So, Who Owns the Sanctuary?

Some are inclines to interpret the doctrinal warfare of the past egeneration as a mere expression of a lust for control. When we see property fights like this emerge, we have to admit that on at least some levels comtrol is a very real issue. I only know UM polity (and I’m no Jack Tuell on that), so I’ll stick to our situation.

The practice of having local congregations hold their property “in trust” for the whole church (in the legal entity of the Annual Conference) is very long standing in Methodism, dating back to John Wesley’s Model Deed. The basic thought is: We want our churches to remain our churches. We don’t want outsiders coming in and usurping authority and taking them from us. In Wesley’s day, the fear was that usurpers would come from below – from the local preaching places (since Wesley never left the church of England, the Methodists didn’t have “churches” in his day). The phenomenon in California is very different. From the perspective of the congregations, the usurpation has taken place at the top. The problem: there is no theoretical space in United Methodism to conceptualize usurpation from above.

The UNited Methodist system is, to a large degree, defined and structured around distrust. The Congregations don’t trust the Annual Conference or the General Church. The General Church doesn’t trust the congregations. The laity don’t trust the clergy, the clergy don’t trust the laity. The bishops and their cabinets don’t trust the preachers, and vice versa. We’re thoroughly top down in our leadership structure. As Lyle Schaller noted in his book Tattered Trust, this distrust is destroying us.

What our polity has hidden from us (and here it is abbetted by the fact the the UMC is very much in the thrall of modernity) is that the buildings and intsitutions – the things with dollar signs attached – are not the only things held in trust. Our doctrinal heritage is also held in trust, and I would argue it is of much greater importance. Some of our Bishops and other leaders want to maintain the right to be completely free with their doctrinal proclamations while restricting the local churches’ freedom with their property. A betrayal of trust is a betrayal of trust – which ever way it works.

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