A congregation in Newton, Mass., has disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).
Newton Presbyterian Church members voted 107-26 (80.4 percent) on Sunday to withdraw from the PCUSA effective immediately and to begin the process to be accepted into the Evangelical Covenant Church.
The church’s disaffiliation has not gone unchallenged by Boston Presbytery. An attorney for the presbytery has already sent a letter, dated Jan. 17, to church members demanding that church members “refrain from taking any action purporting to affect the ownership, possession, use or status of the church property pending the outcome of the discernment process. This would include steps to change NPC’s name or stated denominational affiliation in the church’s records, signage, website or otherwise. In addition, any use of church funds in support of an effort to disaffiliate from the PCUSA or change the status of church property – including paying any legal fees you may choose to incur – is unauthorized and must cease immediately.”
The presbytery’s attorney wrote that Newton Presbyterian Church “may not withdraw itself unilaterally from the denomination … NPC remains a part of the PCUSA, and nothing in the law of Massachusetts changes that fact.”
That proposition is challenged by the church, which expressly retained corporate property rights to do so when the PCUSA inserted the trust clause in 1982. While the parties differ on legal positions, both hope to avoid court.
Rejection of the PCUSA trust clause
A Q&A prepared by church representatives states:
“Our congregation rejected the PCUSA trust clause and took appropriate steps to document our rejection of the clause in our session minutes, which were sent to presbytery. We amended our by-laws to make it clear that our property remained (and remains) in trust for our non-profit corporation for religious purposes in accordance with the wishes of the membership.
“The amendment (made in 1982, and reported to the Presbytery of Boston in writing) remains part of our NPC corporation by-laws today. The Presbytery has tacitly accepted our dissent on their property trust clause for more than three decades:
“Article 14: Of Property: Unless subject to a specific trust expressed by the donor, property received and held, whether heretofore or hereafter by this Corporation is held by it in trust for religious purposes, and will be applied, subject to that trust, in accordance with the wishes of the membership.”
Letters from the Administrative Commission
Sunday’s vote came after church members received two letters from an Administrative Commission unanimously created by Boston Presbytery. The first letter, dated Jan. 10, acknowledged the upcoming meeting and stated that:
- the church could not withdraw from the denomination;
- the PCUSA was not in full communion with the ECC, so the presbytery could not dismiss the church to that denomination; and
- a vote to edit the corporation’s bylaws would not remove a church from the PCUSA.
The letter further stated that:
“that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is structured by our Constitution to be a steward of the covenanted unity of our part of the Body of Christ. When there is an irreconcilable division within a congregation, such as in a case where one group is determined to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other members wish to continue in the congregation, we have a tested, responsive constitutional process created by the wider church:
“If there is a schism within the membership of a congregation and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate congregations within the Presbyterian Church (USA), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (USA). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the congregation.” (Form of Government, G-4.0207)
Three days later, when the corporate meeting had not been canceled, the AC sent a second letter declaring that the church was “in schism” and the AC was assuming “original jurisdiction.” The AC took the actions the day before, Jan. 12, and told the congregation that it would soon be “laying out next steps to help the congregation determine its future.”
The letter ended, saying: “We inform you of these actions of the Administrative Commission in hope that you will understand that they were taken out of our concern for the whole Newton Presbyterian Church, in fellowship with you in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in response as Presbyterians to the ‘mission of God in Christ that gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church (from the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-1.01).”
Wishing to be thought of graciously
The “Declaration of New Affiliation: A Vision Toward Future Growth and Outreach,” signed by the church trustees, read in part:
“We recognize that NPC has been the largest congregation in the PCUSA’s Presbytery of Boston, and changing our affiliation is likely to impact their budget. We plan to continue to give them our freely pledged per-capita offering of $14,161 for next year. In accord with our Christian faith we have also gone through our books to make sure that we have no debts and have paid all costs, upkeep, insurance, and maintenance on our property and it is fully ours to use for religious purposes as our members wish. If PCUSA can document any debts we owe to them, then we would like to reimburse them. We wish to be thought of graciously by PCUSA, and will also plan to give them a departing financial gift, with the amount and any restrictions on use to be determined at a forthcoming session meeting.
“With this new affiliation, we envision our congregation will again become a thriving, growing church, filled and spilling over with people of all ages. We envision multiple services with different styles, that preserve our warmth and sense of community, with active, growing ministries for youth, young adults, families, and singles of all ages. We envision greater outreach with regular service to our local community and beyond, and greater boldness in sharing the Good News with neighbors and co-workers. We envision a ministry that engages minds, hearts, and hands in knowing the person of Jesus Christ, living the abundant life in Christ, and sharing the Amazing Grace and Love of God with all people.” (emphasis in the original document.)