(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). In late September, the World Communion of Reformed Churches convened a mediation session to try to ease the rancor and build a less fractured relationship between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
At the heart of that difficult relationship: the reality that the PCUSA has dismissed 303 congregations, representing 121,383 members, over the last five years, including some of the largest churches in the denomination. Just over half (52 percent) were dismissed to ECO, and 43 percent to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Many of those departures came after the PCUSA voted to allow its ministers to perform same-sex marriages and to allow gay and lesbian pastors with partners to serve PCUSA churches.
Some of those departures have been relatively peaceful, others deeply contentious, involving litigation over property and the splitting of congregations.
In 2014, the World Communion of Reformed Churches decided to allow ECO, then a newly-formed denomination, to join the communion, after ECO applied for membership and the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church endorsed that admission, “without any consultation with the PCUSA ,” said Robina Winbush, an associate stated clerk for the Office of the General Assembly and director of ecumenical and agency relations. The PCUSA had asked that any decision about admitting ECO to the communion wait until this year, concerned about the impact that decision might have on congregations considering leaving the PCUSA, she said.
The mediation session in September was held in Chicago and lasted two and a half days. At the end, leaders from ECO and the PC(USA) agreed that in the future, discussions about possible departures would be conducted ECO presbytery-to- PCUSA presbytery – not between ECO and individual PCUSA congregations – and that “as much as possible we covenanted to tell the truth” about each other, Winbush said.
Another point of the agreement: when congregations want to leave, ECO and the PCUSA would try to negotiate the terms presbytery-to-presbytery rather than turning to lawsuits. When previous departures resulted in litigation, often over property, “none of us felt good about that, and did not believe that glorified God,” Winbush said.
She described the outcome of September’s mediation as a “memorandum of understanding,” not a formal ecumenical agreement.
Representing the PCUSA at the mediation were Winbush; J. Herbert Nelson, the denomination’s stated clerk; and Laurie Griffith, an assistant stated clerk and the Office of the General Assembly’s associate director for constitutional interpretation.
The three described the outcome of the mediation during a session Oct. 15 at the Mid Council Leaders Gathering in St. Louis. Nelson thanked the mid council leaders for raising the issue of departing churches with him a year ago at the Fall Polity Conference (as the mid council gathering then was known). He said the pace of the departures seems to have slowed over the past year, but “even as we speak tonight there are court cases that are pending.”
Nelson also said PCUSA mid councils – particularly committees on ministry – need to be more vigilant in examining pastors who had served congregations that left and who are now moving to a new presbytery. “We have to strengthen on the ground our gatekeeping system,” so those pastors don’t seek to serve other churches and then lead those congregations out too, Nelson said. As presbyteries examine those ministers, they need to “at least put on the table a commitment not to take a congregation out.”
The PC(USA) also had raised concerns with the communion over ECO’s practice of sometimes accepting a congregation as an ECO member before the PCUSA presbytery of which that congregation was a part had formally dismissed the presbytery.
One piece of that: in the two denominations, “we have two very different understandings of ecclesiology,” Winbush said. “For the PCUSA , the locus of mission is the presbytery,” carried out through congregations. ECO has a different understanding – seeing congregations as the locus of ministry, and “presbyteries as a voluntary association of support.”
As a result of the mediation, an agreement was reached that if a PCUSA congregation expresses a desire to leave, “ECO would not negotiate with that congregation but in fact would contact the presbytery of that congregation’s membership and negotiate with that presbytery,” Winbush said.
Another point of conversation: what ECO described as “refugee congregations” that felt separated from their presbyteries and which ECO felt it needed to receive quickly, as a pastoral response, she said.
Mid council leaders grew restive with disagreement as she said that, with someone shouting “No!”
“Just, just, just – just breathe and pray,” Winbush responded.
She said later that ECO leaders explained that they had sometimes been approached by congregations that said: “The PC(USA) presbytery is just being so unfair and so unjust. Therefore we have to receive them.” The PC(USA)’s response: Before that happens, ECO needs to engage with the PCUSA presbytery that’s involved.
The pain of these departures was palpable in the room.