Presbyterians Want Their Newton Church Back

(By Lisa Wangsness, The Boston Globe). Some members of the Newton Presbyterian Church thought their denomination was drifting away from fundamental tenets of their faith, such as the idea that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and that evangelism is essential. They longed for something more contemporary, more vivacious. A church with a sharper focus on mission and scripture, less on politics.

And so the congregation in January voted 107 to 26 to abandon the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join a small but growing evangelical denomination. They put a sign on the lawn to proclaim the congregation’s new name: Newton Covenant Church.

But now, the Presbyterian Church wants its church back. Its local authority, the Presbytery of Boston, has sued to regain control of the $5.6 million Vernon Street building and return it to members of the Newton congregation who want to remain Presbyterian, a minority they say represents the “true church.”

The denomination says the 11 Newton church leaders named in the lawsuit knew the January vote was unauthorized and in defiance of the denomination’s rules.

 “The Presbytery is the rightful arbiter of this dispute, and the breakaway faction doesn’t get to engage in self-help and steal the property,” said Robert A. Skinner of the law firm Ropes & Gray, who is representing the denomination pro bono.

The lawsuit accuses the “breakaway faction” of removing the church sign, hijacking the church’s old website, and seizing control of the church’s bank accounts. It seeks unspecified damages. But most importantly, say the plaintiffs, who also include the remaining Presbyterian congregants, it demands the return of their church.


Related article:

Massachusetts Church Disaffiliates from the PCUSA to Join ECC


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PMAB and COGA to Meet in San Juan This Week

(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). Both the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly are meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico this week – accepting an invitation from the Presbytery of San Juan.

Over the past year, Presbyterian leadership has been highlighting justice concerns in Puerto Rico – with J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, sending a letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders in February regarding the Puerto Rican economic crisis.

That was done in response to an action of the 2016 General Assembly. The letter states in part:

“Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt, which is more than two-thirds the amount of its GDP, cannot possibly be repaid simply by using spending cuts and tax increases, since those measures will inevitably accelerate the exodus of capital and labor and shrink the economy further. More importantly, this would result in even greater distress on people who are already in dire straits—more than half of the children now live below the poverty line and many families and individuals already struggle to survive.”

The two meetings in San Juan will overlap a bit – with one joint plenary session to discuss the “way forward” and a shared worship service – but for the most part the two groups have separate agendas.

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First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Members Urged to Reconcile by PCUSA Stated Clerk

(By Daryl Nerl, The Morning Call). The highest elected leader of the mainline Presbyterian denomination in the United States urged worshipers on Sunday to seek reconciliation in a schism that has fractured the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA.

“Have two people go out to a home and sit and have a discussion,” the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson told church members during a question-and-answer session that followed a worship service he led.

“You have been in a relationship with these folks for years, and you are still in relationships with many of them,” he continued. “Remind them of the times that you have all been together and what it’s meant in the life of this church to be a part of the fold.”

In June, the majority of the 2,600-member congregation voted to leave the mainline denomination to join the more conservative denomination called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. That decision was contested by the Lehigh Presbytery and the national organization Nelson leads, setting off a legal battle for control of the church building and the 31.5-acre campus.

Nelson, the stated clerk for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), led the worship service for Presbyterians for Unity, the portion of the congregation that wishes to remain with the mainline denomination.

He told them that memories of shared history, stories and longstanding friendships might enable the congregation to heal its rift.

“Help them to understand that you need them, not simply for the growing and the development of the church, but in the continuation of a community of people that have been in and out of each other’s homes and each other’s lives, who bear secrets and hold stories of each other and have been on trips together and worked together,” Nelson said.

Contacted afterward, the Rev. Marnie Crumpler, senior pastor at First Presbyterian, had a different view of reconciliation.

“I think there are longtime friendships between people in both groups and, so as far reconciling friendships, I think that’s important,” Crumpler said. “But I think if reconciling means coming back together as one church, I think we’re already an ECO church, and we’ve already made a decision to be an ECO church.”

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Leader of PCUSA to Visit Divided Bethlehem Church on Sunday

(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call, Bethlehem, PA). The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem is getting the strongest show of solidarity yet from the national denomination with a Sunday visit from the highest elected leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson will lead the 11:30 a.m. service for the Presbyterians for Unity, the portion of the church’s congregation seeking to stay under the umbrella of the mainline denomination. His visit will mark the first time a sitting stated clerk of the general assembly has led a service in the region overseen by the Lehigh Presbytery in memory, according to Presbytery Teaching Elder Rev. David Duquette. He called the stop “unprecedented.”

