Musings On The News Report Of The First Presbyterian Church Of Bethlehem Property Arguments

(By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie). Once again, in the “where angels fear to tread” territory, I wanted to muse a bit and post some brief comments on the arguments in the Northampton County Court (PA) recently between the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Lehigh Presbytery, and the minority “stay” group.

The article from The Morning Call of Allentown is titledCourt arguments reveal deep divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.”

I am going to cast this in the light of the most recent case law for Presbyterian disputes over property in Pennsylvania right now, the 2014 Peters Creek decision.

And with those two inputs, maybe there is something appropriate to Mark Twain’s quip “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Now, it is worth noting that these were oral arguments to decide if this case needs to go to a full trial. The article quotes Judge Baratta as saying:

“I really would hate to render a decision at some point that’s going to hurt members of the community in matters of faith,” Baratta said. “If you’re getting close to a resolution I will do whatever I can to work with you, to push you over that line. But please, consider, 10 years from now when you look back on this, it may not be as difficult an issue as it is today.”

The argument from the majority of FPC Bethlehem is that the deeds do not mention the denomination and the church never explicitly accepted the PCUSA Trust Clause. The judge responded “So you’re saying they didn’t really mean all of the Book of Order … only the parts they liked?” The majority’s lawyer responded that was an ecclesiastical question and not the scope of the civil courts. The judge replied that it could be looked at under neutral principles.

I must presume the judge has done his homework on this one. Part of the Peters Creek decision was laying out the boundaries of the neutral principles and the trust law related to the church trust clause. Under that decision it seems clear to me (reference Twain quote above) this court can deal with the property issue. Also under the Peters Creek decision a formal acceptance of the trust is not necessary but actions that would acknowledge PCUSA ties and thus by inclusion the trust – like saying you are a PCUSA church in your bylaws and charter and accepting the current Book of Order – are enough to demonstrate implicit acceptance of the trust clause. The decision quotes an earlier Presbyterian property decision that says (p. 19)

“In order for a court to find that a trust has been created, there must exist in the record clear and unambiguous language or conduct evidencing the intent to create a trust. No particular form of words or conduct is required to manifest the intention to create a trust. Such manifestation of intention may be written or spoken words or conduct indicating that settlor intended to create a trust.”

While a final decision in this matter would involve the close examination and history of the church’s bylaws, charter and property documents, the exchange between the judge and the lawyer is telling and may suggest that FPCB has a bit of an uphill battle on this.

But the initial questioning of the Presbytery’s lawyer was no less problematic.


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Lawsuit Over Ownership of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem to be Heard Today

(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). The Lehigh Presbytery and the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA, will appear in Northampton County Court on Friday (2/17/17) in hopes of settling a dispute over ownership that has led opposing congregants to hold separate Sunday services at 31-acre property on Center Street.

The hearing is over a lawsuit the church filed in June asking to be declared the sole owner of the property at 2344 Center St. and seeking an injunction to stop the Lehigh Presbytery from establishing new leadership as the denomination rules dictate. Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta will rule on both requests. 

The dispute arose over the church’s desire to leave the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians — a denomination church leadership said better reflected members’ theological beliefs.

The Lehigh Presbytery, the regional authority for the Presbyterian Church (USA), informed the church that it could not move forward with the dismissal process because a poll showed it fell 9 points below the required support of 66 percent of the congregants.

First Presbyterian argues that the majority of members want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and that it should retain ownership because its members have donated the money needed to build and maintain the facilities.

The Presbytery argues the church is obliged to follow the bylaws of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and as a member of the denomination, it had placed the church property “in trust” with with the national entity. The Presbytery also insists the congregation’s June vote, where 76 percent of the 1,048 ballots cast were in favor of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA), was invalid since it violated the church’s own charter.

Jackson Eaton, counsel representing the Lehigh Presbytery, said the last several months have been filled with discovery and depositions. Both sides, he said, are prepared to make final arguments Friday to Baratta, though the chances of the judge issuing an immediate ruling are slim.

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In Landslide, First Presbyterian Members Vote to Break from PCUSA

By Riley Yates, The Morning Call.

fpc-bethlehem-paMembers of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem voted overwhelmingly Sunday to break from their national denomination, underscoring a schism that has developed over Presbyterian Church (USA)’s embrace of same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay ministers.

