Like a mismatched couple finally reconciled to divorce, the Presbyterian Church of the Atonement and the National Capital Union Presbytery are taking the steps necessary to cut the Silver Spring church loose from the parent denomination "decently and in good order."
Following Atonement's 188-to-25 vote last Sunday to secede from both the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in The U.S., the Presbytery this week elected a six-person committee to negotiate an orderly exit for the dissident congregation.
The theologically conservative 355-member Atonement congregation voted to split from the predominantly liberal national Presbyterian bodies because of deep differences over theology and such concerns as the role of women and ordination of homosexuals.
At the heart of what must now be negotiated is the disposition of Atonement's property, a handsome contemporary A-frame church and educational building at 10313 Georgia Ave.
The United Presbyterian church last year adopted a ruling that all property of individual congregations is held in trust for the church as a whole. Thus when any congregation leaves the denomination, the national church has a legal claim on the property.
In comments to the Atonement congregation before the vote last Sunday night, the Rev. Stewart Ranking, the pastor, warned his flock that a decision to pull out of the denomination could cost them their church property. d
but the Rev. Dr. Edward White, the executive officer of the Presbytery, in remarks to the congregation after the vote was taken, indicated some flexibility on the matter. "Some people may want your property, but I'm not interested in taking your property," he said.
In a conversation with a reporter, White indicated that the question of whether the Presbytery would choose to enforce church law on the property hinged almost entirely on which national church body Atonement might ultimately join.
"The Presbytery might be disposed to let the congregation take its property with it, depending on where it wants to go," White said.
There are several small, theologically conservative Presbyterian bodies with which Atonement might conceivably feel comfortable, he said, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or the Reformed Church in America. These are among the denominations in the Reformed tradition of Protestantism with which mainline Presbyterians maintain friendly ties.
But one of the conservative bodies with which Atonement has had some conversations, the eight-year-old Presbyterian Church in America, itself split under less than amicable circumstances from one of the parent bodies of the local Presbytery, the Presbyterian church in the U.S. "They [PCA] keep trying to woo our congregations away," White said, indicating that if Atonement moved in that direction, the congregation might find itself without its property.
Knowledgeable Presbyterians here were not particulary surprised at Atonement's action Sunday. Historically, the church belonged to the more conservative partner in a 1958 merger that produced the United Presbyterian Church. The congregation was never totally assimilated, White said.
"They are nice, decent folks," he added. "They're just marching to the tune of a different drummer."