Nelson, speaking during a Thursday interview between his cross-country travels, said his goal is ensure the Presbyterians for Unity feel the support of the rest of the denomination.

“They are not alone in this struggle,” Nelson said. “They’re certainly setting a tone and an example for others looking at similar struggles.”

In June, the majority of the 2,600-member congregation voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join a more conservative denomination, the Covenant Order of Evangelical, or ECO, which is said to better reflect the group’s theological views.

But the Presbyterian Church (USA) said the vote violated church rules on how such separations should take place, setting off a contentious legal battle over which side will keep the 31.5-acre Center Street property.

Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta is hearing the case and could decide to hold a full trial before issuing a ruling. In the meantime, Baratta ordered both congregations to coexist within the church, holding separate services if they desired.

At a fall conference in Louisville, Ky., where the denomination is based, Duquette told national officials that a visit from leadership could lift morale. Duquette said he was told “help is coming.”

“Having him there will be an incredible boost,” Duquette said. “And I think it really shows… that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a vision of being a church that’s opening and welcoming and not restrictive and judgmental. This is a tremendous affirmation for us.”

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PCUSA Groups, Leaders Support Transgender Student in Supreme Court Case

An amicus curiae brief, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a transgender teen wishing to use the school bathroom of his gender identity, included references to Presbyterian Church (USA) policy and was signed by two PCUSA affinity groups and approximately 191 Presbyterians.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians, were among the 15 religious organizations and approximately 1,800 people who signed on to the brief filed in the case of Gloucester County School Board vs. G.G.

The case involves a high school senior – Gavin Grimm of Virginia – who was born female, but now identifies as male. He was seeking the right from the court to use the boys’ bathroom in his school.

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court sent the case back to the court of appeals, (FoxNews article; CNN article) citing the Trump Administration’s reversal of federal guidance issued by the Obama administration which required public schools to allow students to use the bathrooms/locker rooms matching their gender identity.

Those from the PCUSA signing the brief in support of Grimm included the Co-Moderators of the PCUSA, Rev. Jan Edmiston and Rev. Denise Anderson; two PCUSA related seminary presidents, Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary and Rev. Dr. James McDonald, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary; several seminary professors; and a host of PCUSA pastors and elders.

Merrian-Webster defines an amicus curiae as a brief filed in a court case by a person or organization that is not a party to the litigation but that is permitted by the court to advise it in respect to some matter of law that directly affects the case in question.

The argument

The brief states that is comes from “faiths that have approached issues related to gender identity in different ways over the years, but are united in believing that the fundamental human dignity shared by all persons requires treating transgender students like Respondent Gavin Grimm (‘Gavin’) in a manner consistent with their gender identity. [They] also believe that, in our diverse and pluralistic society, the civil rights of transgender persons must be addressed according to religiously neutral principles of equal protection under the law.”

It continues that “Faiths embracing the fundamental dignity of transgender persons participate in the mainstream of American religious observance. They include denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the United Church of Christ; portions of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); Judaism’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform movements; and countless individual religious believers from faiths ranging from Roman Catholicism to Islam who today celebrate and embrace equal dignity for transgender persons.”

The brief includes denominational statements which it believes bolster its case:

  • The Unitarian Universalist Church “which long as proclaimed a ‘commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, including … transgender individuals.’”
  • The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies “affirmed in an open letter to their church ‘the civil rights and God-given dignity of transgender people.’”
  • United Church of Christ “publicly reaffirmed its own longstanding commitment to transgender inclusion.”
  • The United Methodist Church “deplore[s] acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on … gender identity.”
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America “also has urged respect for gender identity difference.”
  • The Presbyterian Church (USA) “asserted over a decade ago that ‘the love of God is not confined to the people … of one gender or gender orientation.’”
  • One Meeting (among others) of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has formally stated its “understand[ing] that God, who loves all people unconditionally, is leading the Meeting to honor the gender identity of each person, as that person determines it.”
  • Muslims: “… On the basis of the Quranic teaching that ‘God enjoins justice, kindness and generosity toward one’s fellow humankind’ (Qur’an 16:90), Muslims for Progressive Values advocates for ‘a future where Islam is understood as a source of dignity, justice, compassion and love for all humanity and the world,’ and ‘affirm[s] the equal worth of all human beings, regardless of … sex, gender, [or] gender identification.’”

