April 2, 2015

Pittsburgh Episcopal Church to Harbor Breakaway Presbyterian Congregation

St. David’s Episcopal Church, in Peters Township, has agreed to allow a Presbyterian group that broke away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) to use its facilities, beginning May 3. St. David’s, a church of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, is located in suburban Pittsburgh, less than a mile away from the former Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church. In 2007, members of Peters Creek voted to leave their denomination for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. After a long legal battle, what is now called Peters Creek Evangelical Church lost its bid to retain the property the church has occupied at 250 Brookwood Road in Venetia, Pennsylvania.

St. David’s Episcopal Church
St. David’s Episcopal Church
The arrangement between Peters Creek and St. David’s is described in a March 26 story in The Almanac, a weekly community newspaper. According to The Almanac, litigation resulted in a determination that the Washington Presbytery, not the Peters Creek Church, should control the property on Brookwood Road.

The Peters Creek congregation was in court to gain clear title to the church’s property even before the November 4, 2007, vote to disaffiliate from PCUSA. The breakaway group achieved early legal victories, but Commonwealth Court nullified these on April 30, 2014, and determined that church property had to remain with PCUSA. An appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was denied on October 29, 2014, and final judgment was rendered by the Washington County Court of Common Pleas on December 2, 2014. (See the Washington Observer-Reporter story of December 9, 2014.) That decision left the breakaway group in the Brookwood Road building. Peters Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church was required to pay $3,000 monthly rent to the presbytery, retroactive to October 29, and negotiate a final settlement. (The Commonwealth Court decision of April 30, 2014, nicely summarizes the complex litigation involving Peters Creek.)

The Web site of Peters Creek Evangelical Church currently carries this notice on its home page:
 The congregation of Peters Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church (PCEPC) in Peters Township, overwhelmingly voted on Sunday, March 22 to vacate the property at 250 Brookwood Road, Venetia, which they are currently leasing from the PC(USA)’s Washington Presbytery. The congregation has given the Washington Presbytery the 30 days advance notice required to leave the property. The last Sunday service of PCEPC at this location will be held on April 26 with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  This service will mark the end of 220 years of continuous worship at this location. PCEPC invites the community to join them for Easter Sunday services at their current location, 250 Brookwood Road, Venetia, on April 5 at 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. An Easter Family Celebration with Children’s egg hunt will take place at 9:45 a.m. Beginning Sunday, May 3, the congregation of the PCEPC will meet in the Parish Hall of St. David’s Episcopal Church, 905 East McMurray Road in Venetia. Sunday School for all ages will be held at 9:45 a.m., followed by worship at 11:00 a.m.

The community is invited to join us in glorifying God by joyfully following Christ according to Scripture!
Although the story in The Almanac was likely a surprise to most Pittsburgh Episcopalians, Priest-in-Charge Kris McInnes wrote to the St. David’s congregation in the church’s Winter 2015 newsletter. A front page story titled “An Unlikely Partnership” dealt with the plan to host the Peters Creek congregation and noted that the arrangement would be discussed at the annual meeting on February 8. McInnes noted that any sharing of facilities can involve conflicts. He then addressed the elephant in the room:
In addition to the practical and logistical concerns are the political ones. This is a congregation that decided because of the trajectory of their denomination and its practices, they could no longer be a part of the PCUSA. They left to join a more traditional and evangelical denomination. This is exactly what happened here at St. David’s seven years ago which led to 90% of our congregation leaving to start a new church in a new denomination.
(The entire four-page newsletter can be read here on the St. David’s Web site. The two pages containing the article extracted from the newsletter is here.)

The irony of the St. David’s–Peters Creek arrangement is obviously not lost on Priest-in-Charge Kris McInnes. The departure of the Peters Creek congregation from PCUSA is remarkably similar to the departure of the majority of parishes from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh in October 2008. “Liberal” trends in the parent church were cited as justification for disaffiliation, and resolution of property ownership was sought through civil courts. In the local Episcopal case, the battle has so far been fought at the judicatory level, rather than at the level of individual churches, but the relationship of churches to the parent denomination are similar in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.

