Outlook Editor Jack Haberer recently sat down with PC(USA) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick to discuss some of the pressing issues in the church. This is the first of a three-part account of the conversation, but the entire interview is now available online at the link below:
JH: Some churches are talking about leaving the denomination. Why do you think they want to leave?
CK: In so many ways this season of church-leaving feels like where I came in to this some 40 to 45 years ago when my own church went to the PCA. The reasons are different but they are somewhat the same. They are obviously Christians–Presbyterians–who feel deeply, who have a passionate sense of dedication to the life of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy of the Word of God.
What has upset them is not simply the report that was adopted at the Assembly, but that it was confirmation in their minds of what they long had perceived: that the larger church is not valuing their deeply-held Christian convictions. I also sense that they feel that they’ve been left out. One of the issues in the PUP report that you can critique is, I sense, that it did not deal as much with power as with the other subjects. Some people felt left out by that … There’s in some sense a loss of hope. Beyond that, there are organized groups that are trying to lead people out, and at times I think they share what’s not always correct information. So it’s the combination of those factors that are weighing on people’s hearts that has them losing hope in the PC(USA) that I love and you love really being an expression of what God intends for the church.
JH: A lot of folks who feel the most distressed and even cynical about the denomination keep citing what have been dubbed the secret “Louisville Papers,” the advice and counsel produced by the legal offices in the OGA and the GAC regarding property ownership of churches wishing to leave the denomination. What would you say about all that?
CK: First of all, there is no document called “The Louisville Papers.” This has been a part of a pejorative campaign to dub them that, and secondly they have never been secret. They were shared with governing bodies, most of them four or five years ago. And they were done, one by the GAC legal office and the other by our legal staff. They are basically manuals of legal advice on Constitutional rights, and I think they are a correct explication of the law.
But they are not fundamentally what we are advising the church [to do]. Part of it is our dilemma on how do we communicate effectively the advice we have sent to the church? Very directly from our office is this piece called, “Responding Pastorally to Troubled Churches” (link). It is urging people to start at a very different place. When you hear that there is distrust and dissent in the life of a church for the presbytery to begin with no administrative commission, no judicial process, but to really begin pastorally, trying to listen, trying to clear up where there may be misunderstandings, trying to hear where there may be calls for change that we can work on, trying to see if there is a way that an expression the churches can live out together.
Some of the conflict we’ve had–I know it’s not the only issue–things like [concerns about] the Trinity paper are really based on a misunderstanding of what the General Assembly did. So we’re seeking to reach out that way.
The second phase, if that doesn’t work and there really is disagreement, is to try to sit down with either an administrative commission or some other way to seek to see what the understanding is, to make a judgment in the presbytery. That’s the best thing that can further the witness of the whole Presbyterian Church, [including] to dismiss the congregation. That’s clearly the right of the presbytery. And to only to go in the legal process if all of that fails and there is no other way to go. But we ought not to be, as Christians, bringing lawsuits against one another to solve problems in the church.
But I do know that there’s a great deal of angst about it. I think part of it has been due to a repudiation of the trust clause in our constitution, that indicates that all property is held in trust for the PC(USA) and that the presbytery is to be the deciding body and has the legal right to do so. I don’t think that you can or should repudiate that. We have a deep understanding that we did not choose the Presbyterian Church; God chose us to be in the Presbyterian Church, and property is something that is not just a here and now, immediate thing. It is a gift of generations, presbyteries, people who have been in that church through the years. And it exists to further a Presbyterian witness.
People always have freedom of conscience to no longer continue in the church. But church buildings and properties don’t have a conscience to exercise. They’re part of this one family. And we go back to the foundational principles, that “there is one Church” of which a particular church is to be the expression of that, and that building is to be an expression of that one Church.
Maybe in everybody’s best interest where there is deep unanimity, … where there has not been trickery or deceit or misunderstanding, that the best way to further witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to depart from the PC(USA), to dismiss the church with blessing.
Where there has been significant investment of a presbytery within that church, by mutual agreement to dismiss it, … that church might contribute to start another new church development or whatever. But there are also times and cases where it’s not been based upon accurate information, or where there have been significant minorities. The presbyteries need to make that judgment, and that’s the kind of advice we’ve often and consistently given the church, as is found on our Web page. …
We’re not repudiating the papers [that were published]. I mean, we produce manuals for committees on ministry, manuals for everybody else, and that is a manual of how the legal issues play out in the life of the church, but the advice we give to presbyteries consistently is, again, pastorally to share accurate information with people, to seek to find wherever possible win-win solutions, to consider seriously whether or not a petition to withdraw with property is the correct one, to try to work on mutually agreed positions that will uphold that constitutional position, and only if those are violated, to look at the legal process. But we’ve got a process–which is part of why we have this thick Book of Order–with rules for discipline, administrative commissions, and the like–we do have a way to work that out in the church, and I think that’s the biblical way to approach this.