Presbyterian Battle over Property, Churches Intensifies

Delegates of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved an up to $2 million fund that would cover legal fees against congregations that pull out from the denomination and want to keep their church property.

In a 395-286 vote on Thursday, they voted in favor of sharing the legal cost of defending the PC(USA) in legal disputes involving property issues. The motion was passed with an amendment to establish and promote an Extra Commitment Opportunity account that will be the source of this support and welcomes contributions from the whole church.

The vote during their biennial General Assembly in San Jose, Calif., comes as more PC(USA) congregations have voted to disaffiliate over the denomination's liberal direction on Scripture and theology. Many have realigned themselves with the smaller and more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Court battles over church properties have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, which have exceeded the budgets of several regional presbyteries.

Ingrid Cyros of the Presbytery of Northern New England supported the funding, arguing that her small presbytery is ill-equipped to finance a legal battle with the Londonderry Presbyterian Church in New Hampshire, as reported by Louisville's The Courier-Journal. The Londonderry congregation had sued the presbytery last year to secure the title to its property after voting to leave the PC(USA) over concerns as to the "direction and fundamental beliefs of the denomination."

Thirty-nine additional presbyteries face, or have faced, legal battles or similar challenges, according to the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. The committee acknowledged that approval of the resolution would "seriously burden" their present resources.

Meanwhile, the EPC, which recently closed its General Assembly in Bethesda, Md., has grown over the last 12 months with the addition of 47 new churches.

PC(USA) leaders have accused the smaller denomination of soliciting churches, which the EPC has denied. On Thursday, the PC(USA) General Assembly voted to refer an investigation of charges against the EPC to a permanent committee. The measure charges the EPC with "actively pursuing a strategy to persuade Presbyterian Church (USA) churches to disaffiliate with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and be dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church."

In 2007, the EPC established a transitional presbytery for congregations in the New Wineskins Association of Churches – a network of Presbyterians discontent with the PC(USA) – that sought membership.

But Jeff Jeremiah, stated clerk of the EPC General Assembly, stressed that he has "done nothing to initiate contact, to recruit, to solicit or anything like that. I have not placed a single call to anyone outside of our denomination (for recruitment), particularly in the PCUSA," as reported by The Layman Online, a conservative Presbyterian publication.

The Rev. Steve Bryant of Grace Chapel in Madison, Miss., which severed ties with the PC(USA) in August 2007, clearly stated that they were not "recruited" into the EPC. "We weren't proselytized: We were adopted," he said during EPC's General Assembly, which ended last weekend, according to The Layman.

Earlier this year, the EPC released a statement saying that its policy and practice is "to not solicit, initiate contact, or recruit churches and leaders who are outside our denomination."

The motion calling for an investigation is to face the PC(USA)'s Committee on Ecumenical Relations, which meets in the fall, before being referred to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a global church body that both the EPC and the PC(USA) are members of.