The Supreme Court in India has made a decision in a decades-long bitter court battle over ownership and control of former Brethren mission properties, following an early 1970s merger with the Church of North India (CNI) that included the former mission of the Church of the Brethren.
The court decision of Sept. 30, 2013–Civil Appeal Case #8801, Malavia Vs. Gameti–ruled that the First District Church of the Brethren in India continues as the legal successor of the Church of the Brethren mission and is vested with its properties. The ruling states that it does not hold that the resolution for unification to establish the Church of North India resulted in the dissolution of the First District Church of the Brethren and, de facto, all properties transfer to CNI.
Church of the Brethren denominational staff in the US including the general secretary and executive director of Global Mission and Service have stayed in touch with leadership of CNI and leadership of First District Church of the Brethren as the court issued its ruling and as the church properties move into the control of First District and its congregations.
General secretary Stan Noffsinger has expressed a desire to leaders of the First District Church of the Brethren to meet later this spring to encourage continued efforts at reconciliation between the two communions as the properties case comes to an end.
History of the dispute
The Church of the Brethren is a founding member of the CNI and has been in close relationship with the unified church, which included participating in the 40th anniversary celebration. While the Church of the Brethren helped establish CNI in the 1970s, a number of individuals decided to remain outside of that unification process and continued to worship as First District Church of the Brethren India.
Ownership of the properties, including church buildings of local congregations as well as schools and other mission institutions, was disputed since 1978, when a lawsuit challenging CNI ownership was first brought. The case was mired in the courts for many years, eventually coming to the country’s Supreme Court.
Through the years, the American church was aware of ongoing tensions in its former mission area and tried to follow the prolonged litigation process that ensued without participating in it or influencing it. However, the Church of the Brethren in the US has been involved as the organization required to nominate trustees to steward properties during the legal dispute.
In 2003, Annual Conference made a decision to seek a relationship with both bodies, after the American denomination had related in an official capacity solely to CNI for more than 30 years. Brethren in the US have tried to relate to both church communions equally. American Brethren have sent delegations to India in efforts to maintain relationships and have sponsored attempts at reconciliation and mediation between the parties to the dispute.
“We rejoice that the vision for unity that gathered the members and congregations of six denominations, including the congregations arising from the Church of the Brethren mission in India, and which formed the Church of North India (CNI) in 1970, has provided a strong church framework for most of the participants,” the Annual Conference statement of 2003 said, in part. “We also recognize that this framework has not been suitable for many of the former Church of the Brethren members…. The US Church of the Brethren mourns the division that has emerged…. We seek forgiveness for instances during this period where either action or inaction by the US church was hurtful or divisive for either body. We believe that the churches in India have primary responsibility for resolving the issues of name, property, and resolution of the conflicts that plague them” ( www.brethren.org/ac/statements/2003-recommendation.html ).
First District Church of the Brethren celebrates ruling
One result of the court decision has been to restore most of the church buildings to the possession of local Brethren congregations, said a report to the Global Mission and Service office from a leader in First District Church of the Brethren. In practice, up to the time of the ruling many of the local church buildings under dispute had been shared with CNI congregations.
First District Church of the Brethren in India “has been freed from the shackles of conflict, controversy, and uncertainty,” said the report. “Our church will henceforth move ahead independently and unfettered as the body of Christ following the Brethren principles of peace and harmony.
“To mark this historic occasion…a thanksgiving meeting was organized at Valsad followed by a community luncheon. Representatives from different Brethren churches participated in these celebrations. And a rally was taken out through the City of Valsad as a part of these celebrations.”
CNI experiences adverse effects from ruling
“After Supreme Court order, Church of North India on the verge of falling apart,” was the headline of a DNA India news report in late November. Reporter Ashutosh Shukla wrote that the Supreme Court order “stated that CNI cannot have any authority over one of five Protestant denominations over which it holds sway. Based on this order, another denomination will approach the state to pull away from the CNI.”
When CNI was formed in 1970 it merged four other Protestant denominations in addition to the Church of the Brethren, and the court decision may put all of those mergers at risk, the news report indicated.
“This opposition that is brewing among the denominations of the CNI has put a question mark over its very existence,” DNA India reported.
The Supreme Court decision “also settled the issue about following of a faith,” the DNA India news piece added, quoting a section of the ruling that stated, “In the name of unification and merger, it is aimed that there is total control of not only properties and the churches but it will also have an ultimate effect of imposing particular faith or belief, which is not permissible.”
Bishop of the Gujarat Diocese of CNI, Silvans S. Christian, has written to Global Mission staff in the US that “CNI has been removed and have no place to worship the Almighty. Hence, they are meeting either in the open space or hiring the Hall or other premises. This situation, I surely believe, will compel you to bring out tears.”
At present, according to Christian, the CNI congregations of Valsad, Khergam, Vyara, Ankleswar, Umalla, Navsari, and Vali are facing a serious problem of finding a place to meet for worship.
Read the DNA India article at www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-after-supreme-court-order-church-of-north-india-on-the-verge-of-falling-apart-1921928 .
(Jay Wittmeyer, executive director of Global Mission and Service, contributed to this report.)