A national legal showdown now looms over the theological drift of the big American denominations and their increasing involvement in social issues. The U.S. Supreme Court announced June 10 that it would hear the case involving two Savannah congregations that pulled out of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. (Southern), charging “revolutionary, fundamental, unlawful, and radical diversion from the Presbyterian faith.”

The immediate question is whether the two churches are entitled to retain their properties. Under Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal government, properties in congregational defections normally are forfeited to the ruling denomination.

But much more significant issues are at stake. These revolve around how far a denomination can deviate from its originally stated purposes and still expect allegiance from its constituency. Indirectly, corollary questions arise over the mission of the Church and its role in the world. The two Savannah churches, Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights, have objected very strongly to Southern Presbyterian involvement in civil rights, civil disobedience, and the war in Viet Nam.

When the case first went to court, few outside observers thought very much of the churches’ chances. As Edward B. Fiske of the New York Times has pointed out, the most important legal precedent is an 1871 Supreme Court decision involving Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, which tried to sever ties with its denomination in a dispute over slavery. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parent body. The precedent was set that civil courts accept as binding the judgments of top ecclesiastical judicatories. Those who unite with a national denomination are recognized as giving “implied consent” to its ...

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