Notebook > Religion

Moving toward the exits

Religion | Conservative congregations prepare to leave the troubled Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

An exodus of churches from the troubled 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is underway. Actual departures are relatively few so far, but many churches have taken preparatory steps and are poised to head for the exits. It's so serious that top executives of the denomination sent out a general letter last month urging churches not to leave.

"We are better followers of Jesus when we stick together," the letter said.

PCUSA chief executive Clifton Kirkpatrick predicted only a fraction of the denomination's 11,000 congregations will leave. Yet, "it certainly concerns me when we've got this level of dissatisfaction and obvious division," he told reporters.

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The latest wave of unrest rose from action taken at last June's PCUSA general assembly. Delegates approved a way for churches and presbyteries to permit ordination of noncelibate homosexuals on conscience grounds, bypassing the PCUSA's constitutional standards that prohibit such ordinations. It was but the latest chapter in a decades-long conflict over biblical authority and the PCUSA's leftward drift theologically.

Two dozen of the PCUSA's 173 regional presbyteries, or governing units, have voted to enforce the constitutional standards, allowing no exceptions. Activists in four of the presbyteries filed charges in church courts, demanding these moves be rescinded.

Conservative PCUSA groups, meanwhile, have been in two camps-the majority who wish to remain in the denomination and work for renewal from within-and those who want to leave. They met together last fall and pledged to maintain unity and respect each other.

Leaders of one conservative alliance in the PCUSA, the 150-congregation New Wineskins Association of Churches, are in negotiations with a smaller denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Their plan is for the Michigan-based EPC, formed in 1981 and with nearly 200 churches and 70,000 members, to create a non-geographic presbytery to receive departing Wineskins churches.

EPC moderator Paul Heidebrecht has signed onto the plan but says it awaits approval of the EPC general assembly later this year. Kirkpatrick asked Heidebrecht to "clarify" the EPC's plans. Heidebrecht, who believes the EPC eventually may receive 100 of the New Wineskins churches, denies having "recruited or approached anyone on our own."

Sometimes it is easier for a church to leave the PCUSA for another Reformed denomination without risking loss of its property in a lawsuit. (As a "connectional" denomination, the PCUSA claims all church property is held in trust for the denomination.) But not always. For example, the small Riverside Presbyterian Church in Linn Grove, Iowa, voted to leave the PCUSA and join the fast-growing 350,000-member Presbyterian Church in America. The local presbytery this month filed a lawsuit seeking the property.

In a fascinating turn of the table, some PCUSA churches that have not declared any intention of leaving and are still supporting the denomination financially have taken their presbyteries to court. They asked for a "stipulated judgment" specifying that they own their properties, not the denomination or any of its entities. With no separation or split to resolve, judges are left with only a simple question: "Who owns the property?" They have little to look at beyond the title deed and articles of incorporation.

So far, judges tend to be ruling in favor of the congregations, and conservative-friendly presbyteries are readily agreeing to the stipulations, though legal battles continue to rage in some presbyteries.

With the property ownership issue settled in advance, a congregation is free to move ahead as it wishes. And its voice on "the issues" is much more likely to be heard and taken seriously by PCUSA officialdom. The PCUSA, suffering from ever-shrinking income, has had to cut its budget and lay off many staff and missions workers. It needs all the churches it can manage to keep.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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