With the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) having decided to change its ordination standards, Presbyterians who disagree with that change — and many of them are passionate in thinking the denomination has made a horrible mistake — are trying to determine what they should do next.
Should they stay in the PC(USA)? Leave for another denomination? Propose alternate configurations that might give Presbyterians who believe the Bible forbids the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians a place to live out their faith without violating their consciences?
These are questions both for individual Presbyterians who think the denomination has turned the wrong way and for congregations considering taking formal steps to leave the PC(USA).
A majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries has voted to remove a requirement that those being ordained as ministers, elders or deacons practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. The change will take effect July 10, leaving it up to local governing bodies to examine candidates for ordination or installation, and to make individual determinations.
While local governing bodies won’t be required to ordain gays and lesbians involved in relationships, it will be possible for them to do so.
Already, there are signs of evangelical unhappiness and movement. For example:
» The Presbyterian Lay Committee is proposing that Presbyterians sign a declaration called “I Choose This Day,” which it describes as “an opportunity for Presbyterians in the pews to stand firm against a tide of cultural accommodation that is swamping the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The declaration affirms that “sexual relations outside of the covenant of marriage are contrary to the will of God,” and asks each signer to request that the session of his or her congregation study its relationship to the PC(USA) and report back to the congregation by Reformation Sunday, Oct. 30.
» The Presbytery of Santa Barbara, meeting May 14, approved a proposal it will send to the PC(USA)’s Middle Governing Bodies Commission for consideration. The presbytery is proposing that its geographic boundaries be extended to match those of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, forming what it describes as an “overlay or conjunct” presbytery. The aim is to create some flexibility until the denomination determines whether to allow “porous” or non-geographic presbyteries. A presbytery cut free of lines on a map could accept congregations based on conviction rather than location. That might give churches opposed to the ordination of gays and lesbians a way to band together, yet remain in the PC(USA).
» The Fellowship PC(USA) group — the group of pastors that posted a white paper in February declaring the denomination to be “deathly ill” — is holding a gathering in Minneapolis Aug. 25-26, in part to explore the idea of starting a new Reformed body without leaving the PC(USA).
As ideas and proposals such as these continue to simmer, some Presbyterians are considering their own options — including whether to stay in the PC(USA) or find a new spiritual home.
“We are deeply troubled by this, scandalized by this, and have said for years and years if it happens, it’s going to change everything,” said Mark Patterson, lead pastor of the 600-member Community Presbyterian Church in Ventura, Calif.
Patterson describes the change in standards as “light years ahead of the worst” of any previous denominational controversy, saying: “I’ve never seen anything like this. The rage is unbelievable. My belief is the progressive wing doesn’t get it. A line has been crossed, and will have a devastating impact on the denomination. The question is whether we fragment or split.”
William Pawson is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio, whose congregation voted May 15 to leave the PC(USA) and affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
“In the past, we’ve been able to justify remaining with the PC(USA) because we were aware that people who were involved in the ongoing ordination of homosexuals were doing so in violation of our standards,” Pawson said. “We expected the church courts to deal with it, but it was not the policy of the church to qualify people (for ordination) who were sexually promiscuous … Well, now it’s become the policy.”
At the May 15 congregational meeting, only about 15 percent of those present indicated they wanted to stay in the PC(USA), he said. The rest voted to ask the Muskingum Valley Presbytery to release the congregation with its property.
Pawson expects the move, even if not rancorous, will be painful for his congregation, especially if some members elect not to leave.
Pawson said the first Presbyterian church he was called to serve was in a small town in Louisiana, a congregation that had divided 20 years earlier over charismatic expressions in worship. “Families were split and it was bitter,” he said. “I imagine if you went back and talked to people, it’s still an open wound, and I’ve been gone from there for 15 years.”
Pawson still isn’t sure what he will do if Westminster Church leaves the PC(USA). He worries about who will serve evangelical PC(USA) congregations if pastors like him aren’t there.
He said he has made it clear that “I do not want to be the person to lead the congregation out” of the denomination, and that “if they wanted to leave, they would have to do it not knowing if I would go with them or not. I have said that over and over and over.”
But Pawson also says that “I’m a Christian first, I’m a Presbyterian second,” and that “culture has changed. God’s word has not changed. That’s what it comes down to for me. Ten million people can say something is right, but if the Bible says it’s wrong, it’s wrong.”
Advocates of the new ordination policy say no congregation will be required to ordain or install gays or lesbians. They say those decisions of who is qualified for leadership will be up to local governing bodies. But that assurance provides scant reassurance for some evangelicals.
Charles “Chaz” Brand, a commissioned lay pastor from Idaho, serves two yoked congregations in small towns near Boise — King Hill Community Church, a Presbyterian congregation, and Glenns Ferry United Methodist Church. People in both churches have told him “they are definitely not open” to ordaining gays and lesbians — “to the point of, ‘I don’t know how much money I’m going to put in the collection plate, because I don’t want to support an organization that does,’ ” Brand said.
By changing the ordination standards, “we went from clear to ambiguous,” he said. “And by doing that in today’s legal climate, we’ve opened up Pandora’s box. We’re going to have a hard time finding the lid, let alone closing it.”
Brand isn’t sure what the King Hill congregation will decide to do, but he intends to stay in the PC(USA) – although not without pain.
“It feels to me like an entire denomination was hijacked by a few people who think differently. That’s wrong,” Brand said. “It causes problems in my family too. My wife is very stern on this situation. She was raised Southern Baptist, and I convinced her to become a Presbyterian … I will stay. I will fight it out. You can’t fight from the outside. You have to argue from the inside.”
At Patterson’s church in California, denominational loyalty is practically nonexistent, particularly for young adults. He’s considering removing the word “Presbyterian” from the church sign, because “I’m embarrassed to be part of the Presbyterian Church … I’m embarrassed for the first time ever.”
As far as what his congregation will do, “anything’s on the table,” Patterson said. “A line has been crossed. I have fought tenaciously that we not split, that we remain a part of the body. The line has been crossed, they’ve abandoned the faith,” so to stay in the PC(USA) as it is now “is no longer an option. My priority is to stay connected and to hold together all the churches that we possibly can.”
Patterson thinks the change in ordination standards is just the beginning.
“Most of us believe it’s just a matter of time before gay marriage is passed by the church and it’s just a matter of time before we are mandated to have gays and lesbians on our sessions and our board of deacons,” he said. “There are very few people who think it stops with this.”
Denominational leaders have said that the proposal Santa Barbara Presbytery has submitted to the Middle Governing Bodies Commission is unconstitutional, Patterson said. If that plan doesn’t fly, “we have tried every way we can within the rules of the denomination to try and bring change … We’re going to make our own plans.”
Already, 23 congregations, from as far away as Massachusetts, have asked to join Santa Barbara Presbytery, Patterson said. If congregations are going to leave their current presbyteries, Patterson wants them to remain as strong and as connected as possible. He is part of a group working on a new plan to achieve that, one whose details he’s not ready to discuss.
“Lots of courage is needed right now,” Patterson said. “And boldness.”