Acting on a Precedent

1998 Lachine rent-back offer might now go ‘the other way’

By Rev. Robin Ross
RF Webmaster

I am surprised that people are assuming that if their congregation leaves the PCC, they will either lose their building or have to buy it back. There is another alternative.

At the 124th General Assembly, held in Windsor, Ontario, in 1998, a Special Committee dealt with appeals regarding the conduct of a Presbyterian College student who was a declared practicing homosexual conducting services at St. Andrew’s, Lachine. The Special Committee’s four “cease and desist” recommendations were tempered by an amendment that read:

“That the Presbytery of Montreal be directed to offer the congregation of St. Andrew’s, Lachine, the option of remaining within The Presbyterian Church in Canada in accordance with its present polity; if they choose to stay, then items l through 4 following be implemented; if they choose to leave, we wish them Godspeed, and offer to rent the building to the congregation on terms to be worked out by the Presbytery of Montreal.”

I was at that General Assembly, and when the amendment passed, I realized that they were setting a precedent. The day would come, I reasoned, when the Assembly’s decision on same-sex practices would go the other way, and a congregation that disagreed with the decision and wished to leave the PCC ought to be able to rent back its building. In fact, the Assembly Council, working with the Presbytery of Montreal at the time, presented St. Andrew’s, Lachine, with a lease for $1 per year, with the congregation responsible for repairs to the building, but the lease was not accepted. Those who had gathered to support the student lost interest, and the congregation, which was already struggling, was dissolved.

Times have changed, and it seems possible that the decision will soon go “the other way.” Precedent or not, sympathy for those who might disagree with the decision of the General Assembly seems to have evaporated. The recent refusal of the Assembly Council to even receive a report of the committee examining the possibilities surrounding Gracious Dismissal signals the development of a toxic culture in the leadership of the denomination.

What, then, might become of the rent-back precedent? The sale of a dissolved congregation’s real estate assets is at the discretion of the presbytery. Under the current polity, when a congregation is dissolved, 50 per cent of the real estate proceeds and non-real-estate assets must go to the Pension Solvency Fund, up to a maximum of $2 million, and the remainder stays with the presbytery. Urban property is very expensive to purchase, and a presbytery that wants to establish extension congregations in a city would want to hang onto what it has until an opportune time, renting or mortgaging it to support the work of the presbytery in the meantime. My own presbytery has done this to finance its hiring of a Presbyter of Mission and Vision to revitalize the presbytery’s congregations, many of which are in deep trouble. Rural church buildings can be more difficult to sell. A Christian group asked one presbytery to rent an abandoned country church, and I was tasked with preparing it for rental. At the time, I asked myself, if they can start a new congregation in that building, why can’t we?

Of course, renting back to a congregation leaving the denomination is not a foregone conclusion. That would depend on the relationship that the congregation had with its presbytery and on how sympathetic the presbytery was with their cause.

  • A greedy presbytery could sell a congregation’s building back to it at market value and keep its half for funding the presbytery.
  • A sympathetic presbytery could decide to support the new congregation by not selling the building, putting together a sweet rental deal, and funding the new congregation’s ministry with its half of the non-real-estate proceeds from the previous congregation. The building could continue to be owned by trustees appointed by the Presbytery, or else the Trustee Board could administer it at the direction of the presbytery.
  • A vindictive presbytery could refuse to rent the building back, as was often the case in the acrimony of 1925, when some Presbyterian church buildings became fraternal halls, and the departing congregations had to build new churches.

A further complication could arise in a divided congregation where some members decided to leave while others stayed and retained the building as a continuing PCC congregation.

None of these cases is really a desirable outcome, because so often, the acrimony that arises from perceived injustice and broken, sour relationships prompts negative emotions which contain the seeds of their own destruction. Regularly, congregations that leave their denomination do not survive. That is one reason why the PCC-Covenant is so important. The Covenant swears its adherents to adopt Christlike attitudes of forbearance, forgiveness, mercy and grace, being willing to accept injustice and not retaliate, knowing that the God who graciously gives us all things will truly give us all that we need.

A first step towards testing the support of a Presbytery could be a request to rename the congregation. For example, Whalley Presbyterian Church has become City Centre (Surrey, BC) Church, and St. David’s Presbyterian Church, Kelowna, has become Mountainview Church. This is also a viable way of distancing a congregation from the PCC without leaving the denomination. Some PCUSA congregations with property that is too expensive to buy back, such as Peachtree Church in Atlanta, Georgia, have successfully adopted the distancing approach of simply not participating in the denomination, and they are tolerated by their presbytery. They support mission projects of their own choosing, rather than the General Assembly budget.

As one effect of the pandemic, we have been given the gift of a year-long (or perhaps even a two-year-long) delay in making decisions on the Remits. Regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen in the months to come, we can continue to believe that the PCC belongs to Christ, the only Head of the church. We can continue to thank God that He is in control of this situation!

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