Out of 1,048 votes, 802 members supported bolting to the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a super-majority of 76.5 percent that church leaders say made clear the congregation’s wishes.

“We’re ready to get back to our most important thing, which is our ministry,” the Rev. Marnie Crumpler, pastor of First Presbyterian, said after the vote. “We’re just looking forward to moving forward as an ECO Presbyterian Church.”

But amid a bitter divorce, the results of the vote will not be accepted by the mainline denomination, said the Rev. David Duquette, an official of the Lehigh Presbytery, a regional arm of the national church.

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Lehigh Presbytery Moves to Oust First Bethlehem’s Pastor, Marnie Crumpler

Governing body moves to oust First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem’s pastor, replace leadership

By Sarah Wojcik, The Morning Call.

Marnie Crumpler

Marnie Crumpler

A dispute over denominational identity has taken another divisive turn in Bethlehem, where the Lehigh Presbytery is canceling its contract with the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem and preparing to push aside church elders.

The latest developments in the dispute that has migrated to the courts comes as the congregation is poised to vote Sunday on whether to split from the Presbyterian Church (USA) without approval from the presbytery.

The move by the Lehigh Presbytery is just the kind of action that First Presbyterian leaders sought to ward off when they filed an injunction motion on June 10 that raised concerns that they would be subjected to a “hostile takeover.”

continue reading…

Related article: PCUSA Presbytery Suing Megachurch to Keep It From Leaving Denomination


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Presbyterian Church Fight Prompts Counter-Lawsuit

By Riley Yates, The Morning Call.

fpc-bethlehem-paA bid by First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pa., to split from its national denomination, amid unhappiness over same-sex marriages and the ordination of gay ministers, landed back in the courts Tuesday.

In two lawsuits filed in Northampton County Court, the regional arm of the Presbyterian Church (USA) asked a judge to prohibit the congregation from breaking away, as it sued two weeks ago seeking to do.

 The countersuits by the Lehigh Presbytery were joined by 22 members of the 140-year-old Center Street church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the Lehigh Valley. It came as church leaders have scheduled a congregational meeting Sunday to vote on whether to immediately separate from the denomination, according to the filings.

The suits were necessary “to prevent this group of self-styled leaders from taking action that is contrary to the bylaws of the church, as well as PCUSA,” said Richard Santee Jr., an attorney representing the 22 members. He called the lawsuits a “sad day” for Presbyterians.

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First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Takes Court Action in Bid to Break from PCUSA: UPDATE posted 6/13/16


A message from the church session has been posted on the First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem web site, explaining why it asked the “Trustees to seek definitive answer to the question of the ownership of the Church’s property. Accordingly, the Trustees filed suit in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas to simply seek confirmation from the civil courts of Pennsylvania that they do, indeed, hold title to all property of the Church as mandated by the corporate bylaws of the Church.” The message read, in part:

” … we expect that when the Presbytery steps into our Bethlehem church they acknowledge that they are on holy ground and are obligated to operate with the highest levels of integrity, candor and competence.

Sadly, the Lehigh Presbytery has not operated in this manner. The entire Presbytery process has been sloppy and arbitrary culminating with the straw poll. Straw poll ballots were sent to deceased members and not sent to some active members. Even more troubling, the individually assigned voting codes were inadvertently sent by the vendor to the Presbytery Engagement Team at the beginning of the voting process. The Presbytery did not disclose or admit this fact and denied it when asked directly. The Session is unanimous in its concern that the recent straw poll results are suspect. This concern is based on the May 2015 survey results, focus group results, voting results at our congregational meeting, the PET’s own admission of the majority of our congregation’s convictions to move to ECO, and the PET’s inappropriate access to the survey codes.

This compromised straw poll (which was not even a required part of the Presbytery’s written dismissal) was to lead to a congregational vote, which the presbytery will now not allow. This unilateral decision to end the process was reached by the Presbytery team alone while ignoring the majority voice of the congregation heard at each point of the process.

Of critical importance is the fact that the straw poll was never intended to be determinative or dispositive of the dismissal process. Its results, whether compromised or not, were to be a gauge assisting in the process, not an end unto itself. Using it as such is improper and undermines the manner in which our church is designed to operate. The majority of the church unquestionably seeks dismissal to ECO, which as a right of conscience the congregation should be able to do.

