Since the deferral of the General Conference to 2024, there’s been an odd thing happening: churches that want to align with the Global Methodist Church have said they found a loophole paragraph (¶2548.2) that they claim would allow them to leave without paying the withdrawal fee. However, that is simply not the case as today’s Guest Author reveals, settling for us all that the only process for withdrawal of a church to the GMC is through the proper channel–the one the Traditionalists supported in 2019 in the first place.
This article makes plain to district superintendents, bishops, conference committees on properties, and local churches that ¶ 2548.2 is not an avenue that is open for this purpose. Take a read and share with those folks in your conference!
What is Comity, Really?
The History and Context of ¶ 2548.2
Lawrence E. Hillis
Annual Conference is upon us! During the lead up, you may have come across social media posts, blogs, and draft legislation referencing ¶ 2548.2 from the 2016 Book of Discipline as well as “comity,” or “comity agreements.” These have garnered a lot of attention from thought leaders aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and the newly formed Global Methodist Church (GMC). Their intent is to utilize this paragraph as a loop-hole through which a congregation might disaffiliate in a way that circumvents the Trust Clause, and ¶ 2553 of the Discipline adopted in 2019 – the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan known as “the Gracious Exit.” An example of this can be found in Chris Ritter’s recent blog post, “What is Comity?”, in which he suggests that comity is simply, “an agreement of mutual benefit, or courteous and considerate behavior.”
However, both ¶ 2548.2 and the concept of comity have significant historical and legal precedence. Utilizing the repository at the General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH), I have researched, analyzed, and, here, present a brief but nuanced understanding of both. My extended work on this matter has been made available to the Council of Bishops and Judicial Council for adjudication; however, I felt it important to provide the broader Methodist connection with an accurate overview of the situation in order to confront the widespread disinformation flooding our networks.
On this note, a draft “comity agreement” printed on the Council of Bishops’ letterhead has been circulating widely of late. That document was formulated by a small group as a sample for use during deliberation, and has not been approved by the Council of Bishops. It does not represent, in any capacity or function, a position of the Council of Bishops. It should not be construed to serve as a model comity agreement, and certainly not an official one.
So What is Comity, Really?
If you ‘google’ the word comity, you will find a simple definition similar to the one offered by Ritter. However, when the term is applied to religion, politics, and economics, it takes on a more specific and technical meaning. Comity designates the principles and practices through which different denominations (and the government) formally work together to respond to social issues despite differences in doctrine, polity, and policy. In plain speech, while Protestants have always been very good at schism and competition, comity agreements are the way we cooperate with each other toward a common, equitable, and mutually beneficial good. As stated by a joint session of the Executive Committees of the Federal Home Missions Councils in 1941:
…comity should be interpreted constructively as involving the formulation of a comprehensive strategy of church extension and maintenance for regions and communities, applying equally to the self-supporting and to mission-aided churches, for the primary purpose of ensuring a well-rounded Christian ministry according to our highest standards and ideals to the entire population.“The Comity Report,” 1950
This quote was drawn from the 1950 “The Comity Report” published by H. Paul Douglass, who was commissioned to undertake a study of comity agreements and catalog best practices in the first half of the 20th century. There he noted, reflecting on the quote above, that “this version is in deliberate contrast with older concepts defining comity narrowly as ‘mutual cooperation, respect, and goodwill.’” While I will not remark on it further, it is important to note that the original version of ¶ 2548.2 was cited in the latter half of Douglass’s report as a case study alongside similar legislation introduced to the Church Law of the other mainline Protestant denominations during the same period.
The Four Phases of Comity
Roughly speaking, there have been four phases, modes, or movements, of comity that have emerged between the birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church and its present incarnation as The United Methodist Church. While these four phases do appear to develop sequentially over time, we shouldn’t really think of them as being restricted to specific historical periods. Like most movements, they frequently overlap during points of transition, or the techniques of prior phases continue to be used in problematic spaces long after another phase has become predominant (i.e. foreign missions).
The first phase, which we might think of as Colonial Comity, involved direct agreements between multiple denominations and the federal government that established separate “spheres of influence” in which each denomination would have sole discretion to operate. For example, this sort of comity agreement was used to organize the regional establishment of Indigenous Boarding Schools throughout the United States and Canada, with the Federal Government tasking each denomination to erect and operate schools within their respective districts. I will not go into detail about the harm caused by these colonial comity agreements here, but will direct you to resolution 3321 in the 2016 Book of Resolutions, “Native Peoples and the United Methodist Church,” which directly mentions these comity agreements.
The second phase, which we might call Mutual Aid Comity, involved indirect comity through the establishment of parachurch societies through which members of multiple denominations could work cooperatively toward social and political change (i.e. abolition, suffrage, temperance, and even, in the case of the Ku Klux Klan, white protestant supremacy). An important early example of this can be found in the establishment of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, 1787, by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. The society’s membership consisted of Methodists, Episcopalians, and Quakers of color who were experiencing significant discrimination, racially motivated violence, and white ministerial surveillance. The work of this mutual aid society eventually led to the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816, with Allen installed as its first bishop. Today, the AME is part of the Pan-Methodist Commission, members of which are specifically referenced in ¶ 2548.2 as denominations to which church property can be deeded.
