One of the United Presbyterian Church's largest congregations has voted to secede from the denomination because of a theological dispute involving a Rockville pastor.
The 3,600-member Ward United Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Mich., a Detroit suburb, voted 2,133 to 5 earlier this week to try to affiliate with another Presbyterian denomination.
The Rev. Bartlett L. Hess, founding pastor of the 12-year-old church, said his gongregation deplores the failure of the national church to censure the National Church Union Presbytery for accepting the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman into its fold.
Kaseman, pastor of the Rockville United Church, drew the fire of theological conservatives 15 months ago during an examination required for all candidates seeking admission to the presbytery. The church is affiliated with both the United Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ; Kaseman is an ordained minister of the latter.
Conservatives charged that Kaseman's answers to questions about the divinity of Christ were evasive and reflected an unsound theology. When he was admitted into the presbytery by a large majority, they appealed the matter to the church's highest court, which ordered a re-examination of the case on procedural, rather than substantive, grounds.
At the second hearing last March, Kaseman repeatedly affirmed his belief in Christ's divinity, but declined to use traditional Presbyterian terminology in expressing his beliefs. He was again accepted into the presbytery, this time by a 165-to-59 vote.
Conservatives in the church, both here and nationally, have continued to criticize Kaseman and the local presbytery's decision to admit him.
In addition, they have again challenged the vote in church courts. A motion to criticize the local presbytery for admitting Kaseman was offered at the church's General Assembly early this month in Detroit. But Stated Clerk William P. Thompson ruled it out of order because the matter was pending in the church court.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, Hess said his congregation, one of the fastest growing in the country, decided to withdraw after studying the scripture. "We feel the divinity of Christ is not a matter of debate," he said. "The refusal to affirm it is a denial of it."
Hess, in a telephone interview, criticized the General Assembly for not passing legislation reaffirming the Presbyterian belief in the divinity of Christ. He said such action was needed, even though the doctrine is spelled out in the church's Book of Confessions, in order to "reassure" church members.
"Our denomination has lost a member every five minutes for the last five years because of this" failure to emphasize Christ's divinity, he said.
Hess said he expected a court fight over the property of Ward Church as a result of the vote to secede. The General Assembly changed church laws earler this month to specify that the property of local congregations is held in trust for the denomination and does not belong to the local church.