A mailman in Macon, Georgia, has to know his Presbyterian churches. Otherwise, he might deliver mail to the wrong Vineville Presbyterian Church. There have been two churches by that name in Macon for the past six years—the result of a church split.

But what was once only a matter of local confusion, now has attracted the concern of several mainline Protestant denominations as well as Roman Catholic and Orthodox bodies. At stake is the question: Who owns the church property of a local congregation—the congregation or the parent body?

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving the Vineville church seemed to cast a vote on the side of the local congregation. For that reason, at least one group—the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.—rang its alarm bells. At a hastily called meeting on September 16, the church’s Missions Council voted whether to convene a first ever special General Assembly.

If called, the General Assembly would consider an amendment to the church constitution that would clearly specify that local church property is held in trust for the entire denomination.

For more than a century, the bodies merged into the UPCUSA, often called the Northern Presbyterians, have operated on the principle that property is held in trust for the parent body. This policy evolved primarily from an 1871 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Watson vs. Jones, which said that decisions of church courts were final in cases involving “connectional” churches.

However, in its July 2 ruling involving the Vineville church, Jones vs. Wolf, the high court said that if “religious societies” want local church property to revert to the denomination in the event of a congregational schism, they can either write such provisions into their constitutions, or local congregations can write such provisions into their local charters.

Specifically, in its 5–4 majority ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court gave state courts the freedom to decide church property ownership cases on secular considerations when the denomination’s constitutional provisions are not specific. The court said. “We cannot agree that the First Amendment requires the states to adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authority in resolving church property disputes.”

In effect, the Supreme Court upheld its 1970 ruling involving two Savannah, Georgia, churches. This case was decided on the basis of “neutral principles of law,” rather than on the denomination’s doctrine, theology, or arbitrary decision.

This and the most recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling involved the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), often called the Southern Presbyterians, which is the reason some observers question why the UPCUSA, and not the PCUS, reacted hastily to the Supreme Court ruling.

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UPCUSA stated clerk William Thompson told the Denver Post that the ruling posed “troublesome questions” for his denomination since the Northern and Southern Presbyterians have similar constitutions. Each body operates under the “implied trust” theory, which only assumes that denominations control congregational property.

Thompson told the Post there have been perhaps six property cases involving United Presbyterian congregations, but that “you never know” when others might surface.

One Presbyterian observer wondered if UPCUSA officials are worried about certain congregations’ dismay over a ruling passed by the General Assembly last spring. The measure, which met approval of 79 of the 152 presbyteries, requires local congregations to give “fair representation” to women, youth, and ethnic minorities, when electing deacons and elders. Some conservatives opposed this ruling as placing physicial characteristics before spiritual ones in the election process. There have been rumblings that some local congregations would rather pull out of the UPCUSA than abide by the ruling.

The Southern Presbyterians at press time had announced no plans for a special assembly. Commenting about the assembly vote by the northern body, PCUS news director Marj Carpenter said, “They’re trying to shut the bam door before their horses get out; ours have already gotten out.”

PCUS lawyers and the denomination’s property committee discussed the implications of the Vineville decision soon after it was announced. And the property committee said it would withhold recommendations pending the outcome of a church property case involving Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

That case since has been decided—and not as the PCUS wanted. By unanimous decision last month, the Alabama State Supreme Court awarded the $2 million Trinity property to the majority of the congregation that withdrew from the Southern body to join the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

The decision implied that the simple identification of a church as Presbyterian does not establish the denomination’s claim to local church property.

The southern body has experienced numerous church splits and resulting property disputes in recent years. Scores of PCUS congregations abandoned their parent body in 1973 in favor of the newly-formed, more conservative, PCA. Some of these congregations reportedly paid money in various amounts to the PCUS for their “freedom.”

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Unlike the larger UPCUSA and PCUS, the rapidly growing PCA specifically disavows in its constitution any claim or interest in property belonging to member congregations. Several smaller Presbyterian bodies—a total of seven in the United States—give similar autonomy to member congregations.

G. Aiken Taylor, editor of the independent weekly The Presbyterian Journal, pointed this out in his written brief, which was presented during the Vineville deliberations by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices were surprised, Taylor said, when “I pointed out that the word Presbyterian doesn’t automatically carry with it a hierarchical philosophy of property ownership.”

Meanwhile, back in Macon, the issues are unresolved. Six years have passed since a majority of the Vineville congregation voted to withdraw from the parent PCUS to join the PCA. (About two dozen other PCUS congregations in that area simultaneously left the denomination for the PCA, said Taylor.)

Georgia state courts again must judge whether the Vineville majority has a rightful claim to the church’s property. The state supreme court earlier had ruled that the withdrawing majority did, in fact, own the property according to state law. That ruling prompted the appeal which led to the recent Surpreme Court ruling.

