Another church property dispute

Having grown up in the United Church of Christ, I naturally take an interest when the UCC is in the news. During my teen years, when I came to personal faith in Christ through the ministry of an independent Bible church, I left the UCC, which I came to see as having watered down the Gospel message or outright replaced it with their emphasis on social issues.

As a young adult, I discovered that there were some more conservative Congregational churches that – unlike the church my father went to his whole life – had not joined the United Church of Christ when it was formed in 1957 (the merger of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, each formed as a merger less than three decades earlier). After all, one defining characteristic of Congregational churches is their congregational polity – that is, that each congregation is autonomous, associated with other churches but not bound by an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

In Michigan, where my husband pastored a small Presbyterian church, I came to know a few members of another non-UCC Congregational church (we sang in a community Christian choral group, so I got to know members of at least a dozen other churches). I chatted briefly with the pastor after an ecumenical service I attended there, and suspected I would have been quite happy to attend there if I were in need of a church home. At the time I figured such churches must be purely independent (like the church I attended as a teen and many other Bible or Baptist churches).

Today I learned that there are at least two other Congregational denominations, both more conservative than the UCC (though as the UCC is well known as one of the most – if not the most – liberal of the Protestant denominations, that may not be saying a great deal). Center Congregational Church, in Atlanta, left the UCC and joined the much smaller but more conservative National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, after the UCC voted in 2005 to bless gay marriage.

It was hardly a major hit to the denomination’s membership rolls. Center Congregational has only a few dozen members – about three thousandths of a percent of the UCC’s 1.2 million. But they also have property, in an uptown district nicknamed “Beverly Hills East.” This turns out to owned by a trust, the terms of which were written in 1895, to use the land “for church purposes of the Congregational Denomination.” At the time that was clear enough, but now? The Southeast Conference of the UCC has sued, claiming the property should be held by the UCC.

In most similar cases, my sympathies are with the congregation, as buildings, programs, and traditions have their roots in the hard work and money provided by the congregation and by previous generations who worshipped in the same pews. In this case it is somewhat less clear, as the congregation stopped meeting not long after joining the UCC. Other denominations used the building, until fifteen years ago the UCC established a new church there.

I’m a bit curious how the new congregation came to be as traditional as they are. It’s no surprise to me to hear of a UCC church where most of the congregation has gray hair – that’s how it was when I was growing up – or that, being older, they are more conservative. But usually that’s because they’ve been attending that church their whole life, and choose to stay even as the church gradually changes. I wonder how many of these people had been part of Center Congregational in their youth, when it first joined the UCC.

A hearing at the lower court is expected soon. I’m sure many more people than the few dozen at Center are watching closely to see what happens.


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