The mecca of southern Presbyterianism has been shaken, as the Montreat Presbyterian Church (MPC) has voted its desire to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At a congregational meeting held on Sunday, January 21, the congregation voted 311 to 27 (with three abstentions) to request the Presbytery of Western North Carolina (PWNC) to dismiss them with property to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The congregation rents its worship space, Gaither Hall, from Montreat College, but the education building they use was built in the mid-1990s with funds contributed by the congregation. Both buildings intermingle with the facilities of the conference center and the college, a PC(USA)-related school.
Congregational secessions are being encouraged by a magazine, The Layman, which is published within the bounds of the presbytery. In anticipation that some churches might wish to secede, the presbytery this past October adopted a policy that no congregation’s request to leave will be considered unless at least 50% of its members are present and actually cast a vote, and the margin of support is at least 75%. With 341 votes cast out of 455 members, and with a 92% margin of support, MPC’s petition to leave will be considered by the PWNC.
The presbytery will act on the proposal at the stated meeting of April 24, which will be held at the Montreat facilities. In the meantime the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry will study the situation and recommend whether or not they believe the congregation should be dismissed. The policy adopted last October specifies that the vote to dismiss the congregation will require a two-thirds majority at a presbytery meeting for approval. If approved, then a second vote to allow them to take the property will require a simple majority.
The conference center hosted many General Assemblies of the former southern church, the PCUS, and their summer youth conferences and other events have hosted many thousands of participants over the past 100+ years.
Less than 25% of MPC’s members live in the village of Montreat, but most all of the villagers feel a kinship toward the only church that worships in the town. The village of Montreat, a close-knit community of mostly Presbyterians–many of whom are retired ministers and missionaries–has been rocked by the vote.
This past October, George Barber, president of the Montreat Conference Center, wrote, on behalf of all the senior staff at MCC, a letter to MPC’s Pastor Richard White. A week later he followed with an open letter to the whole Montreat community. In bold print both letters say, “You are our brothers and sisters in faith and in service to Jesus Christ. We share a heritage not only in faith but also in our love of all things Montreat. We love you and implore you not to leave our family.”
Now that the church has voted, Barber told the Outlook, “We [the Montreat Conference Center] are a ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and we have enjoyed our ministry partnership with Montreat Presbyterian Church over the last 100 years. We remain unabashedly affiliated with the PC(USA), and our current long range planning process confirms that.”
The Montreat Church has been the home congregation for Billy and Ruth Graham, where she has been a member. Health problems have prevented both of the Grahams from participating in recent years.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church is a denomination comprised of approximately 180 congregations, most of which seceded from the PC(USA) in the 1980’s in reaction to the requirement to ordain women to the offices of deacon, elder, and minister of Word and Sacrament.
The Montreat Church is one of several PC(USA) congregations in the past year that have initiated steps toward being dismissed to the EPC. The New Wineskins Association of Churches, comprised of 141 PC(USA) congregations, was to meet Feb. 8 and 9 in Orlando, Fla., to consider a proposal for churches desiring to leave the PC(USA) to transfer to a “transitional” non-geographic presbytery in the EPC for up to five years in anticipation of making the change permanent.