The Presbytery of Santa Barbara has voted to approve a plan to become a union presbytery – affiliated both with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. At its June 2 meeting, the presbytery voted 73 percent in favor of making the move, more than the two-thirds majority needed.
For the change to take effect, the proposal still needs approval from ECO’s Presbytery of the West and from the PC(USA)’s Synod of Southern California and Hawaii.
If the union presbytery is approved, both congregations that remain in the PC(USA) and those that join ECO could become members.
Before its vote, the presbytery considered a report from the presbytery’s council about whether ECO meets the standards for being a Reformed body with which the presbytery could form a union.
That report states that Pueblo Presbytery in Colorado, Central Florida Presbytery and Olympia Presbytery in Washington already have decided that ECO is a Reformed body to which congregations can be dismissed.
“The current estimate is that approximately 200 churches nationwide are presently at some stage in the process of coming into ECO,” the report states. “This is five times the number of churches involved in starting the Presbyterian Church of America (formed in 1973) . . . ”
The council determined that ECO did meet the requirements of being doctrinally consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology and of being governed by a polity consistent in form and structure of the PC(USA). Some council members did have concerns about whether ECO was too new to be considered sufficiently permanent – “to ensure that the local congregation is not being dismissed to de facto independence,” as the criteria state.
However, the council determined that the union presbytery would still be connected to the PC(USA) even if the fledgling denomination were to fail, so “there is no risk for a congregation to be abandoned.”
The plan of union also spells out some other details. Among them:
The union presbytery would routinely grant dismissal of congregations from the presbytery that wanted to transfer from the PC(USA) to ECO. “The presbytery will consider the continued participation of a congregation in the Union Presbytery as satisfying the financial guidelines for dismissal.”
Individual members whose congregations transfer to the ECO but who wish to personally remain in the PC(USA) shall have their membership held at the presbytery level.
All teaching elders of the union presbytery “shall be considered to be engaged in a validated ministry,” and the presbytery would routinely grant them permission to serve across denominational lines between the PC(USA) and ECO.
A memorandum of understanding spells out some of the rationale for the change. It states that some congregations have expressed a desire or intention to leave the PC(USA), while still wanting to remain part of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara.
“This plan seeks to allow individual churches to follow their conscience while staying in union with the presbytery and partners in its mission and ministries,” the memorandum states. “The alternative, as seen nationally, is a contentious separation causing damage to congregations, breaking of relationships, and threatening the viability of congregations, presbyteries and their mission. Our goal is to avoid this.”