Wednesday, September 23, 2009

News That Has a Familiar Ring

Today I was reading about the Vietnamese government declaring that "all properties in Vietnam belong to the country and the government." Anything the Vatican previously owned that has been confiscated by the decree of the government of Vietnam ostensibly belongs to that government.

The Prime Minister is attributed as saying that "all the property claims [by the Roman Catholic Church against the government of Vietnam] have to be carried out according to the law" and "the property claims of the Vatican go against the Vietnamese constitution and the law." Thus by legal decree, the property of the churches has been unilaterally confiscated from the congregations and made the property of the state.

We in religiously free states believe that such confiscation of religious property is an outrage, a miscarrige of justice, a greedy grab by the powerful from the powerless.

But the funny thing is, this situation in Vietnam sounds so altogether familiar to Presbyterians! The declaration and the arguments sound like something we've heard within our denomination.

By a decree of the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) claims to own all congregational properties. Each congregation--which purchased the property, built the buildings, pays for maintenance and upkeep, and pays the utility bills--did not assent to the property grab by the denomination. Each congregation did not begin any legal action to place its property in denominational control, while maintaining all the costs and liabilities locally. Like the Catholic Church in Vietnam, each congregation had this situation imposed on it by a higher authority with all the apparent power and none of the right to do so.

It ain't fair in Vietnam. And it ain't fair in our country either. Someone else cannot just declare one's property to belong to another authority altogether.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Dan Thayer said...

I have firsthand experience of the church in Vietnam. Many pastors there have spent time in prison. Churches without official government approval are not allowed to exist, so they meet secretly in houses. Evangelism is illegal.

It is an utter disgrace to suggest that our intra-nicene dispute over property is equivalent to the persecution that our brothers and sisters face.

There has been no "property grab" or coercion in the PCUSA. Congregations voluntarily incorporated or associated with the denomination. The rules governing property have been set by a representative body. Actions against individual congregations that try to leave are also taken by a representative body. In any case, the most that is at stake is a piece of property.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people have no representation and no religious freedom. Vietnamese Christians risk far more than loss of property for following Christ. We could learn a lot from them about faithfulness to the Gospel.

In Christ,
Rev. Dan Thayer
1st Presbyterian Church,
Crescent City, FL

8:34 AM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Presbyman said...

I agree with Jim that our denomination's property trust clause is highly undesirable ... perhaps even unjust. But I also agree with Dan that there is no legitimate comparison between the situation of Christians in Vietnam and in the PC(USA).

John Erthein
Erie, PA

8:41 AM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Thank you, Dan and John, for commenting. It's good to know that someone is out there reading this stuff!

Please know that I am NOT saying that the situation of Presbyterian congregations in the U.S. is totally equivalent to the dire situation of Christians in Vietnam. No way! Our slight momentary "affliction" is nothing, compared to what those Vietnamese believers have to endure. May God give them the courage and faith to endure danger and injustice!

But my analogy was not comparing our experience with theirs. My analogy compares how those in power have acted in much the same way and how, when challenged, they have resorted to pretty much the same excuses. If you substitute "PCUSA" for "Vietnamese government," and substitute "Stated Clerk" for "Prime Minister," the news article could pretty much read like a Presbyterian News Service story about some PCUSA congregation wanting to become EPC.

The CHURCH (in Vietnam and in the PCUSA) has never delivered its deed in trust to the powerful authority. Instead, the body with the power has DECLARED that the church's property belongs to it and not to the congregation.

When challenged, the powerful authority (the Vietnamese government and the PCUSA hierarchy) says that it is only following the constitution--something unjust in its confiscation of another's property.

Remember, my article is only an ANALOGY. The PCUSA actions and defense are surprisingly analogous to the Vietnamese government's actions and defense of those actions. That's why I title the blog entry, "News That Has a Familiar Ring." I was simply struck by how similar the Vietnamese actions and response were to what the PCUSA has done and said as a denomination. That's all.

There are degrees of culpability and certainly degrees of injury. What the PCUSA has done is not as starkly culpable or as distinctly injurious as what the Vietnamese government has done. It is similar--analogous--but not identical.

Let's keep that in mind in any further discussion of the simple point that "Hey, there are some similarities here!"

Jim Berkley
Seattle, WA

10:39 AM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Dan Thayer said...

