A request to place Asbury United Methodist Church on the Baltimore County Historic Landmarks list has created a deep rift between congregation members and the governing Methodist district conference, which opposes the move.
If successful, the historic designation would protect the church off of Philadelphia Road in White Marsh from encroaching development and demolition. Church leaders, who made the request, say they want to make sure their house of worship will stand for several more centuries.
They also say that if officials from the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church -- who dropped services at Asbury in August -- continue to protest the preservation efforts, the Asbury congregation will be forced to split from the denomination.
"All I know is that I can't see the sense of it," said Campbell Williams Jr., 64, who is a member of the Asbury Board of Trustees, owners of the property. "Divine worship is what it's all about. The majority of us have been denied a church to go to. It destroys our sense of permanence.
"The church itself seems to be going away from people and into politics," Williams added.
The County Council will hold a public hearing on the issue tonight. The church began in a log house in 1830 with a grant from a local family to ensure that black residents would have a place to worship. A frame structure was built in 1913 to replace the log church, which survived as a social hall until it was demolished in 1939, according to a Maryland Historical Trust Inventory list.
Troubles began for Asbury when a new pastor arrived in June 1999 and informed members that Sunday services would no longer be held at the church. Services would move to a sister congregation a few miles away at Sharp Street United Methodist Church on Eastern Avenue in Chase.
Fearing the demise of their church, Asbury leaders began work in October to have the church added to the landmarks list. It has been placed on the county's inventory list, but that affords the church little protection from demolition.
District Superintendent H. Edgar Moore, who oversees 82 congregations, argues that the historic designation would prohibit officials from altering future ministries at the site.
In a letter to the county Landmarks Preservation Commission, Moore stated that Asbury trustees "had no standing to request Landmark status" for the church. He also said the trustees violated the United Methodist Church's "Book of Discipline," the rules of order for all United Methodist churches in the country.
Such a request, Moore said in the letter, would have to come through Asbury's Board of Trustees only after receiving approval from the appointed pastor and the district superintendent.
"None of this was done," Moore wrote.
Efforts to reach Moore and the church's pastor, the Rev. Valerie Barnes, have been unsuccessful.
Asbury trustee Williams and other trustees believe conference officials are trying to sell the church property, located in a prime residential real estate area.
"They're after the property up there, that's why they're trying to squash this deal," said Sedonia Johnson, 58, a trustee and longtime church member. "They don't understand they're tearing this congregation apart. It's just so sad. This church is our spiritual guidance.
"Now we feel like we don't need the Methodist system. We'd rather be nondenominational."
Council members could vote on the church's landmark status as early as next month.
"By our law, if you own the property, you can place it on the landmarks list," said Kimberly Abe, administrative secretary of the landmarks commission. "When there's a dispute like this, we're stuck in the middle."