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Harford's historic Calvary Church congregation fights United Methodists effort to close it

The congregation of Harford County's historic Calvary Church, which says it no longer affiliates with the United Methodist Church, has been located off of Route 136 near Churchville since 1821.
The congregation of Harford County's historic Calvary Church, which says it no longer affiliates with the United Methodist Church, has been located off of Route 136 near Churchville since 1821. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The congregation Calvary Church is battling the United Methodist Church in court after the denomination's regional body moved to close the historic, 195-year-old Harford County church.

In September 2015, the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church sued the congregation to recover the Calvary property near Churchville.

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Calvary, which is on Route 136, south of Route 22, dates to 1821 and has "refused to accept the Conference's decision to discontinue Calvary UMC," choosing instead to "amend Calvary UMC's corporate charter to delete any reference to the denomination and to openly renounce any affiliation with The United Methodist Church," according to the Conference's complaint filed in Harford County Circuit Court.

The congregation of historic Calvary Church near Churchville is battling its parent denomination, United Methodist Church, in court. Reference to the denomination has been painted over.
The congregation of historic Calvary Church near Churchville is battling its parent denomination, United Methodist Church, in court. Reference to the denomination has been painted over. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

The Conference took a "very painful and very difficult" vote on May 29, 2014 to discontinue Calvary, United Methodist Conference attorney Thomas Starnes told Harford County Circuit Court Judge William Carr at a hearing in Bel Air Monday.

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More than 20 people came to Monday's hearing in a show of support for Calvary, led by Joan Betzold, head of its administrative council. Betzold said the church has about 20 or 30 members, although she added that is difficult to count because many people from as far away as Florida still support it.

"The decision of the Annual Conference was made by its members," meaning the laity and clergy, not a hierarchical group of leaders or, "God forbid, lawyers," Starnes said.

Jolene Murray, an attorney for Calvary, argued the case is unique and not just a property dispute, as the 1889 deed does not mention any connection to what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church and the congregation is "deeply rooted" in the community.

The congregants "have been such good stewards of this property for over a century," Murray said.

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The United Methodist Church, meanwhile, has provided no support to the congregation during that time and, more recently, took "truly fraudulent actions" and failed "to abide by its own principles" by designating someone who is not an ordained minister to the congregation, Murray said.

The church "truly has unclean hands here," she continued. "What is significant about this, Your Honor, if this district superintendent [sent to pastor Calvary] is the one that led the investigation [of the task force to ultimately discontinue the congregation]."

Starnes responded that he did not address the fraud allegations because a civil court cannot entertain an argument about whether a church failed to follow its own rules, and he believes the court does not need to consider any religious arguments if it follows the property dispute.

He said the congregation's corporate charter states its trustees are bound to the Methodist Episcopal Church's book of discipline.

"The argument that there is a discrepancy between the corporate charter of 1889 and the deed executed in 1889 is simply not a predicate for establishing a genuine dispute of material fact," Starnes said.

Carr is expected to rule on the case in the next few weeks.

Calvary Church, the namesake of Creswell's Calvary Road (Route 136), was established by Richard Webster and is "a rare example of an early Methodist meeting house" that features "its original floor plan, including a slave gallery accessed by a separate entrance," according to a roadside historical marker from the Maryland Historical Trust.

The congregation has been distancing itself from the Methodist denomination, even painting over the reference to "United Methodist Church" on the sign in front of the property. The congregation's name was changed more than a year ago, Deborah Kane, another attorney for Calvary, said Friday.

A roadside historical marker by Calvary Church in Harford County tells of the founding by United Methodists, whose conference wants to remove a current congregation from the property.
A roadside historical marker by Calvary Church in Harford County tells of the founding by United Methodists, whose conference wants to remove a current congregation from the property. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

"The tactics from the United Methodist Church" can be found throughout the country, of "coming in and closing thousands of little churches, selling the property and putting the money in their pockets," Kane said.

At the Harford County Council meeting on June 7, Councilman Chad Shrodes urged residents to support the church.

"I know it's going to be more and more important that we look at historic landmarks like this in Harford County," Shrodes said, adding it is important to reuse those types of buildings.

Following Monday's hearing, Starnes said no decision has been made about what might happen to the church building or its adjoining cemetery, should the United Methodist Conference prevail in court

"Very few congregations leave the denomination," he said. "Very few congregations get closed, but that happens sometimes."

Although "folks on the ground level" might feel it is unfair, "we have to take a consistent position" to be fair to everyone in the Conference, he said.

Starnes added that any money from the property must be redirected to ministry, not to church leaders.

The Baltimore-Washington Conference is comprised of 640 churches and more than 170,000 members, according to its website.

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