By our church charter property use is determined by majority rule, not minority veto or presbytery fiat. We, therefore, feel it is imperative, and in the best interests of the majority of the congregation, both spiritually and from a stewardship perspective, to protect the rights of conscience of the majority.”



By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call.

court12BETHLEHEM, Pa.  — In a signal of their determination to move forward with a break from the mainline Presbyterian denomination, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem filed litigation Friday requesting the court’s assistance in determining who owns the church’s 31.5-acre property worth millions of dollars.

The church claims ownership of the property, assessed at $7.9 million according to Northampton County records, because their name is on the 1955 title for the property. But that runs counter to the position by the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has ruled that a congregation’s property is “regarded as held in trust for the benefit” of the denomination.

On Friday the church filed an action seeking the court’s confirmation of its ownership of the property as well as an injunction to stop the Lehigh Presbytery, a governing body in the Presbyterian Church (USA), from seizing any property or replacing the elected leadership.

Jackie Etter, executive director and interim head of staff, said the church’s leadership is determined to follow through on what they say is the wish of the majority of the congregation to join a “denominational home more fitting.

“We had to determine what God was calling us to do here in Bethlehem,” Etter said of the church’s decision to pursue legal action. “This has become such an issue for so many churches across the country.”

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Read the press release from the church

Read the message from the session to the church members.

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First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Told it Cannot Split from its National Branch

By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call. (Pennsylvania)

fpc-bethlehem-paThe Lehigh Presbytery has determined that there is not sufficient support within the congregation of the largest Presbyterian church in the Lehigh Valley to justify its break from the most visible national branch of the denomination.

But that doesn’t necessarily spell an end to the efforts by members of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) in favor of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO.

In a straw poll administered by a Susquehanna Polling and Research, the church’s congregation fell short of the required two-thirds of support to move the dismissal process forward, according to an email distributed by the Lehigh Presbytery.

The poll of 1,308 of the church’s 2,600 members found 57 percent in favor of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) and 43 percent in favor of staying, the email said.

With that poll and a survey conducted last year for First Presbyterian that showed 61 percent favoring breaking away, the Lehigh Presbytery said it considered the discernment process ended.

Instead, the Lehigh Presbytery’s email called for “reconciliation through continued and constructive dialogue.”


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First Presbyterian Church Will Leave Downtown Reading

fpc-reading-paBy Bruce Posten, The Reading Eagle (PA.).

The 202-year-old First Presbyterian Church will leave downtown Reading, becoming the latest city church to either move or make other adjustments because of dwindling numbers, financial pressures or changing demographics.

First Presbyterian Church members, who have been struggling with the decision for several months, voted 84 to 31 on Sunday in favor of moving, church leaders confirmed. Founded in 1814, the church at 37 S. Fifth St. is the only Presbyterian church within the city limits. It lists a membership of about 300.

“This has been a significant decision for our congregation, and we have tried to confront it positively and the best way we can,” said the Rev. Dr. David Watson, interim pastor. “As you can imagine, this is an issue that has caused great anxiety, and we have talked about it and prayed a lot.

First-Pres-outside-photo-for-web-225x300“As interim pastor, I’ve told the congregation that whether we change or not, change is going to happen and whatever they feel they want to do, I will give them my full support.”

Watson pointed to declining membership, financial concerns and fears of not surviving into the next decade as prompting the vote to move.

Watson said two committees have been established, one to look for a new suburban location and a second to determine what the move will mean in terms of ministry and how to use the present building. A decision has not been made on whether to sell the church, he said.

First Presbyterian is owned by the Lehigh Presbytery.

“I don’t think any of us really favor the move, but enough of the congregation realize the move is necessary given who we are and where we have been,” said Donald Stevens of Cumru Township, secretary of the First Presbyterian trustees. “I don’t believe the congregation wishes to move so much as it feels it is necessary.”

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2600 member Bethlehem Presbyterian Church local news coverage

Same-sex marriage divides Presbyterian, other churches

The gay rights movement has all the markings of a pivotal point for the Presbyterian Church, prompting celebrations in some congregations and vows for departure in others.

In June, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem became the fourth congregation in the Lehigh Presbytery to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), citing the national affiliate’s drift from Scripture and toward more liberal thinking on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The “future of the PC (USA) is grim at best,” the Bethlehem church said in a June letter announcing the plan to members.

