First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

Since its inception by the Puritans, what is now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) has usually found itself to be a sacred house divided, and events in San Antonio only perpetuate that divide.

In the 19th century, the Church was torn in two by the issue of slavery. In recent years, LGBTQ rights have been the focus of discontent. Most recently, gay marriage has become the key divisive issue. Despite official denials, that very issue is the likely cause now for a legal battle initiated by First Presbyterian Church (FPC), located in downtown San Antonio at 4th and Alamo streets.

What has been accepted nationally by the Church, in sum, is not being accepted in San Antonio.

In 2014, the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (USA) changed its official doctrine to define marriage as a covenant between “two people,” as opposed to the long-standing doctrine that marriage was a covenant between one man and one woman.

Gay marriages are now permitted in their churches in states where it is legal. Last March, Mission Presbytery (a structure similar in nature to a Catholic diocese) – of which FPC is a member – also amended their Book of Order, adopting the more contemporary doctrine.

Not surprisingly, this fundamental shift has not been without dissent among congregations and church leaders, especially in the more conservative Southern states and cities. San Antonio has been no exception.

First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.
First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

In open letters to the FPC congregation, it has been made clear that First Presbyterian Church leaders oppose this doctrinal shift. In addition, most of the congregation opposes sanctioned gay marriage ceremonies.

A survey of First Presbyterian members was undertaken by Galloway Research last November, asking whether the church should remain in the PC(USA). Gay marriage was not explicitly stated as the wedge issue, but everyone knew that to be the case.

In an open letter, congregation leaders Tripp Stuart and Kirk DeKoch stated, “On January 12, 2015, the Church Relations Committee presented the results of the congregational survey to the Session. The survey results reflected that 59% of our members favored leaving the denomination; 22% favored staying in the denomination; and 19% were undecided.”

Furthermore, the church has decided to maintain previous doctrine. The open letter states, “In anticipation of the passage of the change to the Book of Order, the Session of First Presbyterian Church adopted a Wedding Policy at its February 9, 2015 meeting, which reaffirms and restates the views of this church that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

A historical marker tells the history of the church. Photo by Page Graham.
A historical marker tells the history of the church. Photo by Page Graham.

This isn’t the first challenge to PC(USA) authority, which has seen numerous defections over the years. During the Civil War era, the denomination was divided over the issue of slavery. Most Southern churches left to form their own denomination, now known as Presbyterian Church America (PCA). More recently, other denominations, including Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) have been formed because of dissent over other church doctrine.

Since it has been the subject of defections, Mission Presbytery formulated a Gracious Separation policy for churches that decide to leave. Ultimately, the Presbytery allows the church to leave and retain its property, but the following process must be met by departing churches:

  • A financial review of financial records for the last year by a public accountant. (As of March 2015, the church is declaring a $78,922 operating loss in its magazine.)
  • Three appraisals of the property.
  • A tithe of all assets, equal to the percentage of the congregation who voted not to disaffiliate, but no less than 10%, to be paid within 60 months.
  • If the amount owed to Mission Presbytery is not paid, all assets revert to the presbytery.
  • All other outstanding debts must be paid before the congregation leaves.
First Presbyterian Church property comprises two city blocks. Its ownership is in dispute. Image courtesy Google Maps.
First Presbyterian Church property comprises two city blocks. Its ownership is in dispute. Image courtesy Google Maps.

Although FPC officials publicly deny any link to gay marriage or leaving the denomination, a decision was made by FPC leaders to bring the legal process into the fray. A temporary restraining order was sought and issued by state district court Judge John Gabriel this week against Mission Presbytery in the matter of ownership of FPC property. Essentially, FPC is asserting ownership over the property it occupies.

However, Mission Presbytery has a “trust clause” concerning ownership of property, according to Ruben Armendariz, acting head of staff and associate executive presbyter, Mission Presbytery.

According to Armendariz, the General Council of Mission Presbytery held an emergency meeting last Sunday to formulate a response to the injunction. There is a May 26 deadline for a response from Mission Presbytery to be provided to the court.

Although recent decisions on the part of FPC leadership may reflect the will of the current congregation, it doesn’t necessarily mesh with those who are moving into the fast-growing neighborhoods around it.

“Millennials reject a Church that to us seems outdated, overly political, anti-homosexual, anti-science, doubtless, power and cash obsessed and generally hypocritical,” stated Fr. William Eavenson, Jr. lead pastor for student ministry at The Mission Chattanooga in Tennessee, in a previous Rivard Report article.

Needless to say, this is a nasty and complex fight. It is a battle over church doctrine, which permits gay marriage ceremonies – but it does not force anyone to actually perform them. Piling on with the issue of money and property ownership only adds to the ugliness. Ultimately, there will be no real winners or losers, but a lot of dirty laundry that has been hung out for all to see.

*Featured/top image: First Presbyterian Church. Photo by Page Graham.

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Page Graham

Page Graham

Page Graham has been a resident of San Antonio – on and off – for over 30 years now. He has moved into the corporate world, making a living developing training materials and Powerpoint presentations...