The Richmond, Va., congregation was dismissed from the PCUSA during the June 18 meeting of Presbytery of the James (POJ) at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars.
The presbytery voted 137-39 to dismiss the 375-member church, founded in 1937, with name and property after the congregation agreed to pay $250,000. St. Giles has joined ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
“It’s kind of a good news and bad news thing,” said the Rev. Keith Hill, pastor of St. Giles for six years. “The good news is we had an Administrative Commission (AC) that had a good feel for what it would take to get a positive vote in our favor. The bad news is we’re paying nearly twice the average (settlement price) as a church of our size. But, had the settlement been closer to the average, the vote might not have passed.”
St. Giles’ decision to seek departure from the PCUSA revolved around the passage of Amendment 10A in May 2011. Amendment 10A deleted the explicit “fidelity/chastity” requirement from the constitutional ordination standard, and allows the PCUSA to ordain gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as deacons, elders and pastors. It removed the requirement for ministers to live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”
Prior to the St. Giles session’s submission of a formal request seeking dismissal from the PCUSA to the presbytery in October 2011 (following an 18-0 session vote), Hill penned a series of blogs (in August and September 2011) that outlined reasons to leave.
In them, he noted that “a line had been crossed” by the national denomination in adding such language to the ordination standards, noting that in time it would lead to a “broader crumbling of foundational doctrines.”
He wrote that the standards were changed “in spite of the Bible and not because of it” as well as the church being “in schism, simply by being part of the PCUSA.” The battle over sexual ethics and claims of justice related to them has been an ongoing and tiring debate for some 30 years, and Hill pointed out that a redefinition of marriage will be the next topic of great debate, more so than it already appears to be.
“We had crossed a line,” Hill said, echoing his blog post from nearly two years earlier. “We believed that the consideration about contended matters had become unproductive, even toxic, in the larger church. The practice of new ordination standards outside of Biblical norms had left us to say we no longer could be submissive to our brethren here. It was a crisis of conscience at that point.”
A Listening Team from POJ began working with St. Giles in February 2012, and an Administrative Commission was formed in October.
A straw poll taken in January 2013 showed 92 percent of active voting members in favor of leaving the PCUSA (178 for, 8 against, 7 abstentions) for affiliation with ECO. In May, an overwhelming majority agreed to the terms of dismissal. As steep as they were, 165 of 175 congregants who voted (94 percent) gave the OK to finalize the agreement.
Hill said one presbyter sought a higher settlement amount during the June 18 meeting, even though a February Communication and Coordination Team report showed the presbytery had an investment portfolio totaling more than $4 million at the close of 2012. Another presbyter tried to persuade the voting body to take the church’s name during the meeting. In the end, the vote passed by a 3-1 margin.
“There’s a diverse group in the presbytery,” Hill said. “Our Listening Team and Administrative Commission were very able and gracious people who wanted to serve us and the presbytery well. We’re grateful the vote was nearly 3-1 in our favor. It was a relief to us and the AC, which put blood, sweat and tears into this (process), too.
“We’re grateful we were able to be gracious in our interactions with the presbytery. We have no interest in defining ourselves by bad-mouthing the PCUSA. We do not want to denigrate those who have been our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The cash payment, determined to be nearly 6 percent of the real property value, took into consideration the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC ) ruling from 2012, and had to be made by June 21. St. Giles also retained all personal property, including operating and endowment funds, as well as its name, though it was required to delete any reference to PCUSA.
Copies of session minutes and historical documents related to church life in the PCUSA were turned over to the presbytery. Hill’s credentials were transferred to ECO, and Associate Pastor Sarah Marsh was given permission to continue as a PCUSA teaching elder and permitted to labor outside the bounds of the POJ as an affiliate member of ECO, with St. Giles paying her medical and pensions dues to the PCUSA Board of Pensions.
Hill said the decision to join ECO was one based on an opportunity to help mold a new denomination and its willingness to allow women to hold prominent leadership roles. He also said elders and church members preferred a multi-confessional approach to a singular confession, and the fact that ECO is a mission-minded denomination certainly grabbed St. Giles’ attention.
“We could have found a home in the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), but ECO seemed to be the easier for us,” Hill explained. “It’s a more malleable denomination, and we can be active participants in its formation. We find it a privilege and high calling to be part of such conversation.”
Faced with the possibility of losing the church property, St. Giles’ leaders put off some needed repairs to the facilities as well as a capital campaign. Hill said engagement in such endeavors is possible now that the congregation is safely situated in a new denominational home.
“We were in a tenuous state, not knowing if we were going to lose our property,” he said. “It has been a hard season of waiting and praying, but our members learned to trust their elders with these hard matters. They have been patient, and I am grateful for that. Everyone is relieved to be out (of the PCUSA) and the uncertainty of how this will play out.”
With the PCUSA now part of its past, St. Giles will look to the future.
“We’re back to being able to focus on central matters,” Hill said. “We’re excited about discovering the possibilities of a Presbyterian denomination more fully in sync with us and itself, and expects covenantal accountability that will be a pleasure and edification.”
St. Giles is the first congregation to reach a settlement with and be dismissed by Presbytery of the James. A large faction of New Hanover Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsville broke away to form a new congregation – the Church in Restoration – in February.
Four other churches are seeking to be dismissed by the presbytery. Christ Presbyterian, Crestwood Presbyterian and Third Presbyterian, all in Richmond, are seeking dismissal to ECO, while Spotsylvania Presbyterian in Fredericksburg is engaged in the process to affiliate with the EPC.
“We’re focused on praying for those facing this same situation,” Hill said. “It is possible to pursue departure and enter it with the intent that we bless all involved. Inevitably, it is difficult at various points, but it doesn’t have to be as ugly as it sometimes plays out.”