Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The property of words

Well, it looks like a couple of California courts may need to get their heads together. One court says that a Methodist congregation can revoke the trust agreement with the denomination and retain their property as they become independent of the denomination. Another court has now said that the trust agreement is irrevocable in a case involving a Presbyterian congregation.

So, courts, which is it to be? Is the Methodist trust agreement substantially different from the Presbyterian trust agreement, so that a Methodist congregation may revoke its agreement, but a Presbyterian congregation can’t? Or do we just have courts that don’t agree on a fundamental point of law? That one, it appears, will need to be settled by a higher court.

[Later addition on 3/10: A report in Layman Online clarifies that this second court has NOT yet ruled on the main issue itself. While the OGA report left that impression, it was actually reporting on some preliminary aspects of the case. So maybe it's only a single judge who personally disagrees with the Methodist decision, not the court.]

But no matter how one feels about the merits of the given cases, it is interesting how the case was reported in the release by the Office of General Assembly (OGA). The OGA has a genuine interest in defending the denomination’s ownership of property, as stated in the Book of Order: “All property … is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (G-8.0201). Their job is to uphold the Constitution.

Yes, but there are ways and there are ways.

It seems that that job could be done by OGA without labeling the departing church members “a break-off fragment of the Serone Church.” “A break-off fragment”—that may be just a little too depersonalizing and dismissive a term to use six times in the short article.

One writer’s “break-off fragment” might be another writer’s “faithful group of committed Christians.” It all depends on one’s perspective, and the impression the writer is attempting to leave in the reader’s mind. It is far easier to be harsh and possessive concerning some “break-off fragment” than it is to act the same way toward “brothers and sisters in Christ” who happen to hold a contrary opinion.

But then, it appears that the congregation may be overreacting more than slightly, with talk of “using armed guards.” Would the church really be willing to shoot someone from the presbytery coming by to look at their books or change locks?

Surely that would be excessive, but so too, to a much lesser degree, might be the way OGA depicted the intent as “using armed guards to bar any person from attending services except those chosen by the faction.” Is that really the fairest explanation of the church’s intent?

I think my vote would go toward the attitude of The Rev. Christopher Pae, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Hanmi, who put it this way: “We are concerned about the spiritual well-being of the Serone Church congregants at this time of turmoil within their church. We will continue to pray and work for reconciliation among them.” Note that they are a congregation worth praying for, a people worth reconciling with—not just “a break-off fragment” to diminish in print and crush in court.

My prayers are with the people of Serone Church, Hanmi Presbytery, the courts of California, and the Office of General Assembly, that all might act with the wisdom, generosity, and grace of Jesus Christ in this matter.


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