Prior to the diocesan schism, St. David’s was led by the Rev. David Wilson, one of then Bishop Duncan’s most ardent partisans. When the courts awarded diocesan-held property to the faithful Episcopalians, the diocese’s Board of Trustees held the deed to the St. David’s property. The Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh congregation eventually left the property, no doubt encouraged by a crippling mortgage payment. Since Pentecost 2012, St. David’s has slowly been rebuilding an Episcopal Church congregation.

The question one has to ask, I think, is why should an Episcopal parish, particularly one so harmed by militant conservatives, aid schism in another denomination. McInnes says that St. David’s should “warmly welcome all,” but, in so doing, is the church encouraging disunity in PCUSA? How much was the decision to welcome the Peters Creek congregation influenced by the rent to be paid to St. David’s. (Final financial arrangements are still being negotiated.)

McInnes wisely consulted Bishop Dorsey McConnell before pursuing an arrangement with the breakaway Presbyterians. The bishop apparently left the decision to St. David’s. I have not been able to determine whether the diocesan chancellor was consulted on the matter, but it appears that the Standing Committee was not. The Pittsburgh diocese has not yet resolved property issues with a number of its own breakaway congregations, and it is unclear whether the action by St. David’s in any way affects negotiations with what are now Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh congregations.

In the courts, many denominations have supported The Episcopal Church in property disputes. Should we not offer mutual support on the ground? I believe that the action of St. David’s is aiding and abetting schism in PCUSA. For the benefit of The Episcopal Church and for what little church unity can be found in the world, I believe we should not be doing that.

2 comments:

  1. It is rather ironic, however, having Muslims worship in TEC churches is great, welcoming and inclusive, but allowing conservatives to rent the building is just horrid? Maybe they do need someone to pay the mortgage. It is also a way to prove that the church doesn't hate all conservatives and perhaps convince some people to come back(or get some of the Presbyterians to join).

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  2. Thanks, Lionel, for alerting me to what has happened. I would certainly encourage St. David’s and all Episcopal churches, to welcome the disaffected parishioners of Peters Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church as new members. However, what appears to be happening here is that St. David’s is entering into a business arrangement as landlord and the former Presbyterian congregation as tenant. Not such an uncommon relationship in this time of “realignment”. In fact the PCUSA has this relationship with the break-away congregation now. And I see the irony that, with this move, the breakaway congregation will be (presumably) helping St. David’s financially after the former Anglican congregation walked away from their obligations.

    It is an interesting coincidence that this is coming to light as the nation considers the “Religious Freedom” laws. The question seems to be at what point are religious beliefs allowed to intrude on the rights of others not to be discriminated against.

    Churches have an exceptional situation in that they are already allowed to intentionally discriminate in a way that would be illegal in the secular world at least with regard to hiring. Are churches also entitled to decide who may and may not use their property on the basis of conformity of belief?

    There is a slippery slope here. Presumably no such arrangement would be considered between St. David’s and the wiccans or atheists. However I believe that there would probably not be a problem welcoming a Catholic congregation that has broken away over the issue of female clergy.

    So where is the line drawn? I make the distinction between two churches not having similar beliefs, OK as long as there is no interference and a climate of mutual respect exists, and one church disparaging the beliefs of the other – holding the differences in contempt to the degree that they are uncomfortable being in the same building. Such was the relationship between of Peters Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church and PCUSA. The hazard is that anyone would think that the breakaway congregation is now convening at St. David’s because they share common views.

    I think I know Kris McInnes well enough to say that he is acting on only the most generous of motives. He has acknowledged the difficulty of the perceptions of the situation. I also think our Bishop, who wasn’t here during the late unpleasantness, would have been wise to hold off on arrangements such as this unless and until our own property affairs are put in order.

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