those committed to the mission.

The most recent United Methodist Book of Discipline includes the following with respect to “trust clauses,” concerning the real and personal property of the local Church.

Requirement of the Trust Clause for All Property. 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. 2016 UMC Book of Discipline, Sec. 2501.

The  2016 issue of  the Book of Discipline also provides that if the provisions of the Book of Discipline that concern real property conflicts with state law, the state law prevails over the directives of the Discipline. 2016 UMC Book of Discipline, Sec. 2506

The Trust Clause is part of the Book of Discipline and is now used by Annual Conferences as a yoke to hold local churches from leaving the denomination. Similar to the Denise Canon in the Episcopal denomination, the Methodist Trust clause provides that all property is held in trust for the local Annual Conference even though it is owned by the local church. The question in all of the cases will be whether there is valid  express or implied trust under the state Trust Code. That will be discussed in the next blog.

In the next blog, we will look at the concepts of an express or implied trust clause is valid within the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

Should you have specific questions regarding your state law on religious property disputes, please reach out to Daniel Dalton at Dalton & Tomich PLC to discuss your case. You can read more about this topic in Daniel Dalton’s book, Religious Property Disputes, House of God, Laws of Man available at theAmerican Bar Association Book store or Amazon.

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