Shadow church? New alliances? one evangelical congregation is openly sizing up its options
By John H. Adams, The Layman Online, August 30, 2006
The flight of congregations from the Presbyterian Church (USA) slowly inches along, but there are hundreds – maybe thousands – of churches whose leaders are sizing up their options.
In the wake of the denomination’s heavy-handed legal strategies, most are quietly making their assessments, but a few publicly declare that they are scoping out other possible alliances.
One congregation talking openly about separation is First Presbyterian Church in Fresno, Calif., a 994-member Confessing Church congregation. In June, the congregation’s leaders posted a prominent link on the home page of its Web site to a letter signed by the pastors and elders. They had unanimously decided “to enter into a season of separation from our confused denomination.” The link to that letter remains prominently displayed.
The letter, written by James Evans, the senior pastor, does not declare that the congregation’s leaders are ready to bolt or that separation will necessarily take place. But it does compare the “season of separation” to a voluntary separation by a couple in a troubled marriage. And it has some teeth: The session voted to cease paying per capita to support the General Assembly – nearly $6,000 a year. It also tries to offer reassurance to the congregation that the church’s property is secure from being taken over by the denomination.
“I liken this to a spouse discovering that their mate has been involved in adultery,” Evans wrote. “We counsel in cases such as this to enter into a period of separation until the party in error repents from their dangerous relational attitudes and behavior. Should they not repent, we then counsel divorce. The separation allows for a healthy barrier from the destructive actions, yet also provides for possible reconciliation should a true change of heart and actions occur within a set course of time.”
“If our denomination repents of its tragic error, reunion may well occur, otherwise divorce will result,” he said. “During this time of separation we will cut off funding to our General Assembly and look for alternative alliances. Our denomination’s decision is spiritual adultery, in essence cheating the Word of God of its legitimacy and breaking the bonds of unity that have held us together for five centuries.”
The letter identifies the General Assembly’s approval of the report by the PUP task force, which included an authoritative interpretation giving presbyteries and sessions the leeway to ordain practicing homosexuals, as the prevailing issue.
Evans wrote: “This is an affair with pagan practice. No denomination that has done this has done anything but wither.”
In some ways, the withering has occurred faster in the PCUSA’s two sister mainline denominations: the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church (USA).
According to a tally by Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC, the UCC has lost nearly 202 congregations since its 2005 national governing body endorsed same-gender marriages.
Since the consecration of a bishop who left his wife and children to live with a male partner, about 330 Episcopal congregations have allied with the American Anglican Council. The council is not a denomination, although many Episcopalians regard the renewal organization as an interim step toward full dissociation from the denomination.
The council lists 16 congregations among its affiliate members as already having left the ECUSA to come under the authority of African and Latin American provinces whose bishops oppose the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In addition, many congregations that are not affiliated with the council have also left the ECUSA to become part of non-U.S. provinces in the World Anglican Communion.
The Fresno session does not dismiss the possibility of reconciliation in the PCUSA – depending on whether presbyteries and sessions use the PUP authoritative interpretation as a premise to ordain homosexuals and whether the denomination’s highest court upholds PUP’s authoritative interpretation.
It does, however, express confidence that the Presbytery of San Joaquin will not resort to the kind of intervention tactics that the denomination promotes.
“This presbytery is largely evangelical and thus warm to our concerns on matters of property,” Evans said. “We will be very eager to work with the San Joaquin Presbytery on these matters and to maintain the purity of Christ’s church.” He also said the presbytery, which has 37 congregations, “will not diminish the Word of God and will not ordain practicing homosexuals, but many presbyteries may as their ‘local option’ now allows.”
But Clark Cowden, the evangelist presbyter and stated clerk of the presbytery, doesn’t hold the same view of PUP’s authoritative interpretation. In a column posted on the presbytery’s Web site, Cowden says the constitutional “fidelity/chastity” requirement in the Book of Order remains mandatory and that an ordaining body has no authority to waive the requirement. PUP task force members themselves have viewed the constitutional requirement as a “standard” and “aspiration” rather than a polity essential.
When questioned during a debate in Chicago, Mark Achtemeier, one of the task force’s members,was urged to say whether the task force viewed anything as essential.
Achtemeier expressed hope that no ordaining body would declare the Nicene Creed nonessential.
Evans’ letter says the congregation has many options. “We may unite with other evangelical Presbyterians and form a shadow denomination existing for a season alongside of the old regime while negotiations progress upon the conditions of separation. If the denomination does not repent we would also look to the world wide Presbyterian church (what is being called the Global Fellowship), which is quite orthodox in belief and perhaps align ourselves with the millions of Presbyterians expanding rapidly in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”
But the letter said there was no rush. “A 500-year marriage is not instantly ended. Our worst errors are usually made at speed. There may be hope that our PCUSA will awaken to the love of the Word again. If not, your elders are clear in their resolve, and aligned with many evangelical Presbyterian congregations nationwide. We will be in very good company. We will not sacrifice Biblical purity for a false unity.”