Jim,

I did not think you believed that the situations in Vietnam and the PCUSA were exactly equivalent. The wording of my comment may have suggested that, and for that I apologize. However, for the reasons I outlined above, I think suggesting any level of equivalence is problematic. Because the distance between the two situations is so great, I think the comparison tends to trivialize the plight of persecuted Christians. Perhaps if you substitute some of the names, the situations sound similar on a superficial level. Nevertheless, the situations are not, in fact, similar.

Maybe the stipulation that church property is held in trust by the denomination is unjust. I'm skeptical, but I think reasonable people can disagree about that. Probably some of the actions taken against congregations have been unfair, or at least not nice. But even conceding all that, there are many problems with the comparison: 1) The power of a denomination is nothing like the power of a totalitarian government.
2) All congregations have a voice in our government and thus bear some responsibility for the rules and leaders in place.
3) Opposition to congregations leaving cannot be equated to opposition to the Gospel. Some people on the PC(USA) side are seeking to act in faithfulness to Christ, but disagree about what that looks like.
4) Congregations actually have quite a bit of power in the situation, too, as seen in court battles.

11:38 AM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Dan,

Analogous, not identical. Analogous, not exactly the same.

You argue as if I am saying the situations are identical. I'm not. They're not.

I am saying they have some similarities. Obviously there are nonsimilarities, and you make a good point about that, too.

The ability to understand one thing in light of another is like being able to understand poetry instead of straight prose, to think a taste can be like a color, to comprenhend mountains clapping their hands.

Please don't force an analogy into something it isn't.

Jim Berkley
Seattle, WA

12:06 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Kattie W. Coon said...

“a greedy grab by the powerful from the powerless.”

Hmm... So in the case of the PC(USA), are you trying to make the analogy that the Denomination is like the "powerful", and the Congregations are like the "powerless"?

That seems to be a rather strange comparison to me. So many of the congregations that wanted to leave our denomination (with the property held in trust for the Presbytery) actually had significantly more funding available for court proceedings than their Presbytery did, that it makes your "analogy" look rather silly. A couple of cases in point are Kirk of the Hills PC vs. the EOP and Central PC vs. NAP. What I see are relatively small congregations placing Presbyteries in financial distress and diverting large sums of money away from mission outreach.

“But the funny thing is, this situation in Vietnam sounds so altogether familiar to Presbyterians! The declaration and the arguments sound like something we've heard within our denomination.”

It certainly doesn’t sound familiar to this Presbyterian, and the arguments are so not like what we’ve heard within our denomination.

Some try (only) to make the case that properties, before the 1983 reunification, belonged to the congregations and could be claimed by them it they chose to leave the denomination. It is true that explicit “trust” language didn’t exist in the books of order until about that point in time, but prior to that it was still understood (explicitly in the Southern Branch) that congregations departing the denomination could not (according to church polity) take the property with them. This was a very long standing understanding in the Presbyterian Church. The “trust” language was introduced in order to give the prior understanding more legal teeth because congregations were violating the polity and going to civil court.

Kattie,
Huntsville,Al

3:41 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Kattie,

If a blog is written in a forest and you don't read (and dispute) that posting, is it still wrong? You are as predictable as sunrise: If I write, you dispute.

No congregation forces a presbytery into spending bundles of money in court over property. Any presbytery could wish the congregation well, pray that it remains an effective witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, and send it on its way into another part of the Body of Christ with its warmest blessings.

Only a grasping, acquisitive presbytery has to throw the entire operation into a "hold on to the property at any cost" game, squandering tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars disputing property ownership in courts, as the lawyers count their gain. Why must a presbytery hold on at any cost? Why not be gracious?

And remember, the presbytery and/or General Assembly is wasting per capita money from everyone to fight the court battle, whether the various church members and congregations whose money is being used want it to or not. In fact, it is even using part of the departing congregation's per capita to fight the congregation. How about that: "I'll use your money to fight you in court, sucker!"?

The congregations, on the other hand, have to use their own money and only their money to try to preserve for congregational ministry the very assets the congregation has provided, maintained, and financed over the years, but now someone else is claiming as theirs.

