Rejecting belated appeals to love and unity from a rebel Hyattsville congregation that 10 months ago voted itself out of the denomination, area Presbyterians formally dissolved legal ties this week with Wallace Memorial Church.
The decision Tuesday by the National Capital Union Presbytery clears the way for the presbytery to go to court to recover Wallace Memorial's property should current negotiations break down.
The action came at the bimonthly meeting of the presbytery at which it also voted to endorse the position of the national United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. calling for a nuclear weapons freeze by both the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Wallace Memorial breach dates to last March when that congregation voted 445 to 8 to sever its ties with the two national denominations of which the presbytery is the regional representative: the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The church's two pastors resigned from the presbytery the same day. Both actions were taken without prior discussion with presbytery officials.
Wallace Memorial had had longstanding differences with the parent denominations over theology and social issues. On Oct. 6, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Reformed Presbyterian Church-Evangelical Synod, a small denomination whose conservative theology is more acceptable to Wallace Memorial.
In Presbyterian churches, local church property is considered to be held in trust for the denomination. According to church law, the property reverts to the denomination when a congregation withdraws, unless the local governing body, the presbytery, makes other arrangements.
Such an exception was made last year for the Church of the Atonement in Silver Spring, which also differed with the presbytery's theological and social views. But unlike Wallace Memorial, Atonement church followed the required denominational procedures and voted to withdraw only after negotiations made it clear that differences were irreconcilable. The Rev. Dr. Ed White, presbytery executive, said the difference in the actions of the two churches "is the difference between divorce and desertion."
Because Atonement followed the procedures and because it joined a denomination that is formally recognized by the presbytery, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the presbytery agreed to let the Silver Spring congregation keep its property.
But the presbytery decided last spring to exercise its right to recover the Wallace Memorial property. In order to fulfill legal requirements for a possible court battle if the current negotiations for a property settlement break down, the presbytery was asked Tuesday to formally acknowledge Wallace Memorial's pullout last spring and declare the congregation "extinct" as far as its ties to the presbytery were concerned.
The withdrawal of the two congregations here reflects a tension in churches nationally between conservative and liberal approaches. In recent years, 78 of the United Presbyterian Church's nearly 8,900 congregations have withdrawn or are in the process of doing so.
A requirement adopted by United Presbyterians nationally that local congregations must elect women to decision-making posts in the local church was foremost among a number of the denomination's liberal social positions that rankled more conservative congregations. But for many dissidents the last straw was a theological dispute over contemporary versus traditional views of the divinity of Christ.
At Tuesday's meeting, Wallace Memorial's pastor, the Rev. Glen Knecht, pleaded with the presbytery to postpone dissolving the ties with his church until a property settlement could be negotiated. "If you take this action now," he said, "you are weighting the resolution of the property settlement to go the legal route."
The Rev. Josiah Beeman, chairman of the presbytery commission appointed to negotiate the property question, reported that "at the present time . . . we are far apart on the value of the property." The property of the 850-member church includes two manses as well as the massive brick structure in a residential neighborhood at 7201 16th Place in Hyattsville, and is believed to be worth well over $1 million.
In an emotional appeal to block the dissolution resolution, Knecht reminded the presbytery that "this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity"--an annual ecumenical observance--and said his church's secret vote last March to withdraw was "really an attempt to promote the unity of Christ's body by reducing the tensions" within the denominations represented in the presbytery.
Knecht did not say why the action was kept secret from the presbytery, but he did say, "We have made mistakes and we regret them. We have had to ask forgiveness and we have been humbled in the process." He appealed to the body to "settle this in such a way that observers will not be able to speak evil about the church."
Knecht's appeal for delay found considerable support in the hour-long debate, particularly from men and women who have traditionally been sympathetic to Wallace Memorial's conservative theology.
In the end, however, the resolution acknowledging that the ties with Wallace Memorial were "dissolved, effective immediately," passed overwhelmingly by voice vote.
The nuclear freeze resolution endorsed by the presbytery stated that "stopping the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race is the single most useful step that can be taken now to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war and to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries."
The statement was first adopted last May by the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church and referred to local units of the church for endorsement.
In other action, the presbytery elected Robert E. Philleo, a lay member of Knox Presbyterian Church in Annandale, moderator for the coming year.