A vote to depart the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is leading to a split in a “quintessential New England white church on the town common,” Londonderry (N.H.) Church, acknowledged clerk of Session, Lee Carvill.
The majority has chosen to affiliate with the New Wineskins Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (NWP-EPC). A group wishing to remain loyal to the PC(USA) claims that they have been locked out of their church facilities.
The congregation, the second largest church in the Synod of the Northeast, voted to leave the PC(USA) on Sept. 30. The recommendation to disaffiliate was supported by 208 voters with 86 voting against, a margin of 71% to 29%. Given a total membership of 446, the plans to leave have been officially supported by 47% of the members.
According to the constitutional policy of the PC(USA), the proposal to leave now is to be taken up by the Presbytery of Northern New England (PNNE) for action at their next meeting.
However, the congregational vote aimed to bypass that process by declaring all ties to the PC(USA) severed and by joining the non-geographic, transitional NWP-EPC, in order to pave the way for taking all property with them. The EPC welcomed them into membership in a meeting the next day, Oct. 1.
The PNNE, in recognition of its jurisdictional authority in the Book of Order, had invited both the continuing PC(USA) group and the NWP-EPC group to share the use of the property until the presbytery could respond to the proposal for disaffiliation.
The NWP-EPC group rejected that proposal and filed property claims in secular courts, having successfully gained an ex parte order to supercede the presbytery’s authority in the action. The PC(USA) group is appealing that ruling to the state supreme court.
For nearly three years the congregation has been lacking a permanent pastor. After the departure of its previous pastor, the congregation developed a mission study and called interim pastor Robert Bailey. They elected a pastor nominating committee, but rumblings about withdrawing from the denomination surfaced. In Sept. 2006, the Session launched a discernment process to assess whether the congregation would retain affiliation with the PC(USA). In the meantime the presbytery leadership would not allow them to search for a permanent pastor until the congregation determined whether it would stay or leave.
According to Carvill, the Session remained neutral through the process. “It presented a balanced campaign on both sides of the issue.”
After Bailey’s departure this past July, the PNNE appointed a retired minister, Dwight White, a long-time friend of the Londonderry church, to serve as Moderator of the Session. He also preached twice a month. In conversation with the Outlook, he spoke warmly of the members and elders there. However, when it came to the discernment process and decision to disaffiliate, he said, “I was disappointed, to say the least, and felt that this decision was long in the making. I could see the footprints of The Layman, the New Wineskins and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church through the whole process.”
Presbytery executive Richard O. Wyatt told the Outlook, “The New Wineskins representatives and the EPC have misrepresented the PC(USA)’s positions and created a wedge in the congregation that didn’t exist before.”
On Sept. 15 the PNNE formed an administrative commission to address the concerns at LPC. Then, “On Sept. 17th they filed papers with the registry of deeds to cloud the title for the church’s property,” reported Carvill. The Session members interpreted those actions as an attempt to take control of the church. So on Sept. 21, the church’s trustees obtained a restraining order, prohibiting any presbytery personnel from coming on the property. The presbytery appealed that ruling on Sept. 27, but on Oct. 5 the court rejected their request.
So, NWP-EPC group changed the locks in the hope of avoiding more direct confrontation. On Oct. 7, the NWP-EPC congregation worshiped in the sanctuary, and the locked out PC(USA) group worshiped outside under a tree. The following week, they met in a member’s home and the week following met in a community center.
In defense of the congregation’s actions, attorney Michael McCarty, a member of the New Wineskins’ strategy team, wrote in an online blog, “In a perfect world, pre-emptive moves would not be necessary. However, the PC(USA) created its own draconian plan for pre-emptive strikes and property seizures in the Louisville Papers. Suit was filed in anticipation that the PNNE would follow that game-plan.”
Bob Merrill, a member of the presbytery’s administrative commission, responded that Mr. McCarty “can justify his ‘pre-emptive’ actions all he likes. PNNE did not plan to follow any game plan except to be pastoral, caring, and concerned about our sisters and brothers in Christ at LPC. Our plan was to listen and dialogue, which is what our Moderator, Stated Clerk, General Presbyter, the Moderator of their Session, and a number of others, all tried to do. Mr. McCarty convinced the Session of LPC to toss out the BO [Book of Order] and create their own set of rules.”
The congregational debate grew complicated when John Mokkosian rose to speak. A regular attender at LPC since 1985, he is a pastoral counselor and minister member of PNNE, and therefore not a member of the congregation. Upon his request to speak, White, the moderator, would not recognize him, so a motion to allow him to speak generated a half-hour debate before a majority vote granted the freedom to speak. He told the Outlook, “I said to the congregation that my greatest fear is coming true. What the EPC has been intending to do — to take control, allowing only those voices of agreement to speak — is taking place. What I then pledged, as I had put in writing, was that I was willing and ready to be a continuing support to the congregation known as Londonderry Presbyterian Church, PC(USA).”
Subsequent to the congregational meeting, the PNNE appointed John Mokkosian to serve as temporary supply pastor for the PC(USA) group.
The NWC-EPC group has contracted with David Midwood, director of Vision New England and a minister-member of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference to serve as their interim pastor.
Carvill expressed his grief, “I’m losing some of my best friends in this, and others are as well.”
Midwood added, “There is no victory on either side. It’s like dividing the baby in half.”