The presbytery took action during its stated meeting May 4 to recognize the newest Presbyterian denomination as one that congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) can join.
The action comes after a Synod of Southern California and Hawaii Permanent Judicial Committee (SPJC) ruling in November that deemed ECO to be a “special interest group” rather than a Reformed body.
That determination by the synod came about when the session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, Calif., and other individual presbyters filed a remedial complaint against the presbytery for its decision to form a “union presbytery.”
The union concept would have given churches from the PCUSA and ECO an opportunity to be part of the same presbytery, and members would have operated under two forms of government. Leaders envisioned the move as helping reverse the trend of congregations leaving the presbytery for more conservative and Reformed denominations in an attempt to retain the “viability of congregations, presbyteries and their mission.”
“The real focus was trying to keep the presbytery together,” said the Rev. Dr. Mark Patterson, pastor at Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura, Calif. “There were some (churches) that wanted to leave the PCUSA, but we liked this presbytery and wanted to stay with it.”
The Presbytery of Santa Barbara (PSB) voted 104-38 (73 percent) June 2, 2012, to form the union with ECO’s Presbytery of the West to maintain relationships among churches in the PSB, those still affiliated with the PCUSA and those who were dismissed or seeking dismissal. During that same meeting, the presbytery also voted 106-36 (75 percent) to recognize ECO – formed in January 2012 – as a Reformed body.
A month later, the remedial action was taken, and the synod sided with the complainants.
During a Nov. 9, 2012, trial, the SPJC issued a unanimous ruling that “declares null and void the actions taken by Santa Barbara Presbytery at their called meeting of June 2, 2012, wherein the plan for union was approved.”
In reaching its decision, the SPJC sustained 18 of the 19 counts made against the presbytery. It held that the action brought about a schism in the presbytery.
Patterson said the presbytery opted not to file an appeal to fight the ruling that made the union presbytery concept null and void while establishing that ECO was not an approved Reformed body for dismissal.
However, the issue of recognizing ECO as a Reformed body came up again during the latest presbytery meeting when Santa Barbara’s gracious dismissal process was being formalized, and ECO was one of 11 denominations accepted for dismissal by PSB, evidenced by precedence established by actions of other PCUSA presbyteries.
Information from Presbytery of the Pacific showing its stance on ECO as a Reformed body (accepted during a presbytery vote taken April 27) also was provided at the meeting for informational purposes as was a reference to documents from Presbytery of San Gabriel.
According to presbytery documents, the list includes, but is not limited to Christian Reformed Church in North America, ECO, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Hungarian Reformed Church in America, Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad, Lithuanian Evangelical Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Chris and United Methodist Church. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church was not among those approved Reformed bodies.
“The presbytery has the full right to decide whether a denomination is legitimate, and that’s what happened in a very ordered and peaceful meeting,” Patterson said. “It is sad, though. We could have stayed together. The whole plan was to keep the presbytery together even though churches were on different pages. Now, at least a quarter, maybe a third of them will be leaving.”
Thirty-one churches are listed as part of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara.
The decision to acknowledge ECO as an approved Reformed body paves the way for at least eight churches that already have notified the presbytery of their intentions to depart the PCUSA, with Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura leading the way.
“We filed our request in November before the gracious dismissal process was finished and approved,” Patterson said. “Now we have a Presbytery Response Team (PRT) working with us, and we feel like we have a really good team. Our hope is to be out by the fall or at least the end of the year, and we’re willing to slow down and leave with several other churches.”
Other churches that already have notified the presbytery of their intent to seek dismissal are Trinity Presbyterian (Camarillo), Emmanuel Presbyterian (Thousand Oaks), Cottonwood Community Fellowship (Los Alamos), Orchard Community Church (Ventura), Morro Bay Presbyterian (Morro Bay), Community Presbyterian (Cambria) and Malibu Presbyterian (Malibu).
Like Community Presbyterian in Ventura, Trinity also has started working with a PRT.
“We’re very excited and just hopeful it’s a peaceful process,” Patterson said. “We worked so hard to maintain unity, but the only thing left, in my mind, is for evangelicals to leave. We’re ready to be out and into ECO. We hope to make an example to other churches how that can be done.”