Some say the rift may be as significant as those that derived from churches’ positions on slavery, desegregation and the acceptance of female clerics.

“This takes its place among those kind of watershed times when churches tended to divide over those other issues,” said Ken Briggs, a retired Lafayette College professor and former New York Times religion editor.

“I don’t think it’s simply because they want to look trendy,” he said of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s acceptance of gays. “I do believe they’ve become content with the idea, that they do believe this is truly something that God has called them to do.”

The leadership of the 2,600-member Bethlehem church, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the Lehigh Valley, voted 19-1 on June 15 to seek dismissal in the interest of joining the ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a budding denomination started in 2012 in response to the changes within the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Meetings with the Lehigh Presbytery will begin in September in the long process of determining the congregation’s intent. A supermajority would be required for the church to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). The process could take months or years to complete, since assets and properties would have to be settled if the congregation were to leave.

The church has no pastor after the Rev. Alf Halvorson left in June to lead a Houston congregation that also is seeking to break from Presbyterian Church (USA). Jackie Etter, interim head of staff at Bethlehem First Presbyterian, declined to comment.

Decisions by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly, the organization’s governing body, have taken a toll on church membership. In 2009, before the ordination of gay ministers, there were approximately 2 million members in 10,657 churches across the country. In 2014, there were 1.67 million members in 9,829 churches. Earlier this year, the presbyteries voted in favor of performing same-sex marriages in the church, which led to even more churches departing.

Race and women’s role in church leadership invited similar criticisms and departures, said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the stated clerk of the general assembly for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“This particular chapter in some way reflects some other times,” he said. “The whole conversation about the life of the LGBT community in the Presbyterian church is really a 40-year conversation. It’s not like this is something we just starting talking about last year. We didn’t come to this spot overnight. We came to it after a long period of conversation, of prayer and of decisions.”

While some congregations have decried the church’s position, others have embraced it, he noted. Seventeen of the 25 largest churches in the denomination have grown in the last year, he said, and members gave roughly $1.8 billion in Sunday collections.

“That may be a shrinking organization, but that’s not a dead organization,” Parsons said.

‘Really sad’
The Third Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., broke away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2011 and Associate Pastor Ed Satterfield said the decision to do so was heavy and emotional.

“We felt very strongly about the need to do what we did, but we also felt really sad,” he said.

The discernment process started in 2011 and wrapped up in 2013, putting the congregation on hold for a long period, he added.

Satterfield said his church’s main objection was what members saw as a movement away from a faithful interpretation of the Bible, which they don’t believe sanctions same-sex marriages or the ordination of gay ministers.

“It was a big shift,” Satterfield said. “We felt we were left with no other choice.”

But Parsons said there are choices. The church allows congregations to follow the Scripture in whichever way they feel comfortable, he said.

Many churches chose to develop a more welcoming attitude toward the LGBT community, which evolved over time as gay members became more visible and involved.

“The way we got here is the way America got here,” Parsons said. “People suddenly met their gay fellow Presbyterians, their gay children or grandchildren and realized that false dichotomy — that a person couldn’t be Christian and gay — it just wasn’t true.

“But it also means that the church still loves and affirms those people who think differently,” he said. “We want to be a church where both sides of the issue can live together.”

That may be easier said than done, said William “Chip” Gruen, associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College. Although churches stress the importance of fellowship, Gruen said, human nature is to seek out those with whom we’re most comfortable. That’s why there has been a growth in denominations, he said.

“I think it’s important to realize that this is how Christian groups deal with change,” he said.

There have always been reasons — whether they be demographic reasons, social reasons or political reasons, he said, noting division is much more common than unification.

While there are many things that can cause disagreements among worshippers, human sexuality has always tended to divide, said Benjamin Wright, Lehigh University professor of religion studies. The gay rights movement, he noted, highlights that fact.

“It’s really been an anxious, emotional experience for a lot of churches,” Wright said.

The issue has divided other denominations, such as the Lutherans and Episcopalians, which also have seen churches separating.

Witnessing the severance of long-standing relationships is painful, Parsons noted.

But Parsons also has witnessed the benefits of the church’s decision to be inclusive. He has seen LGBT members and their families find a sense of belonging in the faith. This, he said, has been heart-warming.

