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, ...

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