After its August recess, the state supreme court would consider whether to put the Vineville case back onto its docket. Observers say the case likely will return to the U.S. Supreme Court, regardless of how the state court rules.

The minority of the Vineville congregation that remained loyal to the PCUS continues worshiping under the name Vineville Presbyterian Church—but with a “U.S.” added. “You can imagine how this creates confusion with the other Vineville church,” said Spencer C. Murray, pastor of the 110-member congregation, which has been meeting on the Wesleyan College campus.

The PCUS loyal had asked their presbytery for a change of names, said Murray. However, the denomination’s lawyers told them to wait until the court dispute is settled. Murray said his congregation has “moved beyond the emotional issues of 1973,” although there are “still some scars.”

Murray, like certain other PCUS and UPCUSA officials, says property value has little to do with the dispute. More important, they say, is use of church property and the denomination’s principles of government.

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United Presbyterian information officer Vic Jameson said “the symbolic unity” of his denomination is involved. Murray, of the Southern Presbyterians, said, “It is my feeling that a congregation does not have absolute sovereignty.

Vineville Presbyterian Church—PCA branch—would disagree. The church is one of the “fastest growing in the PCA,” said Taylor, the immediate past moderator of the denomination. Its 491 members continue meeting on the original church property.

How long they will continue to do so, the courts ultimately will decide.

Homosexual Controversy
Gay Church Music: Litigation, Not Jubilation

A potential landmark case that pits evangelical Christianity against the gay rights movement is under way in a San Francisco municipal court.

On one side is Kevin Walker, a musician in his early 20s who is being represented by Gay Rights Advocates, a San Francisco legal firm that looks after the interests of homosexuals. (San Francisco’s homosexual population exceeds 100,000, according to most estimates.) On the other side are Charles A. McIlhenny, 32, of the First Orthodox Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, the 41 members of his congregation, and the nine-congregation regional body of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. At issue is Article 33 of the San Francisco Municipal Code, an ordinance enacted in April 1978 that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation.

In April 1978, McIlhenny hired Walker, then a music student, as church organist for $10 a week. Church employees are required to be Christians, and McIlhenny recalls that Walker gave an acceptable Christian testimony in a prejob interview. Five months later McIlhenny received a report that Walker was a practicing homosexual.

When the minister confronted him, Walker acknowledged that he is indeed a homosexual. McIlhenny says he read Scripture to Walker, reviewed the church’s position on homosexuality, and asked him to repent. Walker replied that he saw no need to repent. McIlhenny dismissed him as organist because of “the sin of homosexual practice” but invited him to keep attending the church services. “I’ve been wanting to start a ministry to gays,” said the pastor. But Walker never showed up again.

A few months ago, Walker filed a suit against the church, seeking an unspecified amount for general damages and $1,000 in punitive action; he did not ask to be reinstated in his job.

McIlhenny and his congregation, backed by their denomination and other interested evangelical groups, have vowed to fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. They are soliciting financial aid for their Christian Rights Defense Fund. Pretrial depositions were to begin this month.

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In a reply to the Walker suit filed last month, McIlhenny’s lawyer, John Whitehead of Washington, D.C., argued that the complaint conflicts with the U.S. Constitution. He also argued that the city ordinance is not only unconstitutionally vague, but that it also has been preempted by a similar California law that exempts churches.

The only major chink in the defense, according to some observers, is that Walker was never required to become a member of the church—an oversight that technically exempted him from the disciplines of membership. Therefore, the observers say, his only relationship to the church was as an employee in a job that did not require involvement in verbal ministry—seemingly excluding him from the doctrinal standards of those who engage in public ministry. That point is certain to be argued long and hard.


Assemblies Of God

Greater institutionalization coupled with a slowing pace of membership growth were evident as the Assemblies of God celebrated its sixty-fifth anniversary during its biennial general council meetings last month in Baltimore.

While a record 11,662 registered for the convention, Joseph R. Flower, general secretary, stated that church membership in the Assemblies had slowed to a 3.7 percent growth during the last two years, compared to a 14.4 percent growth in the previous biennium. The number of actual conversions dropped by more than 50,000 over the previous period.

On the other hand, the Assemblies have absorbed a steady stream of charismatic clergy from other denominations—largely the results of the denomination’s charismatic liaison committee (and a larger charismatic resource committee). General superintendent Thomas F. Zimmerman said that in the previous two months alone 63 ministers from other denominations have joined the Assemblies of God.

During the council business sessions, there were attempts to shore up the standardization of beliefs among members. A motion to establish a committee for the purity of doctrine—something that had generated considerable opposition in earlier meetings—passed without vocal dissent. Committee members, who will be appointed by the general presbytery, will be scholars in the area of biblical theology. They are expected to counter a younger, more liberal minority, which rejects inerrancy and questions bedrock Assemblies’ beliefs, such as the initial evidence belief about tongues.

