Two months have passed since Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) sent a letter to the stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), Jeffrey Jeremiah. The angst in the June 27 letter concerning the EPC’s reception of congregations that have disaffiliated from the PCUSA was palpable. The EPC stated clerk responded in a letter dated August 22.
At issue is Parsons’ assertion that the EPC can only receive a congregation that has been formally dismissed by its PCUSA presbytery of membership. Parsons argues that all other exit routes are barred. ”A Presbyterian congregation, as I am sure you are aware, cannot dismiss, dissolve, disaffiliate, or transfer itself by its own action. Any vote taken by a PCUSA congregation or session in no way removes the congregation from the jurisdiction of the PCUSA. Neither the congregation nor the session has the authority to make the congregation ‘independent’ as the congregation or the EPC may suggest. We do not recognize the action so the congregation and/or the EPC as releasing a PCUSA congregation from the requirements and obligations of our Book of Order. If the EPC takes action to receive a non-dismissed PCUSA congregation, such action is not recognized by us as a dismissal and the presbytery of membership will continue to fulfill its responsibility through its related processes, ecclesial and/or secular, through to completion.”
Jeremiah’s response points out that the PCUSA and EPC have – and are therefore governed by – different constitutions.
Flatly denying the primary issue raised by Parsons, Jeremiah’s letter says, “our constitution recognizes multiple ways for churches to come to the EPC, including independency. We do not make an evaluation of churches based on the way they come to us. We respect their calling by Christ as a community of faith, no matter the manner of their arrival. You appear to object to this constitutionally approved practice. To accede to your position we would have to change our constitution. We see no reason to do this.”
Jeremiah’s letter addresses three additional constitutional issues.
1. “..the EPC considers the congregation based on its spiritual, biblical and confessional profession. Little consideration is given to such things as the name of their church and its property value.”
2. “…an EPC congregation has total ownership of their property. Our constitution allows for churches to leave the EPC with their property when going to other denominations or independency without fear of punitive responses from the EPC.”
3. “…the EPC and the majority of Presbyterian denominations in the United States recognize independency and acknowledge a congregation’s right to disaffiliate from a denomination. On this, we choose to affirm the majority position, which aligns with biblical principles.”
Jeremiah’s letter goes on to address the widely disparate experiences of congregations seeking to realign from PCUSA presbyteries to the EPC. He notes that although some presbyteries take the action of the 2008 General Assembly calling for gracious dismissal seriously, many presbyteries make denominational realignment almost impossible. Jeremiah notes that the route of disaffiliation is seen “as the only option” for some.
Since the migration of PCUSA churches to the EPC began in earnest in 2007, 25-30 churches have been received by the EPC from “independent” status. But not all of those disaffiliated. Some churches were “dissolved” by their PCUSA presbytery and then reconstituted themselves and joined the EPC as independent congregations.
The vast majority of churches received by the EPC over those years have been dismissed by their PCUSA presbyteries. The Layman strives to keep an updated accounting of the migration.
As Parsons’ original volley in this exchange was copied to leadership of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), the only official ecumenical group of which both the PCUSA and EPC are members, Jeremiah’s letter also was copied to them.
The proverbial ball is now back in Parsons’ court.