by Chris Ritter
With the May 1 launch of the Global Methodist Church, our Methodist divisions will take on an ecumenical dimension. Two Methodist denominations will stand in either conflict or cooperation with one another. Cooperation sounds great, but this is difficult to maintain when playing a zero sum game in which a “win” for one side is viewed as a “loss” for the other. The real enemy is not the the UMC or GMC, but litigation, decline, hubris, and greed. The UMC Discipline allows congregations to move to other denominations using a long-standing process found in Par. 2548.2. In this paragraph we find words like “comity,” “transfer,” and “agreement”… the very things those headed to the Global Methodist Church wish for. Comity is defined as an agreement of mutual benefit, or courteous and considerate behavior. Who could be against that?
Well, U.S. bishops and conference leaders have been talking down Par. 2548.2 in favor of Par. 2553, the 2019 Taylor Disaffiliation Plan. Disaffiliation makes a congregation autonomous, something few churches want. But bishops seem to prefer the super-majority voting thresholds associated with disaffiliation and the authority given to each conference to set the exit fees. Nevertheless, a Blanket Comity Agreement between the UMC Council of Bishops and the Transitional Leadership Council of the GMC has been under negotiation. Here is a draft circulated by the Council of Bishops to its members. Here is a draft that reflects the hopes of WCA. (See also these explanatory notes on the relatively minor matters under contention.) The biggest benefit of the Blanket Comity is a much more reasonable handling of pension liability. Finalization of this agreement seems to have been back-burnered following the delay on General Conference. In some places it has been forcefully opposed. Bishop Jimmy Nunn of Oklahoma raised eyebrows on a recent zoom meeting that was transcribed and made available here. This is my rendering of what he said:
“I do, however, reject the first one: Par. 2548.2. The whole concept of Pan-Methodist [Commission] was created and placed in the Discipline in 1948. And, frankly, the history and intent of that provision was to coerce African American churches to leave the Methodist Church and go elsewhere. Now I realize times have changed and the meaning has changed a little. It hasn’t been updated. I really don’t want to be a party to such racist and sinful concepts that urge us to… I would urge us to omit that paragraph from our list of possibilities.”
Are comity agreements… racist?
The Context of Comity
In ecclesial parlance, “comity” is an old word for ecumenical cooperation. For instance, the Massachusetts Council of Churches had a Comity Department which discussed how church planting efforts in emerging Boston suburbs might be orchestrated. In a spirit of sisterhood, they sought a unified approach to make sure every new neighborhood had a Mainline church. If there were ethnic populations that denominations hoped to reach, Presbyterians might agree to focus on one so that Episcopalians could specialize on another. Comity agreements are perhaps best known by their impact upon international mission fields. If two denominations wanted to send missionaries to the Philippines, for instance, the groups would agree which islands each would serve. The alternative to comity was to send competing missionaries to the same area. In an article in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Bruce Yoder says that comity agreements spring from “calls for collaboration voiced by the 1910 World Missionary Conference… and eventually the World Council of Churches (WCC, 1948).” It were radical evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Seventh Day Adventists that “shunned any kind of organizational arrangements and refused to enter into comity agreements.” (See here) Did these comity agreements reflect a colonial mindset? Certainly. Just check out this Comity Map of Korea that divides up the country by the Western denominations evangelizing them.
What are we to make of Bishop Nunn’s comment that comity agreements have association with ill treatment of African Americans? The original version of Par. 2548.2 (Par. 189.2 in the Discipline of the Methodist Church) had no reference to African Americans. Bishop Nunn is in error when he says that comity paragraph was drafted to push African Americans out of the church. Our current paragraph adds to the original wording by mentioning a “Pan-Methodist Commission.” But this commission was not founded until 1986 and “serves as a space for dialogue between the United Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Union American Methodist Episcopal and First African Union Methodist Protestant Churches towards mutual cooperation and understanding given past historic grievances.” During the mid-Twentieth Century the “spirit of comity” enlivened long-standing dreams among African Americans of a new denomination created from historically black Methodist denominations and our Central Jurisdiction. Elsewhere, comity agreements sometimes defined how churches reached out to African American populations. In the Fortress Monroe Comity of 1894, the Northern Baptist and Southern Baptist Churches came to an accord on territory following tensions that arose from their Home Mission Societies. This arrangement also defined how the two Baptist groups were to cooperate on educational efforts among African Americans.
There is nothing racist about the word “comity” any more than the word “agreement” is racist. Some comities, like some agreements, have been racist. Some have served a just and common good. If we are looking for a patently racist structure, we need look no further than our own jurisdictions. To close the deal on a 1939 Methodist reunification, both churches agreed to a compartmentalization of the bishops to keep Yankees out of the South, etc. A “central jurisdiction” was created for African Americans and not dissolved until the 1968 EUB merger.
These days comity agreements don’t routinely exist, I am told, except perhaps in places like the Western Jurisdiction where ethnically-specific congregations are common. Given the rather tight window for disaffiliations (all exits under Par. 2553 must be completed by December 31, 2023), a solid UMC/GMC Comity Agreement seems highly desirable. No matter their history, comity arrangements stand as a long-established feature of our polity. These need not be pre-approved by General Conference. It can be particular to a church or group of churches seeking exit. Paragraph 2548.2 requires:
- Consent of the bishop,
- Consent of the majority of the district superintendents,
- Consent of the District Board of Church Location and Building,
- A request by the charge conference or a meeting of the membership of the local church.
With these things accomplished, the annual conference can instruct and direct the board of trustees to deed the church property “to another evangelical denomination under an allocation, exchange of property, or comity agreement, provided that such agreement shall have been committed in writing and signed and approved by the duly qualified and authorized representatives of both parties concerned.” The price tag for exit, including pension obligations, would be part of the agreement. Here is a sample annual conference resolution enabling exits under Par. 2548.2.
The opposite of comity is conflict and competition. The choice is ours.