Denomination wins appeal in ‘divorce’ case with dissident church

In 2005, I wrote about a low-profile court case involving a Presbyterian church in Orange County that could have far-reaching ramifications.

The First Presbyterian Church of Ridgebury had decided to leave its denomination, Presbyterian Church (USA), because its few remaining members did not like the denomination’s tolerant stance toward gays and lesbians nor its general leftward drift.

The congregation renamed itself the Church at Ridgebury and decided to take its stuff — its church building and property — with it.

hudsonriverpresbytery_logoAs you might expect, the Hudson River Presbytery, the regional body of PCUSA, objected. The Presbytery went to court.

A 2006 ruling went in favor of the Church at Ridgebury, saying that the congregation was not obligated to listen to the mother church.

The decision was a big blow for the presbytery. Once insider told me that several churches would probably leave if they could keep their real estate.

The issue has been coming up for years in all the mainline Protestant denominations, where conservative or traditional congregations increasingly find themselves at odds with their denominations over “Culture War” issues.

The Presbytery appealed. And, this time, won.

Last month, the Appellate Division of NYS Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling.

The court ruled that the congregation failed to provide evidence that it owned the property in question:

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With respect to the real property, the defendants submitted the deeds conveying the subject real property to them, which did not contain any express reversionary or trust provisions. They also submitted a title search listing Ridgebury Church as the record owners of the subject real property. However, the defendants acknowledge that the Book Of Order, a component of the constitution of PCUSA, contains language specifying that all property held by a particular church is held in trust for the national denomination. The neutral principles approach requires the courts to “look to the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property'” (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v Harnish, 11 NY3d 340, 351, quoting First Presbyt. Church of Schenectady v United Presbyt. Church in U.S. of Am., 62 NY2d 110, 122, cert denied 469 US 1037). The express trust provision contained in the Book of Order defeats the defendants’ efforts to demonstrate their entitlement to summary judgment because the enactment of such a trust provision is one way in which the national denomination or Presbytery may ensure that church property is retained by the faction loyal to the national denomination and Presbytery upon secession of any particular church (see Jones v Wolf, 443 US 595).

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The court further held that several provisions of PCUSA’s Book of Order “are further proof that the PCUSA’s constitution expressly provided that all church property in the possession of local churches remained under the ultimate care and control of the Presbytery of Hudson River.”

According to the Presbyterian Layman, a generally conservative publication/website that covers these issues with great interest, the Church at Ridgebury has few options: request permission from the NYS Court of Appeals to appeal; go find a new church; or reach a settlement with the presbytery.

This is a much-needed reprieve for the Hudson River Presbytery.

But we’ll be hearing more about these property issues.

In fact, the conservative Washington Times just ran an article about traditional congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American wanting to leave their denomination, but encountering opposition, even “bullying.”

What’s up in the Hudson River Presbytery?

The Rev. Susan Andrews of the Hudson River Presbytery of Presbyterian Church (USA) has been on the road quite a lot over the past year.

Andrews, the general presbyter or chief executive of the presbytery, preached or participated in worship with 40 of the presbytery’s 90 congregations, she wrote in a recent report on the presbytery website.

She also met or broke bread with 69 pastors. In the picture, she is preaching at Central Presbyterian Church of Haverstraw.

She writes that building relationships with clergy and lay leaders is “central to my job.”

The presbytery serves about 15,000 Presbyterians in seven counties through the Lower Hudson Valley.

Her report includes numerous developments, big and small, across the presbytery, such as this one:

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The Presbytery Prison Partnership, under the leadership of Ricardo “Shepp” Sheppard and funded by he synod, the presbytery and 8 congregations, has engaged 45 congregations and 10 correctional institutions through worship, Christmas and Mother’s Day cards to inmates, Bible donation and distribution, education about the criminal justice system, and advocacy efforts to support criminal justice reform in Albany.

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She notes that a “new South Westchester Clergy Support Group was birthed this year” and that “The Yonkers Initiative continues to coordinate the mission outreach of the three Presbyterian congregations in Yonkers.”

Andrews opened her report with the presbytery’s “calling statement,” which looks like this:

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As members of the Body of Christ
Hudson River Presbytery
is called to live resurrection
with passion and partnership
in a changing world.

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And she closed it with these thoughts:

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Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God is at work in HRP inviting us to practice resurrection – to live resurrection – and to become resurrection for a world hungry for Good News. Thank for your partnership in this exciting, difficult, and challenging Resurrection Work.

