Things still appear tense in the relationship between First Presbyterian Church in Houston and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – as the session of the congregation filed a lawsuit May 29 to win control of its property from the Presbytery of New Covenant in Texas.
Earlier this year, the session of the 3,100-member church recommended unanimously that the church leave the PC(USA) and join ECO: A Covenant Network of Evangelical Presbyterians. At a congregational meeting on Feb. 23, the votes fell barely short of the two-thirds majority needed for departure, with 1,085 (64.5 percent) voting to leave and 596 voting to stay with the PC(USA).
Now, the session has filed a civil suit against New Covenant presbytery in District Court in Harris County, asking the court to rule that First Presbyterian owns its own property and that the church buildings and lands are not being held in trust for the denomination.
In a letter to members of the congregation, the clerks of the session at First Presbyterian state that First Presbyterian “is not seeking to leave the PC(USA) through the filing of this legal action. Nor is this lawsuit seeking another vote on whether FPC should leave the PC(USA). All this action seeks is a determination from the court of whether FPC completely controls the use of its property.”
The letter does not state, however, whether the session might decide to seek departure from the denomination down the road. In filing the lawsuit the session sought – and obtained – a temporary restraining order instructing the presbytery not to take any action regarding the congregation’s property, such as changing the locks. The order also prohibits the presbytery from taking any disciplinary or retaliatory action against the ministers of the church because of the litigation, or appointing an administrative commission to assume original jurisdiction.
In filing the lawsuit, the session of the church had raised those as possibilities, stating that “the threat of presbytery action is imminent” and that “the infliction of a real and immediate injury is not only possible, but it is actually a standard operating procedure for PC(USA) presbyteries faced with civil actions by local congregations.”
The First Presbyterian congregation spent more than a year in a congregational discernment process about the possibility of leaving for ECO, following the Presbytery of New Covenant’s Reconciliation and Dismissal Procedure.