On 4 December 1973, 382 delegates representing over 260 congregations met in a crowded sanctuary at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to form what was briefly called the National Presbyterian Church.
This new denomination was renamed a year later as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). It had formed as a separate church from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS Southern), due to liberalism in that denomination (see ‘Our formative years: the history of the Presbyterian Church in America, 1973-1993’, Paul Settle; www.pcahistory.org/pca/formativeyears.html).
When the PCA split from the PCUS (which later became the PCUSA), the rift brought to the table issues that were not always tied to theological differences. Churches which had been unified in the legal sense, were now torn asunder, both figuratively and literally.
As churches seceded from the Southern PCUS denomination to join the PCA, the property rights of the church buildings swayed in the balance.
Some Presbyterian churches remained in the PCUS, while others, like the First Presbyterian Churches of Macon, Georgia and Jackson, Mississippi, went with the PCA. These church splits were hard fought and many still bear the scars to this day.
While still larger than the more conservative PCA, the PCUSA’s numbers are rapidly declining. From 2011–2012, over 102,000 members left the PCUSA for different denominations. Since 2010, the denomination has ratified the ordination of homosexuals living in same-sex relationships and, as a consequence, the number of congregations leaving the denomination has increased (see ‘PCUSA churches leaving denomination dramatically increased in 2012’, Michael Gryboski, http://byfaithonline.com/pcusa-churches-leaving-denomination-dramatically-increased-in-2012).
Since the initial split in 1973, the PCUSA has steadily declined both in its orthodoxy and its numbers. Although some congregations are still adhering to the Word of God, as a denomination the PCUSA has long declared that the Bible is not the inerrant, inspired Word of God. With that, many more issues have flown in to roost.
In the PCUSA’s Book of order (its bylaws and constitution), there lies a statement that has been a real sticking point for congregations desiring to leave the denomination but keep their church building. The ‘trust clause’ (G-4.0203) in the Book of order states that: ‘All property held by or for a particular church … is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’. In other words, the denomination owns the church property.
This clause was written in reaction to the situation during 1973 when most of the Southern Presbyterian churches left another denomination but kept their properties. Over the last few years, cases have sprung up all over the country where PCUSA congregations have battled financially with the denomination over church properties.
There is one case in particular that I would highlight, where this issue has grown very large indeed.
Crestwood Presbyterian Church
Crestwood Presbyterian Church of Midlothian and Richmond, Virginia, has been seeking to leave the PCUSA and join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), because of doctrinal issues, since June 2012. Five other churches in that presbytery have left the PCUSA, after making settlement payments.
The issue at hand is the exorbitant price that the denominational presbytery has laid on Crestwood Presbyterian Church for its property.
Since voting on transferring to the ECO by 96 per cent in February 2014, the session of Crestwood and the local presbytery have made many offers and counter-offers for the price of the property.
Initially the denominational presbytery said they would not let them take the property for less than $6 million, claiming this was the property’s real value. As of August 2014, the local presbytery lowered its offer to $3.5 million, which is still astronomical compared to the prices other churches of similar size have had to pay.
The other five churches in the presbytery that left for another denomination settled the property dispute for much less. One church, Spotsylvania Presbyterian, with just 600 members, left for only $400,000. Third Presbyterian, with 1175 members, left for $370,000, one year prior. Crestwood only has 748 members and the denomination is asking for much more.
Since last summer, Crestwood and the denomination have debated over the price of transferral of the church properties. In November last year, the church’s session wrote to the presbytery that they would pay a lump sum of $400,000 for the property, as well as pay $10,000 per annum for five years after the congregation had transferred to the ECO.
They also promised that, if the church split up after being transferred, the property would return to the PCUSA. This lump sum is all that Crestwood is able to pay, and, even if the church property were to be divided and sold, it would not equal one-third of the price the presbytery is asking for (‘A motion for Crestwood Church’, Crestwood Session, 2014).
The session, at the time of writing, is awaiting another meeting which would answer whether the denominational presbytery will accept Crestwood’s counter-offer.
It amazes and humbles me that, here in the USA, often the greatest consequences we face for remaining true to Christ is being shouted at or charged an amount of money we cannot pay.
Compared to recent events, especially in the Middle East, our exposure to persecution is not nearly as severe as that which our brothers and sisters face in places like Syria and North Korea.
Let us continue to pray for one another and our brothers and sisters around the world, that we would trust our God, who is our refuge and strength. And may we also pray, like the early church did in Acts 4:23-30, that we may continue to speak the Word with all boldness.
The author served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA.