Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County in the case of John Milner et al. v. Board of Bishops of The Church of the Living God et al., No. 4405 November Term, 1981.
Garnita M. Selby, with her, Herbert J. Hutton, for appellants.
Roland J. Atkins, O'Brien and O'Brien Associates, for appellees.
President Judge Crumlish, Jr., and Judges Rogers, Craig, MacPhail, Doyle, Barry and Colins. Opinion by Judge Doyle.
[ 99 Pa. Commw. Page 613]
Before this Court is a property dispute between a local church congregation and its religious governing body, the Board of Bishops. The denomination in question is known as "The House of God which is The Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth" and has affiliated churches in a number of states. In religious matters, the denomination is governed by a document called "The Discipline of the House of God."
The House of God denomination was founded by Bishop A. H. White. Bishop White was designated by
[ 99 Pa. Commw. Page 614]
the Discipline as President General of the denomination for life and, until his death in 1981, exercised ultimate authority in the denomination. He also established the first local congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was its pastor until his death. On June 28, 1919, this congregation was incorporated as a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation known as The House of God which is The Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc. (corporation). In 1949, the local congregation, through its board of trustees, purchased its present church edifice at 58th and Thompson Streets in Philadelphia in the name of the corporation. This church edifice became known as "the National Temple", and each year the denomination would hold its General Assembly meetings there.
The present dispute arose upon the death of Bishop A. H. White in 1981. Shortly before his death, Bishop A. H. White appointed his son, Bishop Raymond White, to succeed him as pastor of the local congregation and as President General of the denomination. Upon Bishop A. H. White's death, other bishops in the denomination, represented by the Board of Bishops, disputed the authority of Bishop Raymond White. On October 8, 1981, members loyal to Bishop Raymond White sought the trial court's equitable jurisdiction to enjoin the other Bishops from holding a General Assembly for the purpose of electing a new Senior Bishop and President General of the denomination. The trial court denied the request for injunction, and ordered that the General Assembly proceed under the supervision of a court appointed master. As a result of the General Assembly proceedings Bishop J. H. Smith was elected as the new President General.
On October 25, 1981, the Board of Bishops notified Bishop Raymond White to vacate his position as pastor of the local church in Philadelphia. As a result, the
[ 99 Pa. Commw. Page 615]
present action was filed by members of the local congregation seeking to enjoin interference with Bishop White's exercise of duties as a local pastor. The court permitted Bishop White to remain as pastor until October 23, 1982, when the Board of Bishops excommunicated him from membership in the denomination. After unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation during the litigation, the local congregation decided to sever its affiliation with the denomination and thus presented as the sole remaining issue before ...