Some members of the Newton Presbyterian Church thought their denomination was drifting away from fundamental tenets of their faith, such as the idea that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and that evangelism is essential. They longed for something more contemporary, more vivacious. A church with a sharper focus on mission and scripture, less on politics.
And so the congregation in January voted 107 to 26 to abandon the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join a small but growing evangelical denomination. They put a sign on the lawn to proclaim the congregation’s new name: Newton Covenant Church.
But now, the Presbyterian Church wants its church back. Its local authority, the Presbytery of Boston, has sued to regain control of the $5.6 million Vernon Street building and return it to members of the Newton congregation who want to remain Presbyterian, a minority they say represents the “true church.”
The denomination says the 11 Newton church leaders named in the lawsuit knew the January vote was unauthorized and in defiance of the denomination’s rules.
“The Presbytery is the rightful arbiter of this dispute, and the breakaway faction doesn’t get to engage in self-help and steal the property,” said Robert A. Skinner of the law firm Ropes & Gray, who is representing the denomination pro bono.
The lawsuit accuses the “breakaway faction” of removing the church sign, hijacking the church’s old website, and seizing control of the church’s bank accounts. It seeks unspecified damages. But most importantly, say the plaintiffs, who also include the remaining Presbyterian congregants, it demands the return of their church.
“Everyone is very supportive of trying to get their home back at this point,” said Neal Creighton, a father of three from Lexington and a member since 2006.
But the majority is just as convinced the church is theirs.
Presbyterian officials “don’t have a legal right to it or the moral right to it,” said the Rev. Garrett Smith, an evangelical preacher and former Jews for Jesus missionary who serves as the church’s acting pastor. “This is our church.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States and a pillar of American mainline Protestantism, has seen hundreds of its 11,000 churches leave for more conservative denominations in the last decade. Mark Valeri, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, said the denomination formally embraces traditional Christian beliefs but tends to be liberal on social issues, such as gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, which the denomination approved in recent years.
Such stances have caused rifts with conservatives, who also object to some contemporary readings of theology.
“A pastor who says Jesus isn’t the only way to heaven is probably thinking ‘Jesus is our way, but I don’t presume to tell someone in Jakarta what their way is,’ ” Valeri said. Conservatives, he said, have a different view: “We don’t want to be mean-spirited or coercive about it, but we do think this message is for all people and ought to be promoted energetically, joyfully, compassionately.’ ”
The Newton congregation was established by Nova Scotian immigrants who began worshipping in 1846, “seeking to lift high the uniqueness of Christ . . . in a place where Unitarianism was thriving.”
“The services kept going and growing, as more and more people wanted a place in Boston to hear some ‘Scotch preaching,’ ” a congregational history says. “Psalm-loving Presbyterians could comfort their hearts with ‘those strains, which once did sweet in Zion glide.’ ”
The congregation was for many years among the largest Presbyterian churches in Massachusetts. On “rally day” — the beginning of the new Sunday School year — in September 2009, it had 375 members, according to the plaintiffs. Last year, rally day drew 100 people.
The lawsuit blames a conservative takeover. Smith, it says, is not a qualified minister but rose in prominence after the church’s longtime pastor left in 2013. Many families, the plaintiffs say, were uncomfortable with “the evangelical approach championed by the conservative faction who took over the church.” They objected to the denomination’s stance on gay issues, the lawsuit says.
MIT professor Rosalind Picard, a lay leader named as a defendant, called Smith “an incredibly smart, gifted, knowledgeable guy” with a doctorate in ministry whose evangelism to Jews was not appreciated by the Presbytery.
She said some members did feel the denomination had drifted doctrinally, but the predominant concern was finding a denomination more focused on growth and mission. She attributed the membership decline to the prolonged lack of a permanent senior minister and uncertainty about the church’s direction.
The Newton congregation especially admired Highrock Church, a lively, diverse congregation in Arlington that has planted five other congregations in Greater Boston since 2008. Highrock is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a small but growing association of congregations sometimes described as “progressive evangelical,” and which Newton congregants saw as a good fit for their church, Smith said.
But Presbyterian Church rules don’t allow congregations to leave unilaterally. A “trust clause” in the national church’s constitution says church properties belong to the denomination. Congregations, through a formal process, can be “dismissed” to other denominations with similar doctrine and governance. If the congregation is divided, a panel appointed by the Presbytery assumes control and determines which faction represents the “true church.”
But the Presbytery of Boston refused to dismiss the congregation to the Evangelical Covenant Church — because, the lawsuit says, its theology and polity were too different from the Presbyterian Church.
The Newton church explored partnering with Highrock without changing denominations, but ultimately that was ruled out. So the Newton church’s “corporation” — the church’s business side — called a vote in January. The Presbytery warned that the vote would be unauthorized.
Picard said the congregation has always supported itself and kept its building through relationships with various Presbyterian denominations. It explicitly refused to go along with the “trust clause” policy when it was introduced in the 1980s, she said, and notified Boston authorities at the time.
“They can’t just come along and say, ‘You want to call yourselves Presbyterian this year? OK, we own all your property. And if next year you decide you’re not going to be Presbyterian, you have to give us your $5 million property,’ ” she said. “Come on, that’s ridiculous.”
But Skinner, the denomination’s attorney, said the Newton congregation was never allowed to opt out of the trust clause — that option was given only to Southern Presbyterian churches when the Northern and Southern churches reunited in the early 1980s for the first time since the Civil War.
The Newton church’s bylaws affirm the ultimate authority of the denomination, Skinner said. The congregation effectively acknowledged that when it had the Presbytery sign off on a purchase and sale of a parsonage in the late 1980s, he said.
“The defendants cannot rewrite this history,” Skinner said.
Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and a leading authority on religious liberty, said that, in general, the Presbyterian church makes clear that “individual people or whole congregations can leave, but they don’t get to take the whole property with them.”
That the Newton congregation did not have the opportunity to opt out of the trust clause is a complicating wrinkle, he said, but the denomination should prevail. The clause was enacted by elected representatives of the whole church, he said; local churches can legislate rules, “but they couldn’t change property rights.”