Our Book of Order has provisions for persons to leave the fellowship in an orderly way including G-10.0302, regarding “rolls and registers.” Most separations are at the request of those seeking to join another church, by a certificate of transfer to a particular church. Sometimes a person’s name may be deleted when he or she cannot be located after searching, or when they join another church without notification.
The “new thing” about “gracious separation” was the suggestion that a majority of the congregation voted to affiliate with another denomination. When would this action have been taken? Unfortunately, our Book of Order lists only five kinds of business for meetings of the congregation (G-7.0303a). For the congregation to vote on “gracious separation” is an informal attempt to “amend” the Book of Order.
During the San Jose General Assembly, I considered other terms that might be used to describe those desiring to leave denominations as a body, rather than terminating their personal memberships and uniting with another church.
One apt word was “secession.” Most of us associate the term with the so-called “Civil War” (another oxymoron). Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address proposed that, “Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.”
Imagine my surprise when checking the definition of “secession” in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to find reference to “… the seceding of certain ministers from the established Church of Scotland in 1733 to form a separate Church (the Secession Church).” D. Ansdell‘s The People of Great Faith: The Highland Church, 1690-1900 tells the story of these Secessionist Presbyterians. “Secession” has more recently emerged again in political discussions as an expression of unhappiness.
I found a reference in the Minutes of the Presbyterian Church in America 1706-1788 where the Synod of New York and Philadelphia included reference to “the Synod of Seceding Ministers in Scotland” when they modified an earlier resolution regarding corresponding “with foreign churches.”
The second of eight provisions in the 1758 Plan of Union between the Synods of New York and Philadelphia was, “That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.” The distinction, “ … peaceably withdraw … without attempting to make any schism” is deeply etched in our Presbyterian history. It has subsequently been considered a corollary to the Historic Principles of Church Order found in G-1.0300, written in 1788.
While usually cloaked in doctrinal or exegetical garb, the secessionist tendency has been a useful understanding of the divisions, which have been a continuing factor for American Presbyterians since the Old Light/New Light “controversy” of 1741, and can be understood as secessions. Church historian Lefferts A. Loetscher wrote that the issue of lay patronage in Scotland led to what were called “ … the Seceders or Secession Church,” which led to the formation of “the Associate Presbytery.” “Schisms” is the more usual ecclesiastical term. J. Aspinwall Hodge devoted more than eight pages in his 1907 edition of What is Presbyterian Law as defined by the Church Courts? to schism. He discusses the seven “schisms” that had divided American Presbyterians.
The First Amendment to the Constitution is cited as authorizing “gracious separation: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
There are two ways to understand the words, “free exercise.” One is that Americans may worship as they please. The other is that church bodies may determine how they will organize themselves. Both are keystones of religious freedom in the United States of America, and must be balanced.
Pastors and sessions should be more explicit in enabling persons becoming members to decide based on informed consent. For example, how many members realize that becoming an active member, each one “ … has voluntarily submitted to the government of this church… . ” (Book of Order, G-5.0202) G-4.0103 defines “a particular church” as “… subject to a particular form of church government” (G-4.0103) referenced to Hebrews 8:5.
Ordained church officers (ministers, elders, and deacons) accept among their vows by responding “yes” to the question, “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline?” (W-4.04003). I understand this to mean that active promotion of secession from our denomination by any Presbyterian elder or minister constitutes breaking his or her ordination vows. Those who as individuals renounce the jurisdiction of our church act consistently with their previous commitment.
Presbyterians are a “middle way” between episcopal and congregational ways of being church. Our way is rooted in covenant theology, where “decently and in order” protect both personal and corporate rights. We have and will continue to “discuss” that balance, which tends to vary between the other two forms of church life. This “middle way” requires continued attention to how our faith and our practice maintain this delicate balance.
William E. Chapman is retired stated clerk of Palisades Presbytery (N.J.) and author of Finding Christ in the Book of Order (Witherspoon Press, 2003).