ECO not a Reformed body
Synod court declares plans for union presbytery ‘null and void’
By Paula R. Kincaid, The Layman, November 15, 2012
A synod Permanent Judicial Commission not only declared Santa Barbara Presbytery’s plan to re-form as a union presbytery with a newly-created, Reformed denomination “null and void,” it also stated that the new denomination — ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians — is not a Reformed body, but a “special interest group.”
Santa Barbara was found guilty of:
Conferring on a “special interest” group a veto over the constitutional governance of the church.
Promotion of division and schism in the church.
Mischaracterization of ECOP as a “Reformed” body.
Mischaracterization of the “Presbytery of the West” as a “comparable” council or governing body.
Mis-use of our constitutional provisions for union presbyteries.
Disregard of important constitutional requirements for union
Violation of our constitutional guarantee of respect for Biblically-formed conscience.
Conditioning congregational membership on more than a profession of faith.
Infringing congregations’ right to elect, and sessions’ responsibility to assess the fitness of, congregational leaders.
Violation of presbytery’s obligations in assessing its congregations’ choices of pastoral leadership.
Defiance of the church’s discernment that categorical exclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians is improper
Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church.
Violation of presbytery’s duty to exercise genuine, good-faith discernment in providing for dissident congregations
Undermining of the property trust provisions in the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Violation of obligations to congregations and members who remain exclusively loyal to the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Deprivation of full rights of membership in the presbytery.
Violation of presbytery’s duty to pursue ministry, and to establish ecumenical relationships, within its geographic bounds.
Failure to conduct business decently and in order
In its Nov. 10 decision, the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii Permanent Judicial Commission (SPJC) sustained 18 of the 19 counts made against the presbytery by the session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, Calif., and 28 other ministers in the presbytery.
The presbytery voted 104-38 on June 2, 2012 to affiliate both with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and ECO’s Presbytery of the West as a union presbytery. The presbytery also voted 106-36 to recognize ECO as a Reformed body.
The union concept would have allowed churches from both the PCUSA and ECO to join the presbytery and the member churches would have been under two forms of government.
The presbytery leaders had hoped that the move would help to stem the tide of congregations leaving the presbytery for more conservative and Reformed denominations, and retain the “viability of congregations, presbyteries and their mission.”
The SPJC said that by trying to form a union presbytery with ECO, Santa Barbara attempted to “align itself with a ‘special interest group’ and thus confer upon that entity the status of an equal council, thus giving that group veto authority over the governance” of the PCUSA’s constitution, and that while schism and division might not have been the presbytery’s intent, “the effect of that action did indeed bring about schism in the presbytery. Adoption of the Plan for Union did indeed loosen the collective ties between the presbytery and its churches and disrupted the sense of community whereby a fulsome discernment process could be implemented in order to resolve divergent views.”
The SPJC also upheld the charge that the presbytery had mischaracterized ECO as a “Reformed” body, stating that “In spite of evidence that the history of the Reformed Tradition did involve adherence to ‘essential tenets’ and required signed affirmation of same for short periods of time, it is the current understanding that the Reformed tradition rests on a clear understanding that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the conscience, and this assertion not only appears in the Form of Government but is supported by the guidance of the Theological Declaration of Barmen.”
The decision continued that “it is also a Reformed affirmation that membership in any worshiping body that claims the label ‘Reformed’ has as its only membership requirement one’s personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that the requirements of ECO are otherwise, and by requiring a signed agreement of like belief, exist beyond the boundaries of what it is understood to be Reformed.”
The decision was referring to ECO’s requirement that all ordained officers must receive, adopt and be bound by the essential tenets [found on page 6 of pdf] and agree to ECO’s moral standards. The ruling fails to acknowledge that membership in ECO carries the same standard for membership as the PCUSA: trust in Jesus Christ (ECO 1.0302 and 1.0303).
In terms of standards required by officers that are not required by all members, the PCUSA’s own ordination vows ask the question “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” However, the denomination does not list those essential tenets.
The SPJC said that “Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials. While teaching elders’ consciences are free within the confines of the church’s polity interpretation of Scripture as put forth in the Constitution, members have the right of conscience to a greater degree as well as freedom of conscience to determine the fitness of their own leaders, both at the congregational level as well as the level of the presbytery. The ‘litmus test’ for ordination is given in the Book of Order and provides presbyteries with the freedom to examine candidates on a case by case basis and determine whether or not they meet those standards and are judged by a particular presbytery to be fit for pastoral leadership.”