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A parallel motion repealed the right of the frocked ministers to trial by jury. Under the adopted ruling, the general presbytery may decide if an appealing minister has the option of such a jury.

Gerald Sheppard, an Assemblies of God professor at Union Theological Seminary, expressed dissatisfaction with these changes, but hopes that older Pentecostals will resist attempts to defy or purge the membership on doctrinal grounds. (The Assemblies was founded on the idea that the movement should not have formal creeds and centralized authority—an idea that has been gradually eroded in recent years.)


Free Methodists
Vetoing a ‘More Equal’ Bishop

Free Methodist Church delegates meet only once every five years. And at their most recent World Convocation last month in Indianapolis, the delegates cast their eyes on the next 10.

Specifically, the five bishops of the Free Methodist Church in North America called their constituents to a simpler lifestyle “consistent with the challenge of the eighties.” Their no-nonsense statement, which many believed to be the strongest pastoral statement ever made by Free Methodist bishops, spoke to all church members: “None, from the least to the greatest, should exempt himself; none should consider this unimportant.”

The bishops also lamented membership growth statistics in their North American churches. They cited an 18 percent membership growth rate in overseas Free Methodist churches during the past five years, and compared that figure to a smaller 7 percent growth rate in the North American churches. (The denomination has 150,000 members worldwide.)

In their pastoral letter, the bishops said “it grieves us” that some North American pastors and churches are “content to exist year after year without new converts.…” Their solution was a reemphasis on clear Bible preaching, the message of holiness, and local church revival meetings.

Perhaps the most controversial action during the convocation involved the bishops themselves. The delegates had considered a resolution calling for the election of an administrative bishop who would oversee the denomination’s headquarters complex in Winona Lake, Indiana. Four of the five Free Methodist bishops now live in Winona Lake (a fifth lives in Canada), and the resolution was intended to free those four to live in their own jurisdictions and do primarily pastoral work.

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However, the presiding bishops opposed the resolution. They charged that such a person would, in effect, become an archbishop with four assistants. Their opposition had a veto effect, and the proposal was voted down. As a result, David L. McKenna, president of Seattle Pacific University and the man whom many hoped would become administrative bishop, became runner-up as delegates turned to the more pastorally oriented Robert F. Andrews. They elected Andrews, who had been speaker and director of the denomination’s radio program, “Light and Life Hour,” to replace retiring Bishop Paul N. Ellis.


The Zone Twilight

A going out of business sale took place last month at the Panama Canal Company commissary in Balboa, the U.S. enclave on the Pacific side of the canal that resembles an affluent Midwest suburb with palm trees. That was the only outward indication of things to come in the Canal Zone. Since its creation nearly 75 years ago, the 533-square-mile Canal Zone has been a tropical “little America”—almost a nation unto itself. But after midnight, September 30, the Canal Zone becomes the territory of the Panamanian government under terms of the Panama Canal treaties, which the U.S. Senate passed last year.

In interviews, several U.S. Zonians worried that Panamanian authorities would be unpredictable, corrupt, and leftist. There would be far more bureaucratic red tape when Panama gains sovereignty over the Zone after a 30-month transition period, they said.

Canal Zone church leaders, who represent nearly every Protestant denomination, also were concerned—especially since the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) was informed recently by its government supervisor that the agency’s 10-year contract with the Panamanian government would not be renewed. The contract with SIL (the overseas designation used by the U.S.-based Wycliffe Bible Translators) expired in June. SIL reportedly was given seven months to phase out its Panamanian work: five teams of translators working among indigenous Indians. SIL director in Panama Robert Gunn blamed “political pressures” from the Panamanian government for the no-renewal decision.

American churchmen in the Canal Zone hoped the Wycliffe situation was not an indication of things to come. But T. M. Schoewe, Lutheran pastor in Balboa, said U.S. churches would have to learn to function under a different governmental system—just as U.S.-based missions agencies have always done in other countries. American Zonians have been sheltered and living in an “unreal situation,” he said, and that now “a lot of people are imagining things are going to be a lot worse than they are.”

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Schoewe and other Canal Zone pastors weren’t waiting idly for October 1, however. They have been attending meetings of the Joint Subcommittee on Nonprofit Organizations, one of 23 binational committees working out various aspects of the Canal Zone transition. The Panamanian government has classed together all nonprofit organizations, both churches and civic groups, and leaders of these groups are worried about excessive regulation from the Panamanian government.

Probably the most immediate concern for Canal Zone churches is financing. The churches now enjoy considerable financial privilege. Many officials of nonprofit organizations receive the same commissary and duty-free buying privileges as Panama Canal Company employees. Churches have been able to license property for a nominal annual fee from the Canal Zone Government.

