By Bill Proctor, ChurchandWorld.com.
Upon reading the article about the failed vote to depart the Presbyterian Church (USA), taken by the congregation at First Presbyterian in Columbus, Georgia, and the follow-up article about the pastor’s resignation and the formation of a new congregation by a group who have chosen to depart the PCUSA, I am again reminded of how out of balance the PC(USA) has become.
To recap, the vote to depart was 266 in favor, and 146 against. In other words, the majority of those voting wished to depart the PCUSA. Yet what was required for such an action to take place was a super majority vote. A similar result took place at First Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.
As we Presbyterians are well aware, our presbyteries have recently been voting on two significant issues. The first regarding the definition of marriage, and the second involving the adoption of the Belhar Confession.
These changes, with the first altering thousands of years of Biblical and theological understanding of the definition of marriage – and the second adding a new confession to the Book of Confessions (a confession that failed to be approved when it was first presented to presbyteries for a vote several years back) have both passed by tallying up simple majorities at each presbytery. Yet in some presbyteries the two proposals – especially the change in the definition of marriage – passed by less than ten votes. No super majority vote was required.
Our denomination is being rent asunder and yet such a tremendous change in theological and Biblical understanding can take place presbytery by presbytery by a vote of say 36 to 35 – while a congregation who wishes to depart the PCUSA can be required to achieve a two-thirds majority vote. It is this disparity that I find so out of balance. This does not feel fair or just.
Most congregations, in spite of our connectionalism, know who they are in terms of theology and their understanding of Scripture. Most congregations also know their community. For a presbytery to prescribe the kind of vote that must be achieved before a congregation can depart seems patently unfair and designed to intentionally favor the minority over and against the majority.
If thousands of years of theological understanding can be changed by a simple majority vote in each presbytery, then why can’t a congregation depart under the same rules? Only us Presbyterians could come up with a formula by which the minority vote carries the day – and in the case of the church in Columbus, by eight votes.
A first question that comes to mind is this, does the PCUSA care as much about those Presbyterians who wise to align with a different denomination as it cares for those who wish to remain in the PCUSA? A second question that arises is this, how are congregations, where a strong majority wish to depart, going to recover and flourish when a vote is as close as the one in Columbus? A third question I have is how does binding a congregational vote in such a way serve an eternal purpose or advance the kingdom of God?
The last time I checked, church membership is voluntary – not compulsory. Though I do not know personally anyone in the church in Columbus, I would guess that those who have left to form a new congregation were among some of the most active and supportive members of First Presbyterian. Their departure will no doubt have long-standing consequences. And, if even more members of the church in Columbus decide to join those who have left – which is quite possible – then what does that mean for the future viability of First Presbyterian in Columbus, Ga.?
Bottom-line – the PCUSA has managed to care for, respect, and preserve the rights of the minority, but in so doing it has failed to keep a majority of people from acting in a way they have surely prayed about and considered at length. In other words, the denomination cannot make the majority stay.
In the meantime, had the same requirement of a two-thirds majority been applied to the votes in each presbytery to consider redefining the meaning of marriage – and the adoption of the Belhar Confession – I wonder if they would have passed? Maybe – but then we will never know. It feels to me like a double-standard, all enacted decently and in order by the PCUSA. Little wonder we continue to lose so many people and congregations. We can make our own rules, but we then have to live with the results.
The Rev. Bill Proctor is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Angelo, Texas. The congregation he serves has voted to depart the PCUSA. They have reached a financial agreement. They are now awaiting the vote of the presbytery to allow them to depart.