The decision also stated that “By imposing the necessity of adhering to specific ‘essential tenets’ as put forth by ECO and incorporated in the Plan for Union, the processes of dialogue and discernment whereby divergent views may be examined with the goal of discovering common ground for agreement have been inhibited significantly so that a body of ‘like minded’ persons becomes the norm rather than seeking fellowship and common ministry that can be supported by all members of the presbytery and its member churches.”
The PJC found that the presbytery had mischaracterized ECO’s Presbytery of the West as a “comparable council or governing body,” since “the Presbytery of the West does not meet the criteria as to membership churches with duly constituted and ordained sessions or the requisite number of teaching elders. Thus it cannot be considered a comparable council with which another presbytery can form a union.”
SPJC referenced two decisions of the General Assembly PJC — Parnell vs Presbytery of San Francisco, and Larson vs Presbytery of Los Ranchos – which declared that presbyteries must examine candidates for ordination on an individual basis and may not impose exclusionary rules beforehand in order to discourage candidates who espouse a particular theological persuasion or understanding of ministry fitness.”
Therefore, “the standards imposed by ECO and contained in the Plan for Union as a means of circumventing the stated ordination standards in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) constitute a failure to consider each candidate individually and are a way of imposing categories of persons who may or may not be considered for ordination to pastoral ministry.”
In its Plan for Union, Santa Barbara Presbytery not only abdicated on its “trusteeship, a privilege that enables them to serve the entire church,” it also abdicated its “responsibility to be faithful to their adherence to the Reformed tradition in insuring that churches which are dismissed move into fellowships that conform to the church’s understanding of church order, theology and practical ministry as viewed through the prism of the Reformed tradition,” the SPJC ruled. The Plan of Union also undermined the PCUSA’s property trust provisions found in its constitution.
The presbytery’s plan also made no provision for those in the presbytery who did not wish to be a part of the union presbytery, and therefore “violated its obligations to congregations and members who remain exclusively loyal” to the PCUSA.”
The SPJC also found that the presbytery did not conduct its business decently and in order. “While those supporters placing the Plan for Union before the presbytery membership observed the letter of the law, the spirit of open dialogue, using every avenue available to share information, using gatherings to answer questions, responding appropriately to written requests for information, allowing open discussion without time constraints – all were clearly missing. Both written documentation and trial testimony confirm this. While the plan was clearly laid out and a timeline presented, members felt excluded and their concerns given little importance. While the process may have been orderly, a significant portion of members did not feel that they were treated decently.”
The Rev. Michael D. Haggin did file a dissent from the SPJC decision in four areas:
- Count Two: Promotion of division and schism in the church: “… it would be a sheer speculation to say that the divisions and schisms resulting from one course of action were greater or less than those resulting from another course of action. The Commission has found that the action of the Presbytery was unconstitutional. I do not endorse Complainant’s desire to mark it as malevolent as well.”
- Count Three: Mischaracterization of ECOP as a “Reformed” body: “… In this count, complainant asks us to deny that ECOP is ‘Reformed.’ Witness testimony was presented to indicate that ECOP fails a particular theological ‘litmus’ test. I believe that it is at least equally legitimate to classify as ‘Reformed’ bodies whose theological witness descends historically from the central preachers and teachers of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, including Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharius Ursinus, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others of that ‘school.’”
- Count Twelve: Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church: “Complainants believe themselves to be distinguished from the majority in the Presbytery of Santa Barbara in part because of their greater ‘openness to God’s continuing reformation of the church’ on a theological point in recent (and continuing) contention. It does not follow from this that the presbytery’s members voting in the majority on June 2, 2012, must be closed to God’s continuing reformation of the church on other points of Gospel teaching or even at other times. Since this count appears to charge respondent with doing something improper in the future, I cannot concur with the commission decision here. The Rev. Paul B. Chun joins me in this dissent.”
- Count Eighteen: Failure to conduct business decently and in order: “…The length of time on June 2, 2012, for individual speeches and for the entire discussion was set by the presbytery itself in adopting a rule for this business. It followed upon several months of consideration in which there were other public discussions and there was ample opportunity for the members of the presbytery to influence their fellow presbyters. The presbytery was ready to proceed to a decision on June 2, 2012, even if the complainants felt themselves to be ‘behind the pace’ in the competition of ideas. respondent presbytery’s actions were (as we have found) mistaken and irregular, but they were not indecent or disorderly. The Rev. Paul B. Chun and ruling elder R. Curtis McKee join me in this dissent.”