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*
Photo number W03076, Accompanies UMNS #520
No Long Caption Available for this Story
Do the property rights of a local congregation ever supersede the rights of the denomination?
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.
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
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
"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
"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."
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
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."
believes U.S. civil courts are not constitutionally qualified and have
no jurisdiction to make judgments about doctrinal fidelity.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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."
# # # *Peck is a free-lance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.