By Joseph Duffus, Small-p Presbyterianism blog.
Perhaps the saddest event taking place in the presbyterian world is the process of seeking “gracious dismissal” from PC(USA). As we know, this denomination is splintering and withering due to overall membership declines — fewer people becoming members of PC(USA) churches. But this is common to all of the mainline denominations.
In American presbyterianism today, though, entire churches are seeking dismissal from the PC(USA) to other reformed bodies. They leave for “ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians” or the slightly older Evangelical Presbyterian Church. These upstarts share basic principles of presbyterianism such as the Confessions, a Book of Order, and the peer-accountability and group discernment ethos.
The reason they want to leave is that they believe the denomination has, in essence, already left them. The dispute flares over same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, both of which have been approved by General Assemblies in the past four years. Stepping back, though, there are many other issues beneath these flashpoints. These include the church’s political stances and “social witness” activities. They also include core theological issues including atonement, scriptural authority, Christ’s uniqueness, salvation as being by God’s grace alone and by faith, alone. These are deeply presbyterian values, some common to all reformed churches, and others bespeaking its connectional nature.
Yet the process of seeking “gracious dismissal” itself becomes ultimately a question of money. Churches in discernment may grapple initially with the theological and philosophical issues, but leaving becomes a question of cash. This distortion is caused by the PC(USA) constitutional “trust clause,” which states that all property owned by a local church is “held in trust for the denomination.” Of the three presbyterian denominations I have named here, PC(USA) is the only one to impose this clause. The others, formed in schism and made up of past members of the former, specifically declined to incorporate themselves in this way, perhaps as an inducement to other churches to join them because of an easier escape clause.
So, leaving means negotiating a financial settlement with the local presbytery or, worse, abandoning church property completely and starting over, bloodied but finally free of the clause and the claim.