Memorial Park Presbyterian Church secured a court injunction last week to allow its congregation to meet this past weekend over the objections of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, and the McCandless church used the opportunity to vote overwhelmingly to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) for a more biblically conservative denomination.
While Memorial Park leaders said their members' 664-25 vote with three unmarked ballots means the church is now a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a presbytery official said, however, that under denominational law he still considered it part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The ballots were handed out during one Saturday service and three yesterday to people whose names were checked against a membership list. The ballots covered four separate questions:
• Disaffiliating from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
• Affiliating with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
• Amending church bylaws to remove any mention of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
• Affirming all of its current pastors, elders and deacons.
The 692 ballots represented less than half of the church's 1,675 members, but the number was close to its usual Sunday attendance in January. Memorial Park is the largest church in the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which has 155 churches and more than 40,000 members.
The votes this past weekend had been expected to be uneventful, given that the church's session, or governing body, had voted unanimously earlier this month to disaffiliate, and the congregation had voted 951-93 in June to seek dismissal from the national church, believing it had strayed from biblical authority and no longer fully adhered to classical Christian doctrines.
But Tuesday, Memorial Park officials received a letter from a presbytery-appointed administrative commission that was formed, the letter said, to deal with "the destruction, disorder and unrest at our Memorial Park congregation."
According to the letter, the seven-member commission of pastors and elders had the right to "remove, replace, restructure or dissolve the pastor's relationship with the congregation" and remove all assistant pastors, elders, deacons and lay officers.
And the letter forbade the congregation from meeting or voting this past weekend.
On Wednesday, Memorial Park lawyers got an injunction from Common Pleas Judge Judith L. Friedman that prevented the presbytery from interfering with the vote.
On Thursday morning, the presbytery's attorneys responded in court that they feared Memorial Park's vote would affect the disposition of its buildings and 71/2-acre property on Peebles Road.
After the church agreed not to take any actions to transfer or dispose of its assets, the presbytery withdrew its opposition to the injunction.
A hearing is scheduled tomorrow before Judge Friedman to determine whether the injunction filed by the church will be dissolved or sustained.
Because Memorial Park no longer considers itself part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), church officials said it would not be bound by either decision.
"The vote [this past weekend] means we move forward with the ministry and the mission that we believe God has called us to," said the Rev. Dean Weaver, senior pastor at Memorial Park.
But the Rev. Doug Portz, acting pastor of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, called this past weekend's votes "unconstitutional" and said he would have preferred church officials meet with commission members rather than turn to the civil court.
"According to the Pittsburgh Presbytery, Memorial Park is still a member church of the presbytery," he said yesterday. "We are saddened by their actions to take this vote.
"The vote that they have taken is an unconstitutional vote according to our constitution."
Officials of Memorial Park plan today to hand-deliver notice of the church's disaffiliation to the presbytery.
None of these maneuverings affects the lawsuit Memorial Park filed earlier this month against the presbytery, seeking to confirm its property title and avoid any threat of seizure of its buildings by the presbytery.
Memorial Park is seeking to become the second church in Allegheny County to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA), following Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church, which was dismissed in October.