According to the packet for the Feb. 15 stated meeting (rescheduled for Saturday, March 1 because of the winter storm that made its way through the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states), the POJ’s Coordination and Committee (C&C) Team is recommending that the presbytery approve a revision to the “Procedures for Churches Seeking Dismissal” document.
The most noticeable changes to the document, adopted in February 2010, would require pastors to resign or not serve as moderator of the session if a congregation applies for dismissal from the PCUSA and the appointment of an Administrative Commission (AC) to consider the application for dismissal, taking into full account the PCUSA’s trust clause regarding property rights.
The revisions would be effective for congregations seeking dismissal after Jan. 1, 2014.
The C&C Team is seeking approval for the revision as a first reading, with final action to be taken during the June 2014 stated meeting.
Under the section titled Application for Dismissal, section (b) reads: “The pastor(s) shall agree to resign or not to serve as moderator of the session and to refrain from participating in any and all meetings, deliberations and discussions concerning dismissal while the application is pending before the presbytery.”
A footnote to that section indicates that there have been recent cases of dismissal in the Presbytery of the James that involved disagreements of congregations with policies and positions on social issues adopted by the General Assembly.
Citing the Book of Order (BOO), the footnote indicates that the pastor(s) of a particular congregation acting in such circumstances who have taken ordination vows to “be governed by our church’s polity … and abide by its discipline,” W-4.4001 (c), and “to further the peace, unity and purity of the church,” W-4.4001 (e), cannot be faithful to those vows, whether they agree or disagree with members seeking dismissal.
The citations in the footnote, however, do not correspond to the Book of Order references. W-4.4001 deals with ordination and installation. The actual ordination vows referenced in the footnote are found in W-4.4003 (e) and (g).
The rationale given indicates that the pastor(s) have a conflict of interest with accountability to the presbytery, G-2.0502, and loyalties to the congregation. By agreeing to resign or not to serve as moderator of the session, along with refraining from meetings and discussions regarding dismissal, the pastor(s) lessen the likelihood of conflicts.
The recommendation goes on to show that once the application for dismissal is received, the stated clerk will request that the Committee on Ministry appoint a moderator of the session.
The proposed revision to the dismissal procedure seems to counter what the Book of Order outlines for the session and its moderator.
The BOO indicates in section G-3.0104 that the “pastor shall be the moderator of the session of that congregation. In congregations where there are co-pastors, they shall both be considered moderators and have provisions for designating who presides at a particular meeting. If it is impractical for the pastor to moderate, he or she shall invite another teaching elder who is a member of the presbytery or a person authorized by the presbytery to serve as moderator. If there is no installed pastor, or if the installed pastor is unable to invite another moderator, the presbytery shall make provision for a moderator.”
The preface to the Book of Order points out that the word shall signifies a practice that is mandated.
When reached by phone, H. Carson Rhyne Jr., general presbyter and stated clerk for Presbytery of the James, refused to comment, saying he “did not have time” to discuss the issue before hanging up abruptly.
John Flournoy, moderator of the Review Team, did not respond to an email from The Layman about the proposed change.
In addition to proposed changes to the dismissal procedure, the trustees for Presbytery of the James will recommend that the presbytery pay two-thirds of the existing mortgage of New Hanover Church (NHC), which also happens to be the host for the stated meeting.
New Hanover went through a split in February 2013 when an Administrative Commission dissolved the session and assumed original jurisdiction. Approximately 400 members left the church to become part of Church in Restoration, which is a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
The former session of NHPC expressed its unanimous intent to leave the denomination and graciously indicated its desire to help the AC provide for the transition of members wanting to stay in the PCUSA. Because of the session’s unwillingness to stay and serve what the AC deemed to be a viable PCUSA congregation, the Commission assumed original jurisdiction.
The amount of money to be considered is $530,000, and the recommendation calls for the use of funds received from congregations dismissed to other denominations to meet the need at New Hanover.
The presbytery has received payments of $250,000 from St. Giles Presbyterian Church, $370,000 from Third Church, Richmond; and $35,000 from Christ Church as part of settlement agreements for a total of $655,000.
An AC report to be given at the meeting also recommends approval for the dismissal of Spotsylvania Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg for a settlement of $400,000.