Sunday, February 22, 2009

Presbyterian Property Rules Are Clear: Accept Them, and Get On With It

I had the honor of speaking in the convocation in Pittsburgh Presbytery this week, "Our Freedom of Religion at Risk: A Presbyterian Crisis." The meeting grew out of disputes in Pittsburgh Presbytery and elsewhere over dissenting congregations trying to leave the denomination with their property. Joe Small gave the big-picture opening address about our church's unity being based on communion. Euan Cameron talked about the British background to our denomination's history of union and dissent. This led directly to my part, to talk about the Adopting Act of 1729, which lets potential officers of the church explain their "scruples" about aspects of the church's constitution.

The most practical addresses were given by two lawyers, Mark Tammen and Jeff Tindall. They demonstrated that the legal standard of who owns church property is crystal-clear: the Presbyterian Church (USA) does. Many presbyteries, with Pittsburgh in the lead, are developing a process for negotiating with congregations that want to leave. In general, the dissenters who are willing to negotiate have gotten a good deal. Some of them, though, want the fight about the denomination's orthodoxy more than they want the property. In some cases, they bring in the civil courts to judge the case. The civil courts, for very good reasons, do not want to get into a religious dispute.

The denomination is getting better at working out ways for dissenting congregations to leave decently and order - if they want to. This convocation gives a clear account of the issues for those who want resolution more than drama.


Anonymous said...

As an ex-PCUSA guy (and a lawyer by profession), the REAL problem is one of covenant, it seems to me. I.e., there is a covenant by the denomination not to take on apostate positions, in exchange for which the local congregation agrees to allow the denomination to hold title the real property upon which the local church sits. The hypocrisy in this situation occurs when the denomination cries foul in those situations where the local congregations seek to leave on the basis that this is a "religious dispute" and, yet, resort to the law courts to uphold their legal claim of title, even when it can be shown that the denomination has taken an apostate position. But, I guess that is why I am an ex-PCUSA'er.

Red_Cleric said...

Gruntled said re: the attorney's presentation,"They demonstrated that the legal standard of who owns church property is crystal-clear: the Presbyterian Church (USA) does."

that is simply not true. Fifity different states, each with their own laws on trusts, trustees and the expectations of both make this a much less clear picture than we'd like to believe.

As to "The civil courts, for very good reasons, do not want to get into a religious dispute" the fact is that in many states, including Oregon they have done exactly that.

Alan Wilkerson
Portland OR.

Mac said...

The "crystal clarity" is clear only in the minds of those who wish to re-write history and Scripture. Had the 1980 GA included the language of the proposed 1928 trust--requiring congregations to affirmatively put their property into trust for the denomination--they might have a better case. But the 1980 GA did not.

Why? They never said, but the 1929 proposal was defeated in the presbyteries. One possible reason for that defeat is that the presbyteries knew that churches would leave rather than hand over to an already suspect denomination the property that their members had purchased. (The proposal came after the 1924 adoption of the Auburn Affirmation and the departure of a number of churches to form the OPC.) I have read an account that also based the defeat on a message from the PCUS which was then in reunion talks with the PCUSA: "Lose the trust provisions or reunion is off the table" or words to that effect.

At any rate, the interpretation of a unilateral assertion of a trust by a party that does not own the res of the trust is a matter of State law (because the Book of Order requires congregations to incorporate). And Paul would agree. In Romans 13, he reminds us that God created the civil magistrate to resolve those matters that are civil in nature--and property trusts are matters of basic civil law.

Messrs Tammen, et al., can shout from the rooftops their conclusions, but until courts of proper jurisdiction declare the trust effective with respect to a particular parcel of property, G-8 is not worth the flimsy, re-cycled paper it is printed on.

M.R. McCarty
Downingtown, PA
(another ex-PCUSA guy and lawyer by profession)

Reformed in Herrin said...

The folks who staffed the discussions would have more credibility if they had said over the past 30 years, "The Presbyterian ordination rules are clear: Accept them, and get on with it."

But the denomination chose to ignore that part of the covenant. Now, feeling the heat of a shrinking budget, they suggest that all the goodies belong to those who have failed the Church, rather than to those who have been faithful to it.

I say, if the denomination wants to leave the Church, let it go. But faithful congregations, keeping covenant with Scripture and the Reformed tradition are obliged to give nothing to a failed denomination.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Herrin. Be honest in enforcing all the standards or enforce none of them. As long as you choose to ignore portions of the covenant, you are the breaker, not I.

Anonymous said...

Thinking that Tammen could give an honest and fair assessment on property issues is kind of like interviewing Torquemada on how to operate a safe, clean dungeon.

michael bush said...

It's my understanding that twenty-five cases have actually gone to judgment rather than being settled out of court, and that the local congregation has won twenty-four of those.

So it seems to me that the rules are clear to the denomination, but not to the courts.

It seems the California judge who pointed out that one cannot create a trust in one's own favor simply by passing a rule that says there is one had a point.

michael bush said...

And Toby also has a point.

Mr. Tammen has long done his job in ways that have left me reflecting with renewed astonishment on the totalitarian political mind. He's hardly the one to look to for fairness. At least we can say that he is hardly a centerist.

Anonymous said...

Weak attempt to silence the opposition, Beau.

Gruntled said...

I never attempt to silence opposition; as the comments show, that has not been the effect.