The third phase of comity began in the early twentieth century and can be understood as Ecumenical Comity. For the first time, rather than being separated into different spheres of influence, or utilizing 3rd party societies, Protestant denominations began to cooperate directly through the establishment of councils. The smallest of these were city councils, made up of local representatives of each denomination. They would meet regularly in order to share information, coordinate missions work, and negotiate the establishment of new churches so as to avoid competition, while making sure every community was being ministered to. Meeting these goals also involved relocating already established churches, allocating areas of operation, and, in some cases, transferring property. While these councils began emerging before World War I, in the wake of World War II the ecumenical comity movement surged in response to the perceived threat of communism. Believing that atheism was a slippery slope to communist allegiance, Protestant denominations built ever-widening and well-organized councils that sought to save the unchurched – especially in the now-largely Black urban context. It was at the height of this phase, during the 1948 General Conference of The Methodist Church, that the first version of ¶ 2548.2 entered the Book of Discipline.
The fourth and final phase of comity, which I have come to think of as Nondenominational Comity, began in the 1980s with the close of the Cold War. During this phase, numerous factions broke away from the well-ordered ecumenical structure of Protestant denominationalism in favor of mass religious and political movements such as the Religious Right and the Moral Majority. Whereas both Mutual Aid Comity and Ecumenical Comity eschewed contact with the government in favor of direct cooperation on the mission field, the new Nondenominational Comity seeks to break down the separation of church and state through direct influence on the government. While primarily originating from conservative discontent with Liberal Protestant ecumenism, in response, progressive social justice-oriented networks have emerged with the same goal of directly influencing political governance and legislation. Comity agreements now find their expression in court, as much as in council…
The 1948 General Conference
So, now that we have a better understanding of what comity is, let’s return to ¶ 2548.2 more specifically. The 1948 General Conference was notable for many reasons, but one was certainly the influence of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam. He served as secretary of the Council of Bishops, and President of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) which, at the time, was the largest ecumenical council in existence. (He would later go on to be elected president of the World Council of Churches, established later that year.) Bishop Oxnam was tasked with giving the episcopal address at the 1948 General Conference, and in it, he spoke expansively of ecumenical co-operation and the principles of comity. Throughout the minutes of the conference, records of which are maintained at GCAH, frequent reference is made back to this episcopal address, and his emphasis on Ecumenical Comity. (The 1948 General Conference also passed resolutions that stridently reaffirmed The Methodist Church’s membership in the FCC and WCC, again referencing Bishop Oxnam’s episcopal address.)
Of particular interest to the ecumenical movement, was the organization of home missions and church extension in urban areas. Throughout the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, major demographic shifts had been taking place throughout industrial cities as people of color mass migrated north in an effort to escape Jim Crow laws and the threat of lynching. So too, the 1930s and 40s saw an explosion of intentionally organized and mass-manufactured suburbs, such as those pioneered by William Levitt. By 1951, his company, Levitt & Sons, was the largest homebuilder in America and is also remembered for the popularization of redlining, discrimination against people of color, and conspiracy with the Federal Housing Administration to deny loans to people of color. Now known as “white flight,” the 1940s saw a mass movement of white folk out of the cities and into these new suburbs. As this process continued and amplified, the social demographics and economic condition of cities changed dramatically. In turn, Protestant churches which had predominantly served white communities for hundreds of years declined precipitously in membership, resources, and the condition of their property. However, due to segregation and the Central Jurisdiction, the Methodist Church faced major obstacles in transitioning these churches over to Black Methodist leadership. Over time, many of these failing churches were in need of relocation, remediation, or major renovation. Something needed to be done.
Consequently, at the 1948 General Conference, a sweeping ecumenical plan was presented by the Board of Home Mission and Church Extension in partnership with the Board of Temporal Economy and Lay Activities. Over the course of the conference, roughly ten new paragraphs were adopted and introduced into the 1948 Book of Discipline which addressed these demographic shifts, prioritized ecumenical cooperation under the new council system, and gave important context to the original version of ¶ 2548.2. While these paragraphs were originally all placed together sequentially in the 1948 Discipline, many have migrated to other sections during the intervening time. The contemporary formulations of these paragraphs can now be found in ¶ 206 through ¶ 213 of the 2016 Book of Discipline. Despite residing in different sections today, these paragraphs, blocked out in three sections as “Cooperative Parish,” “Ecumenical Shared Ministries,” and “Churches in Transitional Communities,” still contextualize and structure the meaning of ¶ 2548.2, which provides the Annual Conference with a way to “instruct and direct the board of trustees of a local church to deed church property to one of the other denominations represented in the Pan-Methodist Commission or to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement…” As an important note, in the 1948 Book of Discipline, the paragraph which concluded that section – ¶ 257 – stated that the entirety of the preceding legislation did not apply or pertain to Central Conferences.
