Winner take all contests over a congregation’s property legacy leave deep and lasting wounds and divisions. But the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) has a precedent that could open the way to a better future.

By Paul Johnston.

Years ago, while working in the United States, I was carpooling to a meeting with a long-time Presbyterian pastor. As we drove through a little town, I noticed a Presbyterian Church on the main street. “I didn’t know we had a congregation in this town,” I said.

We don’t,” my colleague replied angrily. “That’s the church the courts let those people steal from us.” It was the introduction to a passionate recounting of how, despite the Presbytery’s best instructional efforts, the presiding judge had no clue about what it meant to live in a covenanted community, about the need to trust how the Spirit worked in church councils, and about the importance of submitting to those councils. The secular court, oblivious to those important spiritual truths, had allowed “the schismatics” to take the church’s property. And years later, he was not the only Presbytery leader still angry about that.

In the 30 years I spent in US Presbyterianism, I watched the splits that formed the PCA and the EPC. And I saw the bitter feelings those splits produced in people who remained in the PSUSA. And most often the key to lingering bitterness was a fight about property.

It simply seems just for the patrimony to belong to the legitimate heirs. It simply seems reasonable that if the legitimate heirs don’t receive the inheritance, something unjust has happened. In many ways they’re “just buildings.” But they also represent more than bricks and mortar.

The church is the people. But those people serve and share the grace of Jesus Christ in particular places. Church buildings hold memories of times when the grace of Christ became a powerful reality as people proclaimed and received the love of Jesus. They are tangible reminders of the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars people gave in Christ’s service. They’re visible expressions of a spiritual heritage.

So in times of conflict, property became a way of marking the legitimate heirs, distinguishing them from those who came to deceive and defraud God’s people. Those who kept the inheritance took comfort in the recognition of their status as heirs. Those who lost it lamented the injustice.

On another occasion, I was driving through a city with another colleague. We passed another church where people fought over who were the legitimate heirs of the property. My passenger’s family was one of the ones forced out of the congregation. As we passed the building, I learned my colleague’s history with that place, a story that concluded with the lament, “My parents gave their lives to care for that building, and it would kill them to hear what’s being taught there now.”

It is hard for the winners of these conflicts to appreciate just how deeply people feel the loss of their heritage.

How deep do these wounds go? Princeton Theological Seminary is a solidly mainline PCUSA institution, but its ecumenical partnerships give it strong ties to the broader Christian community. Visitors from most every Christian tradition have been welcomed and honoured there with no hint of controversy. But an honour for Timothy Keller proved controversial because he’s a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. Or, as some PCUSA leaders would quickly add, the schismatic Presbyterian Church in America.

Memories of the church union controversy of 1925 linger in the PCC, and many of us remember how deeply wounding these conflicts can be, and how long those wounds can abide. We have good reason to want to find a better way to deal with these conflicts. As many Christian traditions face these conflicts in this generation, a case in the PCC does suggest a way to minimize the divisiveness of these conflicts.

The congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Lachine, Quebec, wanted to call an openly gay minister as their pastor. After an emotionally intense court process, that call was ruled in violation of church standards and not allowed to go forward. The congregation chose to leave the PCC rather than lose their choice as pastor. Consequently, they had to walk away from the place where for years they had shared and experienced Christ’s grace. The congregation faced the challenge of renting or building a new place for ministry.

The Presbytery had a building without a congregation. St. Andrew’s Lachine was a congregation without a place of ministry. Creative minds stepped outside the box and found a creative solution. The congregation was invited to lease the building from the denomination for a nominal yearly rent of $1. Was everyone happy with this compromise? No. But surely this is close to a win-win solution to the conflict. The denomination’s standards were upheld. The congregation’s ministry continued with minimal additional disruption.

A few years later, the Lachine congregation’s ministry came to a natural close and the building was eventually sold. The congregation merged with another which gave their ministry a new form. It was not stopped precipitously by a property conflict.

Jesus prayed that His people would be one family. That family has many different denominations, each bringing its own gifts to the work of building His kingdom. Sometimes, they work beside each other in their respective ministries; sometimes, they work together on joint projects. The ability to be partners as brothers and sisters in Christ’s service is one of the gifts of the 20th century ecumenical movement.

But sharp “winner take all” conflicts over church property leave deep wounds that make that kind of mutual recognition difficult. The kind of creative thinking that the Presbyterian Church showed in the Lachine case could lower the temperature of the conflict. It’s a way to agree to disagree, to finesse the question of who the true and legitimate heir is. It offers hope that we can emerge from this with some sense we are still one family, even if we’re not one organization.

Paul JohnstonPaul Johnston is Associate for English Ministry at Markham Chinese Presbyterian Church, Markham, Ontario. He was born in Toronto, Ontario, was baptized at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Whitby, Ontario, and spent his early years in Scarborough (not far from Markham). After his family moved to the USA, Paul attended university and graduate school in Chicago. Ordained in the PCUSA, he served congregations in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Hearing a call to “come home”, he transferred to the PCC and served in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, before moving to Markham in 2015. He is married to the Rev. Carey Jo Johnston, who works in literacy missions; their son attends university.