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Church property rights hinge on adhering to doctrine

11/3/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By J. Rick Peck*

Do the property rights of a local congregation ever supersede the rights of the denomination?

A centuries-old clause in the 2000 United Methodist Book of Discipline stating that all local church property is held in trust for the denomination may not be applicable if the doctrinal standards of John Wesley, the denomination's founder, are not followed.

That is the opinion of the Rev. Thomas C. Oden, a professor at United Methodist-related Drew University School of Theology, Madison, N.J., and his theory is being tested by churches in Kansas, California and Alaska. Three congregations in those states are attempting to leave the denomination and take their property with them.

According to Oden, the Henry Anson Buttz professor of theology at Drew, doctrinal faithfulness as well as organizational structures must be considered when property issues are raised. While he acknowledged that the trust clause embedded in all United Methodist property deeds is unmistakably clear, he believes the denomination's doctrinal standards are equally clear.

Those standards, Oden said, are found in the 1968 Plan of Union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church and include The Articles of Religion, John Wesley's Forty-four Sermons on Several Occasions and Wesley's Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament.

"The Constitution (1808), Plan of Union (1968), and current Discipline (2000) require property deeds to be accountable to United Methodist established doctrinal standards," he wrote in "The Trust Clause Governing Use of Property in the UMC," an essay noting that a restrictive rule forbids the denomination from changing the Articles of Religion.

"If a bishop or conference can be shown to be unfaithful to the doctrinal and disciplinary standards required in the trust clause," Oden wrote, "they can indeed be required to show cause that they have legitimate access to local church property."

In Oden's opinion, church members who believe the denomination has not abided by the doctrinal standards should not view the trust clause as an obstacle, but rather as a legal instrument to call the conference to account.

Asked for reactions to his essay, Oden told United Methodist News Service, "Faithful United Methodist lay persons are, with few exceptions, elated to learn the historical facts that show clearly that the annual conference must be accountable to the doctrinal standards of the Discipline, and that 'faithfulness to the connection' for 200 years has meant faithfulness to the teachings of John Wesley, which require following the doctrinal standards he established to limit the conference's powers."

"Oden is talking nonsense," the Rev. Thomas H. Dahl, chancellor for the Alaska Missionary Conference, told the news service. "The trust clause is not written to protect doctrinal purity. The trust clause is written to protect the United Methodist connection from raids on denominational property. There are no doctrinal standards anywhere in the trust clause, expressed or implied."

He believes U.S. civil courts are not constitutionally qualified and have no jurisdiction to make judgments about doctrinal fidelity.

The Rev. Philip Wogaman, who recently testified in a New Zealand court on the trust clause (see UMNS #520), said churches could be in for some awkward experiences if they are required to put into practice everything John Wesley wrote about. He noted that the denomination would immediately have to discontinue ordaining women.

According to Oden, Wogaman's concern is unwarranted. "In fact," he responded, "the conferences are bound only to follow what they have solemnly agreed to in the Constitution--that they must be accountable to Wesley's doctrinal standards as a limitation on the powers of the conference."

Members of Gove United Methodist Church in northwest Kansas are attempting to use the Oden argument in their effort to retain the church property and disassociate with the denomination.

The 125-member congregation voted May 9 to disassociate from the denomination because it had allegedly violated doctrinal standards by "allowing and condoning the following: same-sex unions, homosexual ordination, Sophia worship, goddess worship, Wicca worship, pagan practices, anti-trinitarianism, opposition to the virgin birth, and the deity of Christ."

The conference filed a lawsuit June 5 to protect the property for members remaining in the United Methodist Church. A temporary restraining order froze the assets and ensured that the building could be used for United Methodist worship. That order has allowed Sandra Jellison-Knock, a laywoman, to lead worship services in Gove Church for 17 remaining members.

Meanwhile, Paul Woodall, a former licensed local pastor who has been dismissed by the conference, is leading the breakaway congregation that now meets in a nearby Baptist church. A hearing date on the lawsuit has not been set.

In Fresno, Calif., a split between members of a local church and the denomination also led to a court battle over who owns Saint Luke's United Methodist Church. The Fresno County Superior Court ruled that, because of the trust clause, the California-Nevada Annual Conference holds title to the property.

However, some 600 former members of the congregation appealed the decision and continue to worship in the building as a community church while awaiting the decision of an appeals court.

Members of a Fairbanks, Alaska congregation are engaged in similar effort to retain their church property. To date, the Judicial Council has ruled that the Alaska Missionary Conference had the right to close the 60-member church, but civil courts have yet to rule on the disposition of the property. Last October, a superior court judge in Juneau refused a motion to evict members of the former St. Paul United Methodist Church from its sanctuary and parsonage.

The 15 people still worshiping in the building have removed "United Methodist" from its name, but the court action does not determine who owns the church building, valued at $322,000, nor the parsonage, valued at $196,000.

"The decision to close the 18-year-old church was a difficult one," said the Rev. Rachel Lieder Simeon, the superintendent responsible for St. Paul. "The church was discontinued because after an 18-month assessment of the internal workings of the church, it became clear that the core leadership was unwilling to be subject to the authority of the denomination. They would not take directions from the pastor, the superintendent or the bishop."

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*Peck is a free-lance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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