The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church is suing Calvary Church because the congregation has continued to meet in the building after the church was discontinued by the conference.
“We really don’t feel like we’ve been treated fairly,” Joan Betzold, a member of the church’s administrative board, said. “We haven’t been treated with respect, we haven’t even been treated in a Christian manner.”
Calvary Church used to be Calvary United Methodist Church. The Baltimore Washington Conference voted, at its annual meeting, to discontinue the church in 2014.
Betzold said the decision was made unfairly and in violation of protocol that the United Methodist Church is supposed to follow.
And, she said, after the decision was made, nobody ever showed up to “enforce” that decision.
“So we just kept on rocking,” she said.
The group reincorporated as Calvary Church, painted over references to the United Methodist Church on signs out front and two members of the congregation stepped up to become licensed ministers.
Over a year later, Betzold said, a lawyer hired by the congregation was notified by the conference that the congregants were unauthorized to use the building, and that they’d have to leave. A lawsuit was filed in the Harford County Circuit Court.
“This church was no longer effective in ministry,” Tom Starnes, an attorney representing the Baltimore Washington Conference in this case, said. “We’re not revisiting in court what was decided at the annual conference.”
By not handing over the keys when the Baltimore-Washington Conference voted to discontinue Calvary United Methodist Church, the congregation violated what’s called the “trust clause” of the United Methodist Church.
In the United Methodist Church, local congregations or churches never own property, but instead hold that property in trust for the entire denomination.
Starnes said that the Trust Clause is an understanding that property is for the continuation of the United Methodist Church, not just the local congregation.
“We see it as part of the glue that holds us together as a family of faith,” Starnes said.
The case was heard by Judge William Carr on June 13. He did not say when he would hand down a decision.
Starnes said that the conference hasn’t made any sort of decision as to what would be done with the property if it were handed over from the congregation.
Betzold is worried not only about what would happen to the congregants who come to Calvary on Sundays, but also about what would happen to the building itself.
Calvary Church is recognized as a landmark in Harford County and is in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places. The church was built around 1821 with rocks from the quarry it still neighbors. It’s been in use ever since.
The founders of the church built a slave gallery, a separate area where slaves could come to worship on Sundays, at what Betzold called a “great personal cost and inconvenience.”
“This is the first place where blacks and whites were able to worship together in the area,” Betzold said.
Other than kerosene lamps being replaced with electric, and wood stoves giving way to an oil furnace, not much about the building itself has changed, Betzold said.
The church sits next to a cemetery that has been in use since the church was founded. It holds veterans from the War of 1812, the Civil War, both World Wars, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf conflicts.
Betzold also said that the community makes use of the church—Alcoholics Anonymous holds meetings in the fellowship hall, a local Ruritan group meets there and there’s a group that gathers for aerobics classes regularly.
“This little church provides things that there is just no replacement for,” she said.
In addition to being tangled in a lawsuit with the Baltimore-Washington Conference, Calvary is suing an engineering firm that did some work in the sanctuary that proved to be unnecessary.
In the sanctuary are several 6x6 posts that stretch from the floor to the ceiling.
They were put in place by a firm that determined the ceiling was imminently going to collapse if it wasn’t supported.
Another engineer, brought in by Calvary’s insurance agency, determined that there was nothing wrong with the building, Betzold said.
That lawsuit is on hold, pending the results of the dispute between the Baltimore-Washington Conference and Calvary Church.
Because of the state that the sanctuary was left in, it hasn’t been suitable for church services. The church has been meeting in the attached fellowship hall.
“The sanctuary has been abandoned for three years,” Betzold said.
Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes supported Calvary Church at a recent county council meeting, but declined to comment. Preservation Maryland, a group that works to “save places that matter to their communities,” according to their website, sent a letter in support of Calvary Church to retain control of the building to Judge Carr.
Betzold has started a GoFundMe page to gather support for the congregation’s fight to keep Calvary Church open. She said they would appeal if they lost.
“Having faith and doing nothing is dead faith,” Betzold said. “You're supposed to take your faith and you're supposed to work.”