Presbyterian splits lack Episcopalian litigiousness

The Episcopal Church isn't the only denomination facing a split between liberal and conservative interpretations of Scripture. The Presbyterian Church USA also has seen individual churches leave the national church.

First Presbyterian Church in Fresno and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Clovis are two. The congregational votes in November were overwhelming: 543-10 at First Presbyterian; 264-7 at Trinity.

There are similarities between the denominations: Both have had more than 100 churches leave the national churches, mainly over differences about the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gay clergy. Both national churches claim more than 2 million members.

But there are differences: The Fresno and Clovis churches have asked to be reassigned to the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church, based in Livonia, Mich. The Episcopal Church, so far, is the only approved Anglican body with oversight in the United States.

And many of the Presbyterian churches have been allowed to leave "with grace" and their property, as opposed to the Episcopalian parishes and dioceses that have been sued across the country.


For one thing, other denominations, such as Lutherans and Presbyterians, already have survived church splits. The U.S. Episcopal Church is facing its first real schism threat. Despite the claim by individual parishes and four U.S. breakaway dioceses that they are still Anglican and as such are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion to which the Episcopal Church belongs, the national church is taking a much narrower stance: Leave if you'd like, but the property belongs to us.

This week's California Supreme Court ruling favored that stand by ruling against three Southern California parishes. Still to be determined are the property issues when dioceses leave. In the past 13 months, the San Joaquin Diocese based in Fresno and dioceses in Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and Quincy, Ill., all have left.

So why haven't the Presbyterian splits been as litigious?

"I was moderator of the Presbytery (similar to an Episcopal diocese), that goes south to Merced and north to Lodi," said Dave Kerr, co-pastor of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Modesto. "Our Presbytery is committed to growing healthy churches, to work together with all of our churches and to focus on advancing the kingdom of God.

"Our policy frees us at the local level to do what God is calling us to do. We don't have to get mixed up in fights in the denomination. The beauty of our policy is that God alone is Lord of conscience."

But he acknowledges that Presbyterian conservatives "sat back and let the denomination get hijacked."

"Here's the problem," he said. "About 20 percent (of Presbyterians) want to ordain gays. That 20 percent has gotten into the highest positions in our denomination. They're pushing agendas, and that's why we're in trouble."

So he and other pastors are becoming more involved on the synod (composed of 11 Presbyteries) and national levels.

In the meantime, he said, if churches want to leave, they are asked to give a donation to the Presbytery that has helped them with finances and other resources over the years. For example, the large Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Sacramento was going to pay the Sacramento Presbytery $350,000 to leave the denomination, while a smaller Roseville church was set to pay $200,000. But a smaller church said the Presbytery had an obligation to get the fair market value for the churches, and a lawsuit ensued. Because the churches had deeds to their own property, they won the suit.

"A little podunk church caused all of this," Kerr said. "Not only did Presbytery not get the money the churches would have paid out, they also paid another $300,000 or more in legal fees.

"Our denomination is sick if the only thing that holds it together is property. You may as well go ahead and graciously let those people go, and do it with a sense of affirmation about their ministry, than to have that kind of anger and animosity in Presbytery. We want to extend grace to them."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or