The brief mentioned a study by the University of Cambridge which confirmed how “a growing number of Christian denominations, particularly within Protestant traditions[] are … embracing trans people as congregants and ministers,” with “[m]uch of the progress ha[ving] taken place in the United States.” The study highlighted that, in 1996, Presbyterian Rev. Erin Swenson of Greater Atlanta became the first religious leader of a mainline Christian denomination to retain her post following her gender transition. Since then groups such as the Presbyterian Church USA (in 2010/11) and the Episcopal Church (in 2012) have removed barriers to ordained ministry of transgender persons.”

It also cited the PCUSA’s San Francisco Theological Seminary, founded in the late 19th century, which “abides by a Statement of NonDiscrimination that includes protections on the basis of gender identity.”

Another amicus curiae brief was filed on behalf of the Gloucester County School Board by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; National Association of Evangelicals; Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod; and Christian Legal Society.

A list of Presbyterians signing the amicus curiae brief filed in support of transgender student Gavin Grimm can be found here.



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PCUSA Tackling Low Bible Test Scores Among Seminary Students

(By Michael Gryboski, The Christian Post). The Presbyterian Church (USA) is looking into ways to handle an apparent drop in satisfactory rates in Bible test scores among people preparing for ministry within the Mainline denomination.

Earlier this month, a task force created by the executive committee of the Committee on Theological Education released a statement on the Bible Content Examinations and a trend of lower than average evaluation rates that began in the summer of 2015.

The task force recommended that candidates take the BCE after a they’ve had a full year of education in theology, that the COTE convene a group of scholars to create a study guide for the BCE and other resources for the BCE, and that the questions be released following their use in the exam.

The Rev. Timothy B. Cargal, assistant stated clerk for preparation for ministry in the PCUSA Office of the General Assembly, told The Christian Post that the issue was less about lower scores and more specifically about lower “satisfactory rates.”

“Because a satisfactory evaluation requires a score of 70 percent or higher and the median scores fell below that level in summer 2015 and winter 2016, majorities of those who took the BCE during those administrations did not receive satisfactory evaluations,” explained Cargal.

“For the summer 2016 and winter 2017 BCE administrations, the median scores were within satisfactory range, and so majorities of those taking those administrations did satisfy the requirement, though the majorities remained below levels typically seen in the recent past.”

Cargal also told CP that he believed the “precipitating factor” for the lower satisfactory rates was the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates’ decision to quit using questions from past exams that were publicly released before 2009.

“The BCE has always and continues to use some questions from previous exams as a means for working toward a similar overall difficulty of the test from one administration to the next,” continued Cargal.



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Florida Church Sees Membership Grow After Leaving PCUSA

(By Michael Gryboski, The Christian Post). A congregation in Florida that voted to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) over theological differences has seen considerable membership growth since their decision.

First Presbyterian Church of Haines City voted 328 to 16 back in April 2015 to leave PCUSA in part over the Mainline denomination’s increased acceptance of homosexuality.

Earlier this month, FPC Haines City had their departure as well as their membership with the theological conservative Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians finalized, according to spokesman Pastor Jeff Winter.

“The vote to be released by the local presbytery happened three months ago in November. After the vote, a church needs to wait three months before they are officially dismissed,” explained Winter.

“During those three months, members of the presbytery have the opportunity to contest the vote if they so choose. No one protested, thank God.”

Winter noted the current membership at 570, with 128 new members having joined since the vote to seek dismissal from the PC(USA).

“For this church, that is a significant number. Generally speaking, our new members are attracted to this church because we stand for biblical truth and seek to apply it to our relationships and in our culture,” added Winter.


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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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Judge Rules in Favor of Athens Church

A Superior Court judge has issued an injunction, ruling that a congregation that voted to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians can – for now – continue to use the church property.

The judge ruled that the ECO congregation – formerly known as Central Presbyterian Church in Athens, Ga., showed it had a “likelihood of prevailing on its claim that no civilly enforceable trust exists” in the church property. The church now goes by its new name – Alps Road Presbyterian Church.

However, because of pending legal actions, the church may not sell, transfer or encumber the church property. There are several other stipulations in the ruling that the church and presbytery must adhere to until all legal matters are settled.

The Book of Order of the PCUSA includes a property clause, stating all church property is held in trust for the denomination:

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” G-4.0203 of the Book of Order.

Testimony during the trial,  however, “showed that CPC believed that its property rights were not going to be affected by the reunion (or by the amendments to the PCUS constitution pre-dating the 1983 merger containing similar trust language.)