So don't give me any song and dance about big, mean congregations ganging up on poor little presbyteries and the denomination as a whole! Congregations once joined together into presbyteries and the denomination in order to ostensibly do ministry better. If that turns out not to be the case, why not bless one another and go separate ways, in order to do ministry better? The denomination grasping at congregational assets is a miserable shame!

Now, with all that said, I would much prefer to stick together, rather than split. I'm not planning on going anywhere and leaving a once-grand denomination in the wrong hands for many wrong purposes.

But for those who must leave, must we squander presbytery resources to see if we can bankrupt a thriving congregation that doesn't care to associate with the PCUSA anymore? Whatever would make a denomination descend to such petty and venal pursuits?

Jim Berkley
Seattle, WA

7:18 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Dave Moody said...

"Whatever would make a denomination descend to such petty and venal pursuits?"

Stupid people too obtuse to think analogically...

Dave Moody
S. IL

7:44 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Kattie W. Coon said...

“it is even using part of the departing congregation's per capita to fight the congregation. How about that: "I'll use your money to fight you in court, sucker!"?”

Well Jim, I wonder how many of those congregations were actually paying per capita. I know for a fact that Central PC in Huntsville Al wasn’t. The Layman and other right wing nut organizations have been encouraging congregations not to pay per capita, which ultimately places a strain on a Presbytery’s mission budget.

So let me get this straight. You are suggesting that the Presbyteries should just roll over when they are sued by a congregation (instead of requesting dismissal with the property)? Who is being the bully here?

Now, before you try to argue (falsely) that the congregations did request dismissal before filing law suits, I will point out that this has clearly been the exception and not the rule. In fact, the idea of requesting dismissal before filing a property law suit goes against the expressed, written guidelines set down by the NWAC in the “NWAC Papers” (developed by a strategy team chaired by the Rev. Dr. Randy Jenkins of Central PC, Huntsville). It’s odd how many followed that deceptive “NWAC Papers” scheme to the letter, including Central PC, Huntsville.

Kattie,
Huntsville, Al

8:32 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Dave,

How about people who have forgotten their first love of Jesus Christ and have brushed off their Great Commission to make disciples, and now about all that is left for them to do is to divert the resources of actual believers (past and present) to do socio-political activism--such as supportng ACORN?

Heck, a departing church could produce enough income from the sale of its confiscated church building now emptied of ministry to fund a whole lot of political tomfoolery! Why waste good organizational assets on local ministry, when they can be grabbed to fund spurious activities very few thriving congregations actually want to fund?

The denominational hierarchy can keep feeding off of slaughtered sheep for some time, just by getting lucky in the courts now and then in order to have some congregation's assets handed over to the bureaucracy. So what that it diminishes the flock and is contrary to the propagation of the Gospel? It feeds the beast in the short term.

That's cynicism speaking. But I'm not far from the reality of the matter. Theological liberalism's political activism can exist only as a parasite, because it does not have the social strength to support itself. It requires the involuntary funding of a more thriving evangelical church.

What a plan: Kill those triving evangelical churches and suck their assets dry to fund denominational misdeeds that further fracture and dispirit the remaining church, producing more church properties to seize! It could be lucrative and self-funding for a heartless leadership.

Jim Berkley
Seattle, WA

8:50 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

Kattie,

You turn happenings on their head!

Suppose Church A is considering being faithful to Christ in another fine denomination. It tells its presbytery that it is considering departing. What happens?

An administrative commission. The pastor is portrayed as the Devil incarnate. The session is removed. The church is taken over by the administrative commission seeking original jurisdiction. The pastor is told he/she cannot communicate with parishioners and/or is defrocked. The church buildings are rekeyed. The tiny fraction of the congregation that thinks this is cool is named the "true church." The work of the vast majority is snuffed out, unless it decides to go offsite and start all over again. The presbytery walks away as the owner of the congregation's assets, lock, stock, and barrel.

Such outrageous demonstrations of raw presbytery power have caused some churches to act in a manner to preempt such presbytery action.

Can a session form an administrative commission, sack the presbytery leadership, and take over presbytery's matters? No. Of course not. But a presbytery can do that to a congregation and its leaders.

So, who exactly has the big stick to wave as a bully? The presbytery, of course--funded and coached, we cannot forget, by the Office of the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA. Associate Stated Clerk Mark Tammen can take the blame for ratcheting up the adversarial nature of the whole process by compiling and promoting what has been known as the Louisville Papers--absolutely ruthless and disgusting advice to presbyteries to go for the jugular in court proceedings.