Still no gay clergy for PCUSA (at least, officially)

Presbyterian Church (USA)’s offical ban on gay clergy lives on.

The denomination’s regional bodies have voted down a proposed change to church law that would have allowed gays and lesbians to be ordained.

Delegates to a denominational assembly approved the change last year, but a majority of presbyteries — 87 out of 173 — had to support the move.

Presbyteries have been voting for several months. As of Saturday, 88 presbyteries voted against the change, meaning that the closely watched vote is over.

Back in 1996, denominational law was changed to prohibit the ordination of anyone who wasn’t married or chaste. The move was aimed at prohibiting the ordination of gay clergy.

This was the third unsuccessful effort to overturn the law.

The Hudson River Presbytery, which represents 91 congregations in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and four northern counties, voted in favor of rescinding the ban. Delegates in the gay-friendly region voted back in February: 94 yes, 12 no, 1 abstention.

The proposed new amendment looked like this:

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“Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.”

PCUSA grapples, again, with ordination of gays

I’ve mentioned before that the first article I wrote on the religion beat — on March 20, 1997 — had to do with Presbyterian Church (USA) banning the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The change to church law — widely known as “Amendment B” — became the focus of a denominational controversy that has never gone away. Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to rewrite the amendment.

Here we go again.

Last year’s national gathering of PCUSA delegates — the 218th General Assembly — voted in favor of rewriting the amendment to remove a requirement that clergy “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman…or chastity in singleness.”

A new amendment would require “Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation…pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions.”

For the change to go through, a majority of presbyteries — regional bodies — have to approve it. That means 87 out of 173.

So far, according to one tally, 36 presbyteries have voted for the change, 46 against.

The Hudson River Presbytery — which includes 91 congregations in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and four counties north — voted this week. Clergy and lay delegates voted overwhelming in favor of the change: 94 yes, 12 no, 1 abstention.

So that’s one presbytery among the 36 that want to change Amendment B.

Other presbyteries will vote through June. It’s hard to say right now when a majority will be reached.

PCUSA revisits (again) its requirements for ordination

010.jpgPresbyterian Church (USA)’s 218th General Assembly is underway in San Jose, meaning that hundreds of Presbyterians are attending committee meetings, sorting through great piles of resolutions and amendments and other paperwork, and preparing for lots of votes.

That’s the Presbyterian way. (You have to love the John Calvin bobblehead doll in the exhibit hall.)

It also means that a debate is underway (or an old debate is continuing) on the status and future of Amendment B. This is the 1996 amendment to church law that requires “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” and is supposed to rule out gays and lesbians for ordination.

There have been several efforts over the years to strike Amendment B from the books, all failures (so far).

Last night, a committee recommended that the full Assembly delete the amendment. The committee had several overtures to choose from, including one put forth by the Hudson River Presbytery, which includes PCUSA churches in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and northern counties.

The committee approved this proposed amendment put forth by the Boston Presbytery:

“Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.”

At some point, the full Assembly will consider the amendment. If it passes, the amendment would still have to be approved by a majority of presbyteries across the country.

The Rev. Chris Shelton, a minister from the Hudson River Presbytery, is blogging about the GA. He writes:

And so, I refer you back to the beginning of these thoughts — “Lift up your hearts!” However you feel about the actions taken by these committees, the time for prayer is now. These are exciting, trying, and tiring times here in San Jose. The Commissioners and Advisory Delegates need our continued prayers for strength, for wisdom, for the sustaining hand of the Spirit. Pray for all our sisters and brothers as we face the challenging conversations ahead.

I should note that PCUSA lost 2.5% of its membership from 2006 to 2007. Here’s a brief from the AP:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suffered its worst annual membership decline in decades last year.

The Louisville-based denomination reported 2.2 million active and confirmed members in 2007, a loss of 57,572 members and a 2.5 percent decrease from 2006. It’s the denomination’s largest membership loss in terms of numbers since 1981 and the steepest percentage loss since 1974, when it fell 2.7 percent.

The church has steadily been losing members since peaking at 4.25 million in the mid-1960s.

“Any decline in membership is a disappointment, to be sure, because those numbers represent members we know and love who are no longer part of our congregations,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who is completing a 12-year term as stated clerk of the PCUSA.

Opinions differ about the cause for the decline, including controversies over homosexuality, low birth rates, an aging white population and a societal move away from institutions in general. Some congregations also have left for a more conservative Presbyterian denomination.