For about two hours Jan. 20, the Fellowship’s Covenanting Conference broke into two separate sessions to try to answer those questions. One session was for those wanting to learn more about options for aligning with the Fellowship but staying in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); the other was for those wanting to learn more about the new denomination.
Here are some of the answers given in the session on the ECO, many of them provided by John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian church in Edina, Minn., and president of the ECO.
Signing up. Application materials will be available on the Fellowship’s website soon – with congregations able to join the ECO as early as April 1. A “commission on assimilation” will consider those applications and provisionally assign congregations to presbyteries. There will probably three or four regional presbyteries at first, growing to as many as 20 or 25 as the number of congregations joining the ECO increases.
Ordinarily, non-geographic presbyteries would not be permitted, Crosby said, although there may be exceptions for language-based presbyteries (for example, Korean or Spanish-speaking presbyteries) or for those involved with specialized kinds of ministry.
Essential tenets. Participants asked a lot of questions about the ECO’s essential tenets – seeking clarity about what congregations and pastors would be committing to if they signed up. The answers from Fellowship leaders shifted somewhat during the course of the Covenanting Conference Jan. 18-20 – a reflection in part of the complexity of trying to give birth to a full-fledged new denomination.
One of the complicating factors is that the Fellowship’s board of directors already has voted approval of revised polity and theology documents – so the new denomination has been officially created, with its constitution in place as laid out in those documents. That constitution includes a section on Essential Tenets – principles and doctrines that those being ordained as ministers, elders and deacons, as well as others exercising leadership in congregations, must promise to uphold.
Despite that constitutional requirement, however, it seems those essential tenets may not be in their final form.
Laura Smit, an associate professor of religion at Calvin College in Michigan, is the primary author of the essential tenets section of the theology paper. In a Jan. 19 presentation, Smit described the essential tenets section as being more like a paper cup, which eventually will be discarded for something better, than a cherished crystal goblet handed down through the generations.
Crosby, however, said on Jan. 20 that in the ECO, “we are wanting something a little stronger than a paper cup.”
What does that mean for those considering joining the ECO now – who must promise to agree with those essential tenets?
In the ECO the essential tenets are “not a subscriptionist bullet-point list of eight essential things you have to believe to get in the door,” Crosby said. The idea is more to have a clear theological center, because “if we are clear about the center, then we can be very fuzzy around the borders,” he said.
But the essentials are not everything in the essential tenets section. Rather, only the material in that section that’s printed in boldface type actually describes the essentials, Crosby said. The ECO wants “unanimity and clarity” on the boldface items, he said, and “the rest is fine print.” In an interview, he reiterated that point: “You have to agree with the bold stuff.”
Crosby also said the worship and polity documents might still change, even though they’ve already been approved as the ECO’s constitution.
That constitution describes a formal process for amending the constitution, requiring an overture and voting by the presbyteries. But in an interview, Crosby said the Fellowship board of directors added a “codicil” – which he said can be found in the minutes of the board’s meeting – giving the board authority to change the documents during the first 18 months of the ECO’s existence, while the new denomination is getting up and running.
Crosby and other Fellowship leaders stressed the importance of maintaining trust and flexibility built on a common theological view as the ECO takes shape. They encouraged Presbyterians to study the theology paper and offer their own thoughts. “These are living documents,” Crosby said.
“Everything we do around here is a draft,” said Jim Singleton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs and president of the Fellowship.
Structure. The ECO’s constitution provides for a budget and national staff. The ECO will collect a mandatory per capita payment of 1 percent of each member congregation’s budget. The Fellowship plans to have a $500,000 budget for 2012 and a staff of two full-time and two part-time employees. “We are committed to staying lean and minimalist,” Crosby said.
On Aug. 23-24, ECO and the Fellowship will meet jointly, at a location yet to be announced, and will formally create two separate boards of directors, one each for the Fellowship and for ECO.
Making choices. Crosby and other leaders say they want congregations and individuals to think hard about whether they want to join the ECO – hoping, as Crosby said, that, “as we live this out, more and more will decide this is their true home.” They don’t want congregations who say, “It’s the best of the bad options,” he said.
While he encourages Presbyterians to consider joining the ECO, “my fear is some of you will join something that is too dangerous,” Crosby said. “We want to say to you this is not just different in theology. We want to you to be `looking over the edge of the cliff, ready to jump’ kind of people, not `let’s set up a committee and talk about it.’ ”
Ecumenical relations. The ECO is asking for formal recognition from certain Reformed bodies, including applying for membership in the World Council of Reformed Churches.
And it’s asking “for a recognition of ECO early on by the PC(USA), to allow for a close relationship with a distinct identity, rather than enmity and throwing things at each other as some people leave in bitterness,” Crosby said. “We will see whether that works or not.”