If congregations could say to presbyteries, "Look, friends, this just isn't working out. You and we would both be happier if we were to associate with denomination XYZ, don't you think?" and wouldn't be jeopardized and penalized, that would be the standard way to deal with such matters. However, Mark Tammen has made certain that such adult and reasonable dealings will not be countenanced on his watch. It is a crying shame.

Jim Berkley
Seattle, WA

9:17 PM, September 24, 2009  
Blogger Kattie W. Coon said...

“So, who exactly has the big stick to wave as a bully? The presbytery, of course--funded and coached, we cannot forget, by the Office of the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA.”

You are kidding, right? What funding have the Presbyteries gotten? I know the NAP got nothing but loans from nearby Presbyteries that they later paid back. And as for coaching, the schismatics have been getting more than their share of that. Just read the NWAC Papers to see the detailed operational strategy they lay out. The “Louisville Papers” contain nothing like the kind of directives given in the NWAC’s monstrous 350 page strategy abomination.

“absolutely ruthless and disgusting advice to presbyteries…”

Jim, would you be so kind as to document this ruthless and disgusting advice? We could compare it to the lies the NWAC Papers encourage congregations to tell their Presbyteries (and others).

For those not interested in actually reading the so called “Louisville Papers”; these documents don’t recommend doing anything other than following the constitutional process, and they never recommend taking a church to civil court. This is unlike the “NWAC Papers” that does recommend civil court action rather than run the course of denominational courts (I guess they think timing trumps vows). It also suggests lying about future plans of disaffiliation while trying to acquire the property.

“However, Mark Tammen has made certain that such adult and reasonable dealings will not be countenanced on his watch.”

Really? How many congregations have actually tried? I think it is certainly reasonable to expect congregational leaders to be willing to uphold the Constitution and their vows, and submit to the Church Court system when there’s a dispute.

Kattie
Huntsville, Al

1:51 PM, September 25, 2009  
Blogger Presbyman said...

Here's a more encouraging approach from the Presbytery of San Francisco:

http://www.layman.org/news.aspx?article=26422

John Erthein
Erie, PA

2:58 PM, September 30, 2009  
Blogger Jim said...

John,

Thanks. That IS good news. It sounds so adult, compared to some of the other wranglings. I hope it proves in use to be as workable as it seems on paper. Actually, I hope it doesn't need to be used at all, because congregations remain to work for denominational integrity.

It will be interesting to see how the denomination and other parties respond to the measure. Will Louisville make it a model of how to do things? Or will it charge the presbytery with giving away the ranch? I seem to remember other presbyteries seeking to be generous and mature, and their getting slapped with remedial actions--such as Sacramento Presbytery.

It would sure be a shame if this decent model brings denominational grief to the presbytery, because the denomination wants to hold on to congregational property at all costs!

Jim Berkley
Seattle, WA

3:39 PM, September 30, 2009  
Blogger Presbyman said...

Jim,

Sadly, it could happen that someone would try to disrupt this reasonable agreement. I hope that will not happen and that San Francisco can show all of us the way forward IF more congregations feel called to leave the denomination. Like you, I think the better path is to stay and witness.

John Erthein
Erie, PA

2:15 PM, October 02, 2009  
Blogger Pastor Bob said...

A couple of historical notes:

1. When the PCUS and the UPCUSA united in 1983 congregations from the former PCUS were given a period of time to leave the new denomination with their property. I have seen suggested, but am not certain, that those congregations were also allowed to declare that they own their property and not the denomination.

2. The trust clause was put in the Form of Government after the US Supreme Court reversed a previous ruling (I think from the 1870s but would have to look it up) that said denominations could only hold property in trust if there was a trust clause in the denomination's constitution. Thus the present trust clause.

There are presbyteries out there that are working things out with congregations that want to leave. There are other presbyteries that slap the locks on and replace the session with an AC. Sometimes congregations file suits when an arrangement could have been made with the presbytery. And then there is Southern Louisiana Presbytery that was instructed to spend money on a lawsuit by the Synod of the Sun.

Alas the Church is still inhabited by sinful humans.

8:00 PM, December 07, 2009  

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