An Oklahoma district court supersedes UMC church law, reinstates 55 churches to stack the vote to get one more disaffiliated.
Playing Hardball on Holy Ground
For the past decade, Traditionalists’ divisive preaching and failure to uphold big-tent denominational principles turned many United Methodist congregations into lopsided ones. Traditionalists either dwindled their churches down to monolithic majorities that reflected the pastor’s views, or grew their churches because such extreme views reflect the cultures they are in.
Starting in 2021, traditionalists used those large local percentages to vote to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church, enabled by the General Conference 2019 legislation. Even though the total number of disaffiliating churches will end up being less than a third of United Methodism, and the actual number of exiting members is far less than on paper, given decades of artificial membership inflation, it’s still been effective in some areas ripe with discontent.
When this disjointed process doesn’t work to get the majority needed to disaffiliate, the local church has resorted to secular courts. For example, the National Center for Life and Liberty got several thousand dollars each from hundreds of Methodist churches in multiple states to join suits against the annual conferences to disaffiliate without upholding the Disciplinary processes—incidentally, each one of these joint suits failed to pass a court of law.
Up until now, aside from some isolated cases were lost on the basis of the individual states’ recognition of the trust clause, no court of law would tell a denomination how to interpret and practice its ecclesial law on this topic.
But that just happened in July 2023 in an Oklahoma district court: a judge has decided it can better interpret ecclesial law and doctrine and practices than our own denominational authorities and judiciary. If the decision is not thrown out, it will be open season on the First Amendment protection of churches.
Mind-numbing misinterpretations of church law
The briefest synopsis of the situation is that First UMC in Oklahoma City sued the Oklahoma Annual Conference rather than participate in the disaffiliation process that all previous disaffiliating churches did at varying levels of compliance. The district court then sided with First OKC, and in its decision, required the annual conference to hold a new special session just to deal with First UMC’s disaffiliation vote (a vote which incidentally doesn’t even exist according to our polity)
The decision by the district court includes the following claims, amongst others. You can read the appellate court files here, but basically, the lower court ruled:
- The Church did not have to go through the conference processes found in the Book of Discipline ¶2553 and upheld by the Judicial Council, thereby nullifying church law.
- The Church did not have to hold a charge conference vote to disaffiliate as an unsanctioned straw poll sufficed, thereby nullifying the Book of Discipline’s explicit process on the matter.
- First OKC did not have to participate or uphold other areas of the Book of Discipline because they were “in the middle of a disaffiliation process,” thereby declaring that a church is no longer UMC when it votes to leave, nullifying UMC processes before and after.
These misinterpretations of ecclesial law gave the basis for the district court to dictate how a religious denomination shall operate. And in doing so, it overreached badly.
The whopper: Reinstate the membership of 55 disaffiliated churches
The district court required the annual conference to hold a vote on approving the disaffiliation of First OKC, even though the church has not even held a disaffiliation vote at a charge conference, and allegedly withdrew from the OKUMC disaffiliation processes. That’s why it wasn’t eligible to be voted on at an April 2023 special session that approved 55 churches to disaffiliate.
But here’s the kicker: in calling for a vote, the court required that all the attendees to that April 2023 Special Session be allowed voting privileges. Which means:
- Church laity from those 55 churches (and others) that have renounced their United Methodist membership are eligible to vote.
- Clergy that have turned in their clergy orders (even ones not present in April 2023 but hadn’t turned in their membership until May 2023) and no longer serve as United Methodist Clergy are eligible to vote as if they were clergy again.
Yeah, it’s bananas. People that have turned in their clergy orders, publicly refuted their lay membership…they are to be reinstated as laity and clergy and given the right to vote again in a denomination they no longer reside in?
That’s just not happening. Nor should it, by any reasonable reading. But it could next week!
What’s Next? Be Ready to Vote “NO”
The Annual Conference has appealed to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma to stay the decision, which requires a called church conference on August 5th, 2023. If they fail to intervene, Oklahoma United Methodists should be ready to vote en masse to protect the First Amendment rights of all churches in Oklahoma. Oklahomans: Be sure to check with the district superintendent on how to attend if you are eligible.
But the damage has already been done, and laid bare the lawlessness of those seeking to break their United Methodist ties by any means necessary. In the case of First Oklahoma City, the church removed 2,100 members without a required charge conference. They held a straw poll to disaffiliate, without a required charge conference. And they now celebrate the reinstatement of exited clergy and laity for the sole purpose of voting to affirm their lack of participation in the requirements of disaffiliation. Reading the writings by former UMs and now-GMC pastor videos in support of such a failure to uphold the Discipline is astounding. Can you imagine if this was required of the Global Methodist Church? Their lawyer/pastors (and there are a LOT of them in leadership) would lose their minds.
Let’s agree on the basic tenet: The United Methodist Trust Clause is a theological claim. For United Methodists, it’s a theological claim going back to our originator John Wesley (and you could make the argument that this has been the case going back to Acts 2). The judge, in this case, has ruled that it is entirely a property matter, and nullified church law and understandings that even Tom Oden, arch-Traditionalist, affirms in his book Turning Around the Mainline (how far the Traditionalists have fallen in their frenzy to exit people and property from United Methodism!).
If this decision is upheld then it would be open season on ecclesiology of every local church and mainline denomination, saying church processes are subject to revision and approval by civil law. This makes sense in many areas (ie. employment practices, harassment, protection of minorities, etc) but not in how we make decisions as a body, who upholds those decisions, and what elected body reviews those decisions. I’m not a lawyer but it sounds like a huge First Amendment violation to me, and so it’s surprising to see the conservatives and traditionalists in support of this court decision–I guess we know them by their fruits.
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