“Reunion” refers to the merger in 1983 of the Northern (United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, UPCUSA) and Southern (Presbyterian Church in the United States, or PCUS) branches of the Presbyterian denominations becoming one denomination — The Presbyterian Church (USA).

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Eric W. Norris cited a 1981 letter written by Rev. James Andrews, the PCUS Stated Clerk at that time, regarding a similar trust clause proposed by that denomination, stating that the new trust clause “would not change the Presbyterian Church’s historical position on property.” Andrews’ wrote “These amendments do not in any way change the fact that the congregation, in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., owns its own property.”

Norris also highlighted a 1982 report from Andrews which affirmed the denomination’s position in a report to all of the PCUS commissioners: “The language dealing with trust does not in any way establish any kind of an encumbrance on church property as that term is understood in connection with real estate.”

Timberridge Ruling

In an earlier church property dispute between Timberridge Presbyterian Church and Greater Atlanta Presbytery in 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 opinion ruled in favor of the PCUSA, stating that Timberridge was a part of a “hierarchical denomination” whose constitution includes a “trust clause.” The court then concluded that mere membership in such a denomination implies that a local church has consented to placing his property in trust, even if the local church never explicitly expressed such consent.

The opinion said “… Timberridge’s act of affiliating with the PCUSA in 1983 with the trust provision already in its governing constitution demonstrated that Timberridge assented to that relinquishment of its property rights – rights it then chose not to reassert by leaving the new national church during the next eight years.”

Judge Norris addressed this issue in his ruling, stating that the “Timberridge opinion does not refer to any pre-vote or pre-reunion communications between the general church and the local church concerning the property clause in the PCUSA (or PCUS) constitution. The existence of this type of evidence would have been relevant to the Supreme Court’s conclusion regarding the intention of the parties. Given this distinction, the court finds that the Timberridge precedent does not require finding the existence of an implied trust in the instant case. Moreover, the same legal principles articulated in the Timberridge decision could result in a finding that the parties to this action did not intend a trust to be imposed on the local church’s property.”

The History

On Jan. 24, 2016, the congregation voted 159 to 36 (82% to 18%) to be dismissed from the PCUSA and affiliate with ECO. Northeast Georgia Presbytery appointed an Administrative Commission for the church, and on Dec. 13, 2016 the AC report had three recommendations:

  1. that schism be declared at CPC and that the faction wishing to remain in the PCUSA was entitled to all CPC property;
  2. that the NEGP deny the departing faction’s request to leave the denomination with CPC’s property; and
  3. that NEGP appoint a new Administrative Commission that would take necessary action to appoint a new session for CPC.

On Jan. 20, 2017, the presbytery approved the first two recommendations, but did not vote on the third, since a temporary restraining order had been granted by the civil court the day before.

Meanwhile, following the report of the AC’s recommendations, the congregation’s board of directors voted unanimously (13-0) on Jan. 4, 2017, to disaffiliate with the PCUSA, and filed the lawsuit in civil court.

According to local newspaper, members of the church who are loyal to the PCUSA are meeting at 11 a.m. in the Presbyterian Student Center near the University of Georgia campus for Sunday services.

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Court Arguments Reveal Deep Divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem

(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). Arguments in court Friday [2/17/17] painted a picture of tension and emotion at the sprawling campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.

Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta said he’s not looking forward to handing down a decision in what’s shaping up to be a complicated church property dispute dividing the congregation.

With lawyers appearing before him for the first time since legal filings last summer over ownership of the 31.5-acre property, Baratta didn’t seem convinced that the case could end without going to trial.

“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 massive Bethlehem church at 2344 Center St., with roughly 2,600 members, is in the midst of upheaval.

The majority of members who cast ballots June 26 voted to switch affiliations, leaving the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) in favor of the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians denomination. The majority of the membership, leaders say, left the national branch because its theological views no longer aligned with their own as the Presbyterian Church (USA) took increasingly progressive stances on same-sex marriage and gay ministers.

But the Lehigh Presbytery, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s regional authority, disputed the split and claims ownership of the church property. The denomination’s Book of Order, revised and adopted in the mid-1980s, included a clause that indicates church property is “held in trust” for the denomination. The Lehigh Presbytery said that means the membership cannot unilaterally break away and take all the assets with it.

But Forrest Norman, attorney for the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, argued the deed for the property names only the church and there’s no indication that in adopting the new Book of Order rules in the 1980s, the membership also took on the trust clause.

“It is strictly held by the local church for the local church as any corporate entity would do,” Norman said of the property.


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