“They feel acceptance. They feel acceptance for their families,” Parsons said.
To help Lehigh Valley churches embrace inclusivity, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center will host a December conference, according to Adrian Shanker, the organization’s founder and executive director. The event’s keynote speaker will be Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians and a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

“A lot of congregations are there in their minds, but not yet there in their practice,” Shanker said of inclusion.
Shanker was disappointed to hear about the Bethlehem church’s decision, but believes members who disagree with the stance can find a Lehigh Valley church that better reflects their values.

“If a specific church feels so strongly that they have to adopt an anti-gay position … perhaps their congregants that don’t share that should find a church that is more LGBT-inclusive,” he said.

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Carmen comments on the above article in “As goes the USA so goes the PCUSA, so says the Stated Clerk

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As goes the USA so goes the PCUSA, so says the Stated Clerk

Gradye ParsonsIn an article that appeared over the weekend, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev. Gradye Parsons, comments on an on-going case in which the congregation and its leaders are barred from making public comment.

Parsons told the reporter that, “The way we got here is the way America got here. People suddenly met their gay fellow Presbyterians, their gay children or grandchildren and realized that false dichotomy — that a person couldn’t be Christian and gay — it just wasn’t true.”

Parsons here admits that the decision of the denomination is purely sociological, based upon a sudden discovery of same-sex attracted people in our midst. He admits that the basis of the decision was human rationalization and not God’s Word nor God’s design.  The person charged with upholding the constitution of the denomination, which includes the church’s theological Confessions, makes no reference to Scripture nor theology.

Parsons’ assertion that the PCUSA has recently discovered gay people is, on its face, a direct contradiction to what he said earlier in the same article. He admits that the PCUSA has been at this for 40 years. The truth is, the denomination has been actively engaged in this internecine struggle since the mid 1970’s. The 1978 Definitive Guidance on the subject aligned the denomination with the Biblical prohibitions against same-sex intimate acts. The “fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman or chastity in singleness” requirement for those in leadership stood from 1997-2010. The reality of same-sex attracted people and the denomination’s acquiescence to those demanding the church change to accommodate their desires is not new for Presbyterians.

Parsons comments also imply that those who do not agree with him and the trend of the denomination away from Biblical standards on LGBTQ issues are somehow not in contact with LGBTQ people.  Again, this could not be further from the truth.  Local church ministry, including the local church under discussion in the article, is done with real people, broken by real sin, in the context of the real world. That means that everyone in ministry in the 21st century is in contact with people faced with temptations of all kinds, including sexual anarchy.  The question is not relationships, but the response to the condition of the person with whom we are in relationship.  Do we speak the truth in love to them or do we fall into the error described in Romans 1. Knowing God’s righteous decree, do we not only fail to speak the truth but approve of those who practice any form of sin?

When God’s Word speaks about homosexual practice it speaks with one voice and that voice is never affirming of the activity. So, has God, as Parsons says of the PCUSA, suddenly discovered same-sex attracted people? Is God’s view evolving on the subject or are there now those who claim to know better than God on the subject?

Just because we feel something, even passionately, does not make it right. God alone has the authority to determine what is right or righteous and what is wrong or sinful.

By grace, God has a redeeming plan for all who acknowledge that our lives are broken by sin and in repentance, turn to Jesus Christ in full submission to His Lordship. And yes, that includes our sexuality. There’s no part of life that is excluded from Christ’s reign.

There’s nothing in the article about God’s power to transform a person. Instead Parsons draws a false parallel to slavery and women hoping to bully those who believe what the Bible says about homosexual practice into standing down. Then, after making direct reference to two justice issues upon which there is no room for divergent views (race and gender), Parsons says that on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion “the church still loves and affirms those people who think differently,” he said. “We want to be a church where both sides of the issue can live together.”

Doesn’t that sound fun? After being told that you’re wrong, unaccepting, unloving and behind the times, you can stay — but you should know that you’re going to be subjected to serious efforts at re-education.

To help Lehigh Valley churches embrace inclusivity, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center will host a December conference, according to Adrian Shanker, the organization’s founder and executive director. The event’s keynote speaker will be Alex McNeill, executive director of More Light Presbyterians and a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Notably, Alex is also transgendered. I’ve attended and written about workshops that Alex has led. I expect that he will be persuasive to those in Lehigh presbytery and elsewhere who fail to recognize the very real spiritual battle being waged for the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and every member of it.


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