(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call) Leaders of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem consulted with the Lehigh Presbytery, their regional governing authority, when making land deals and financing, but that never meant the surrender of their autonomy as property owners to it, according to testimony in Day Two of the church’s property dispute trial.
During a bench trial in a packed courtroom this week, Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta will have to decide to whom the sprawling 31.5-acre property at 2344 Center St. belongs: the congregation that left the Presbyterian Church (USA) for a more conservative denomination, or the Lehigh Presbytery.
The congregation maintains that the deed and charter show its sole ownership of the Center Street property. But the Lehigh Presbytery argues that the Book of Order, the rules governing the denomination, clearly explain that church property is placed in trust with the presbytery.
Pastor Alf Halvorson, formerly of the Bethlehem church, testified via video feed from Houston, where flooding has turned his new church into an emergency shelter. As a church leader while the Bethlehem congregation was considering disaffiliation, Halvorson described how heart-wrenching the debate was for the congregation, which went on to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, the same denomination he now leads at the Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston.
A drifting from traditional Presbyterian teaching drove the split in Bethlehem, which has played out across the country, according to Halvorson and other witnesses. The most recent changes in the Presbyterian Church (USA) spurring these fractures were the ordination of gay ministers and recognition of same-sex marriage.
Halvorson said he was aware of First Presbyterian’s trust clause in the Book of Order, which he likened to a car owner’s manual that’s referred to only during the unexpected. He believed the trust clause was “an ecclesiastical phrase, not a civil phrase.” So, although it stymied the efforts of some churches to leave with their property, the pastor said he never saw it as a serious impediment to disaffiliation.
“We didn’t see it as something that held us back,” he said. “No one ever accidentally gives up their property. There has to be action. And I’m not aware of any action that the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem took on that.”