But after October 1, church staff members begin to live within the Panamanian economy. Churches, suddenly resting on Panamanian land, will pay higher property taxes. Houses that now rent for $200 per month in the Canal Zone might cost nearly $500, said Zone residents.

Interestingly, some Canal Zone churches have benefited from the Zonians’ queasiness. Spencer Bower, pastor of the evangelical Crossroads Bible Church, said the impending transition, if anything, has “enhanced his ministry.” Some persons who previously have felt secure—since most of their physical needs were provided by the Canal Zone system—now are seeking spiritual guidance, he said.

One Crossroads member, Vicki Boatwright, said, “We’re seeing people coming to church now that never came before.” Mrs. Boatwright, editor of the Panama Canal Company weekly newspaper, the Panama Canal Spillway, was aware of U.S. Zonians who have sought spiritual comfort because of the “emotional and mental strain.”

Church involvement has never been particularly strong in the Canal Zone: year-round sports and some of the richest fishing waters in the world tempt potential churchgoers. Frequent Canal Company personnel changes and military reassignments have disrupted the continuity of church membership. One pastor called the social scene in the Zone “a miniature Peyton Place.”

But several churches, such as Crossroads and the long-established Balboa First Baptist, have had an evangelical input in this 50-mile long, 10-mile wide, strip of land surrounding the canal.

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From Panamanian church leaders, the transition may demand an increased sense of ownership and responsibility, one U.S. missions worker said. In the past, he said, some Panamanian churches have leaned on the richer Zone churches for “handouts,” which might end when the U.S. churches become part of the same Panamanian economy.

Nationals operate the only Christian radio station in Panama. The Balboa First Baptist Church began Radio Station HOXO 30 years ago, and later gave the station to World Radio Missionary Fellowship (WRMF) when the ministry became “bigger than it could handle,” said HOXO English programming director Robert Hall. WRMF took the station with the intention of turning it over to national control, and did so at the turn of the decade, said Hall.


North American Scene

Charismatics are uniting within the mainline denominations. United Methodist Renewal Services Fellowship—an unofficial group within the denomination—organized last month the first national conference for United Methodist charismatics, “Aldersgate ’79,” in Louisville. Robert Tuttle, who recently left Fuller Seminary for a teaching post at Oral Roberts University, told the 1,500 participants in an address that they must maintain United Methodist theology in order to avoid splitting the denomination. About 8,000 Lutheran charismatics attended the eighth International Conference on the Holy Spirit last month in Minneapolis. Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod president J.A.O. Preus addressed the group—the first time a president of a major Lutheran body has done so.

A small group of black activists want a letter by Martin Luther King, Jr., added to the Bible. This proposal emerged last month from the annual conference of the Black Theology Project—a three-year-old group of black clergy and laity formed three years ago to develop the theological implications of the Black Power movement. The unconventional group, which claims the support of 1,500 black Christians in its programs, hopes King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” eventually can be the final book in the Bible. King wrote the letter to Birmingham area clergymen to explain his involvement as a minister in a social action campaign. The letter became something of a doctrine for the civil rights cause.

About 1,500 Roman Catholic priests and laypersons attended a three-day National Catholic Celebration of Evangelization. They kicked off a campaign to evangelize the estimated 80 million unchurched Americans, as well as about 12 million “fallen away” Catholics. Churched persons are not targeted within the evangelization effort.

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The first Heart of America Bible Conference had expository preaching and emotional calls to revival, and, for the most part, it avoided the attacks on “liberals” in Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries that characterized the denomination’s annual convention two months earlier. Dallas pastor W. A. Criswell and evangelist James Robison organized the conference—the first of a series to be held nationwide—in which Southern Baptist churchmen will promote biblical inerrancy. The conference last month was held in Saint Louis at Tower Grove Baptist Church; its pastor, Larry Lewis, was one of the most vocal conservatives at the denominational convention in attacking “liberalism” in Southern Baptist seminaries.

The doors of Glen Cove Bible College stayed shut this fall. School officials announced last month that higher operating costs had forced the closing of the Baptist-related school in Rockport, Maine, which had been training pastors since 1959. The most immediate impact will be on area churches, which have relied in the past on Glen Cove graduates for pastoral support.

The upcoming CBS-TV movie “Flesh and Blood” has a scene of implied incest, despite the protests of the mass media watchdog group, National Federation for Decency. A controversial scene, which involves a mother and her son entering a bedroom together, remains in the movie (to be aired next month), which is based on author Pete Hamill’s book by the same name. “I would say you know exactly what’s going on,” said CBS press information officer Jim Sirmans. NFD president and Methodist minister Donald Wildmon says this indicates CBS was “flat-out lying” about the movie. Last May, when NFD-inspired protest letters flooded CBS, audience services director Marjorie Holyoak issued a letter saying the movie “will not, as has been reported in the press, ‘feature a case of incest.’ ”

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