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Large Maryland UM Church Plans To Leave Denomination

By Dean Snyder Oct. 29, 1999

BALTIMORE (UMNS) - A United Methodist pastor reporting one of the largest church memberships in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is threatening to pull his congregation out of the denomination.

The Rev. C. Anthony Muse, pastor of Resurrection Prayer Worship Center United Methodist Church in Brandywine, Md., has sent letters to clergy and lay leaders throughout the conference, including copies of correspondence addressed to Bishop Felton E. May that lists complaints against the conference and the denomination. The letters also stated that Muse and the congregation intend to withdraw from the United Methodist Church.

May has asked Muse to surrender his ministerial credentials if his decision to withdraw from the denomination is final.

Muse reports having the largest church membership in the conference. Last year, he reported a membership of 4,259 and an average Sunday worship attendance of 1,625, although neighboring pastors believe the numbers are inflated. Resurrection Prayer Worship Center has two locations, one in Brandywine and the other in Oxon Hill, Md.

The church received national recognition last year when it was selected as one of 25 resource centers for the United Methodist Church's program "Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century."

During the second week of October, local church lay leaders in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference began receiving copies of an unsigned, undated, six-page letter from Muse to the bishop. The letter accused the conference and the denomination of lack of support, and it stated that Muse and the congregation intended to leave the church.

Several days later, lay leaders received a signed letter from Muse stating again that both he and his congregation had decided to withdraw their membership from the United Methodist Church.

"Knowing that we love our church and we love our bishop, however we can no longer walk together with this denomination in ministry," the Oct. 14 letter said. This signed cover letter included a postscript saying that it had inadvertently been left out of the first mailing.

Conference pastors later reported receiving both the unsigned letter and the cover letter to May.

May, in an Oct. 21 letter to his conference pastors, said he had met with Muse.

"It was my sincere hope that Tony and his followers could be reconciled with our conference and retain their affiliation with the denomination," he wrote. "However, if Rev. Muse does intend to leave the United Methodist Church, he must surrender his credentials. I have instructed him in writing to do so if his decision is final."

Muse accused the conference and denomination of undermining Resurrection Prayer Worship Center's efforts to expand. "From a refusal to invest in our church bond program, to a rejection of our requests for loans, to the roadblocks deliberately placed before us in our effort to secure full financing to finish our construction project, the conference has demonstrated a total lack of concern for, understanding of, and sensitivity to the struggle we have waged to meet the needs of an exploding congregation," the unsigned letter alleged.

"Yet, a pastor outside of the United Methodist Church stepped in, and within a few DAYS, granted us $1 million to repay our denominational loans," it added.

However, the loans have not been repaid. To date, Resurrection Prayer Worship Center has repaid only about $2,900 toward its conference loans, according to the Rev. Jim Knowles-Tuell, conference treasurer. The conference has made available nearly $600,000 in loans and security deposits and a denominational agency had also offered to make another $600,000 available as a security deposit for the center.

The letter also accused the conference and denomination of covenantal neglect, unfair assessment, abusive treatment, declining membership, lack of harmony, insensitivity, abandonment of the teaching of Methodism founder John Wesley, compromise of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and absence of vision.

Muse had not previously expressed disagreement with the denomination's polity, theology, or social principles either on the floor of annual conference, at conference meetings, or in writing to conference officials, according to the bishop's office.

May, in his letter to pastors, repudiated Muse's charge that the conference and denomination had been less than fully supportive of Resurrection Prayer Worship Center's effort to expand.

"Indeed, as Rev. Muse's own letter effectively acknowledges, the conference and General Board of Global Ministries have made more than $1 million available to the congregation in the form of loans and deposits," he wrote. "Few congregations in the entire denomination, never mind this conference, have been the beneficiary of such generosity."

The bishop's letter said that he, the district superintendents, the conference trustees, and other officials will develop a plan to minister to those members of Resurrection Prayer Worship Center who wish to remain United Methodists. Possibilities include maintaining the congregation at its current location or combining the remaining members with those of one or more nearby churches.

Continuing the United Methodist presence at the church's Brandywine location is an option because Muse's congregation does not ultimately control the property.

"The local United Methodist church holds the title to the property 'in trust' for the entire denomination," said Mary Logan, attorney for the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration in Evanston, Ill.

"When a local church closes -- or a splinter group wants to leave the denomination -- the annual conference is responsible under the Book of Discipline for taking over the property, protecting, and perpetuating the church's interests," she said. "The overarching goal is to make sure that there is always a place for United Methodists to worship in the community, and that clergy may freely spread God's Word both now and in the future."

That philosophy can be traced back to Wesley, she said. "He wanted to ensure that pastors were free to preach the gospel from the pulpit, without the risk of being removed from the church by congregants who didn't like the Word, so he created the pastoral appointment structure. In order for this structure to work, he also had to ensure that there was always a pulpit where the pastor would be free to preach -- hence the trust clause. These two parts of United Methodist polity are inextricably intertwined."

"It remains my hope that we might find a way for Rev. Muse and his followers to be reconciled..." May wrote at the conclusion of his letter. "Be assured, however, that my office will act decisively and without hesitation to uphold the discipline of the United Methodist Church for the sake of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ."

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*Snyder is director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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