On February 9, I welcomed the New Wineskins gathering at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando on behalf of Central Florida Presbytery. As I read and thought about the gathering in advance of the day, I remembered that there have been many ways to be a Presbyterian in this country down through the generations. In the past three generations of my own family, there have been Presbyterian ministers in 5 denominations. Grandfather served as a missionary in India for the UPNA for 40 years. My father served in three denominations, the ‘old’ USA church, the UPC and the PCUS. I have served in the PCUS and the PC(USA). For us, the differences were matters of geography and history not controversy. Still, I was reminded that there have been lots of ways to be Presbyterian; lots of divisions, and, thanks be to God, several reunions.
After I shared my greetings and welcome, I stayed to worship and to hear the presentations that day. As I listened, I heard things that raised several questions for me as a presbytery executive. I heard a very narrow focus on church history, ignoring huge shifts in American culture in the latter half of the 20th century that have had impact on all mainline denominations, a focus that seemed to me to give a biased view of the history of Presbyterian denominations radically different from my own experience and memory of events. I heard an understanding of the nature of Presbyterian church that seemed to me to assume that the church is a voluntary organization that we can join or leave at will, not just we individuals, but we officers and congregations. My own education in polity has taught me that the church is not a voluntary organization but a body in which we are united to each other by God with a common set of guiding principles and vows. It is not fair to assume that speakers who are members of other denominations would have a clear knowledge of our polity, and it was clear that they did not.
We can leave, individuals and congregations, but when we want to leave the denomination, there are processes clearly spelled out. Individuals are to work toward reconciliation when they find themselves in the midst of conflicting values. If they cannot reconcile, they are to request to withdraw quietly. For church members, the matter of dismissal is in the hands of a session. For ministers of Word and Sacrament and congregations, the matter of dismissal is in the hands of a presbytery. We live in community in the church. We make decisions together, even the decision to leave. I wonder whether the sense of community has gotten so fractured in the church, the practice of polity has gotten so lax or whether we have gotten so comfortable together over the past 23 years that we have forgotten how to leave. Statistics would indicate that it is not option three. As a presbytery executive who counsels with pastors and sessions, I wonder how I can help my presbytery’s congregations regain a sense of our mutual responsibility to each other.
Congregations can request to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and take their property, and presbyteries can grant that request within certain limits that are spelled out in G-8.000, one of the shorter chapters in the current Book of Order. A presbytery can dismiss a congregation with its property to another Reformed denomination which shares our system of government. It can dismiss ministers to any denomination to which they wish to transfer, providing that a denomination will accept them. If there is a division of opinion about leaving in a congregation, the presbytery, according to our constitution, must consult with the congregation and determine how the matter can be resolved. If some want to go to another denomination and some want to remain with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the presbytery determines that it has interest in having a Presbyterian witness in that location, the constitution provides that the trust of those who began the church as a congregation of this denomination and the trust of those who have supported the church through the years must be honored. Reading G-8.000, I wonder whether the ‘provisional presbytery’ offered by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church would qualify for dismissal to another Reformed body, and if it would not hold up on appeal, I wonder how we will deal in my presbytery with that possibility.
My understanding of our responsibility to keep ordination vows was shaped by my early life experience, I know. Until I was ten, my father was an Army officer and we lived our lives by military orders. We drove the posted speed limit on base, my dad wore the uniform prescribed in the orders of the day and when the Army said move, we packed. Any system of community life has a set of expectations of members and of officers. Those of us who are officers in the Presbyterian Church (USA) have made promises not just about how we will love the Lord and lead the people in our individual congregations, but also about how we will participate in the governing bodies of our church and uphold its constitution. Our vows are not multiple choice, pick a favorite of the day or of the office and ignore the others. We are each of us under the orders of all the vows and accountable to each other in the church and to the head of the church for how we keep them or request to be released from them. Sessions and presbyteries can determine whether in our interpretation of Scripture we have departed from essential tenets of Reformed faith when we declare that our understanding is different from that of the Confessions in some particular. No one can excuse us from abiding by the behavior standards mandated for church officers in the constitution. Commonly held standards of belief and behavior for officers and governing bodies are fundamental to our form of government.
In a culture of individualism and alienation, of broken promises and cast off commitments, of terror and armed conflict, it is difficult to remember that we belong to something else and are called to a different way of life. As a presbytery executive, I wonder how my colleagues and I can model in the weeks and months ahead what it means to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love and to be governed by our church’s polity at the same time. For my own part, I will try to remember with grace and good humor that we are not the first generation of Presbyterians who have come to a fork in the road and taken it even as I pray that God will call us into a different way of settling our difficulties and modeling what it means to be called by Christ’s name as we face the future.
Paige M. McRight
Central Florida Presbytery