By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call. (Pennsylvania)
The largest Presbyterian church in the Lehigh Valley has begun a process that could lead to a split from the most visible national denomination — a move initiated after a survey showed most of its congregants disagree with church positions including, those allowing same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay ministers.
The leadership of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem voted on June 15 to enter the discernment process to leave Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, and seek affiliation with ECO: a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians after spending years considering the move.
The 140-year-old church on Center Street in Bethlehem has 2,609 members and would be the largest congregation to leave the Lehigh Presbytery, the group of congregations covering seven counties in eastern Pennsylvania.
But it’s certainly not the first to do so.
Dave Duquette, moderator of the Lehigh Presbytery and pastor of Pennside Presbyterian Church in Reading, said the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem is the fourth congregation in as many years to begin the process. Churches in Middle Smithfield Township and Milford, Pike County, have left the mainline denomination, and the First Presbyterian Church of Reading is in the midst of the discernment process, according to Duquette.
The discernment process, slated to begin in September, will provide the Lehigh Presbytery a chance to address concerns of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem and gauge the true intent of the congregation before a vote is taken, Duquette said. There is no timeline for the process. Should the congregation vote to depart, the presbytery and the church would work out a settlement for property and assets, he said.
“The ultimate goal from the presbytery side is reconciliation,” Duquette said.