For a deeper conversation regarding the origins of ¶ 2548.2 and race, check out recent episodes of Archive & History’s podcast “Un-tied Methodism”: UMC Paragraph 2548.2 – What’s the story? and Comity, Methodism, and Puerto Rico.
So What’s the Long Story, Short?
This survey of the history of comity, the context of the ecumenical movement surrounding the 1948 General Conference, and an analysis of the broader legislative agenda in which ¶ 2548.2 entered into the Book of Discipline all point towards the same conclusion.
¶ 2548.2 was intended to address abandoned, or near abandoned, Methodist churches that no longer had the membership and resources to continue after white flight. Rather than liquidating these properties, in the spirit of Ecumenical Comity, provisions were entered in the Book of Discipline that would allow an Annual Conference to transfer ownership of church property to one of our partner denominations that was better positioned to advance the shared mission of the State Council of Churches in that location. The wording of ¶ 2548.2, which specifies that such a transfer must take place “under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement” clearly shows that the use of the paragraph was intended to take place in coordination with the preexisting comity agreements already established and incorporated through the Federal Council of Churches. This connection was expressly codified in the also newly entered ¶ 276 of the 1948 Book of Discipline, which stated:
Denominational overlapping and excessive competition in over-churched areas should be adjusted. We support the allocation of denominational responsibility in new fields of work to obviate the need for each church to feel it must establish a project to take care of its own constituency, naming the State Council of Churches, wherever possible, as the agency through which such allocation agreed upon, can be consummated.1948 Book of Discipline
Importantly, in coming to an understanding of Ecumenical Comity, the 1948 Discipline’s emphasis on the importance of the Federal Council of Churches and its State Council chapters provides a critical hermeneutic lens through which to understand what exactly is meant by the phrase “evangelical denomination” as deployed in ¶ 2548.2. In contrast to the generic meaning that we might apply to it today as potentially representing any and all denominations that consider themselves to be “Evangelical,” based on this historical analysis, we should understand this phrase to refer to the member denominations of the Federal Council of Churches circa 1948.
While the power to recognize other ecclesial bodies as “denominations,” as well as the authority to establish formal relations with said denominations – through fraternity or comity – has been solely reserved to the General Conference, it has historically been vested in a sequence of general commissions. In 2012, a resolution presented by the final variant of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships to incorporate into the Council of Bishops was unanimously adopted by the General Conference. Consequently, as detailed in ¶ 431 through ¶ 442, the associated vested powers rest in the hands of the Ecumenical Officer of the Council of Bishops, with certain duties requiring ratification by the General Conference before becoming actionable. Consequently, it should be noted that, while the Global Methodist Church launched on May 1, 2022, it has yet to be recognized as a legitimate denomination by the Ecumenical Officer of the Council of Bishops, or through a subsequent action of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
As Annual Conference commences, I hope that this article will help to clarify the present and historical situation, confront ongoing efforts to spread disinformation, and be useful to all faithful Methodists in our holy conferencing. To date, no research conducted at the General Commission on Archives and History has uncovered a single church between 1948 and 1980 that utilized ¶ 2548.2 (or its predecessor versions) for the purposes of disaffiliation. Many churches did disaffiliate during this time, particularly in response to the civil rights movement and desegregation, and they certainly would have used ¶ 2548.2 if it were a viable course of action for precisely the same reasons the paragraph appears attractive to the Wesleyan Covenant Association today. The fact that these separating churches did not do so – even in the time period in which the paragraph was introduced to the Book of Discipline – strengthens the historical assessment that ¶ 2548.2 was clearly and widely understood to not apply to disaffiliation. (See, for example, the records of the General Commission on Finance and Administration regarding the formation of the Southern Methodist Church and the Evangelical Methodist Church in the 1940s, from which ensued extensive legal battles over church property well after ¶ 2548.2 was introduced.)
At best, campaigns to normalize the idea of using ¶ 2548.2 for disaffiliation demonstrate an irresponsible disregard for the paragraph’s history, context, and wording. At worst, these widespread efforts constitute an intentional and unethical effort to subvert the language of the paragraph, the connectional principles of The United Methodist Church, and the longstanding practices of comity for personal gain.
In coordination with my agency partners addressing this matter, it is my unequivocal position that any and all uses of ¶ 2548.2 for purposes of disaffiliation do not represent a genuine, authentic, and principled reading of the paragraph. The 2019 adoption of paragraph 2553 remains the only viable way through which a church may disaffiliate in order to join the Global Methodist Church at this time.
For a contemporary example of the proper use of ¶ 2548.2 that is responsive to these historical precedents, see the case of Radner UMC, Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, which, in 2020, merged its congregation with another local United Methodist Church, and deeded its property to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Lawrence E. Hillis is a Ph.D. student in Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion specializing in the intersection of religion, politics, and economics. In addition to his work on political theology and violence against children, he maintains a concentration in Wesleyan-Methodist studies and conducts original research regarding Methodism and biopolitics. He has previously provided research and analysis to The United Methodist Church regarding Methodist involvement in Indigenous Boarding Schools and the history of Methodist schism(s). Hillis is a candidate for ordination in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and serves as an independent research consultant engaged by the General Agencies and the Council of Bishops.
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