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Massachusetts Church Disaffiliates from the PCUSA to Join ECC

A congregation in Newton, Mass., has disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC).

Newton Presbyterian Church members voted 107-26 (80.4 percent) on Sunday to withdraw from the PCUSA effective immediately and to begin the process to be accepted into the Evangelical Covenant Church.

The church’s disaffiliation has not gone unchallenged by Boston Presbytery. An attorney for the presbytery has already sent a letter, dated Jan. 17, to church members demanding that church members “refrain from taking any action purporting to affect the ownership, possession, use or status of the church property pending the outcome of the discernment process. This would include steps to change NPC’s name or stated denominational affiliation in the church’s records, signage, website or otherwise. In addition, any use of church funds in support of an effort to disaffiliate from the PCUSA or change the status of church property – including paying any legal fees you may choose to incur – is unauthorized and must cease immediately.”

The presbytery’s attorney wrote that Newton Presbyterian Church “may not withdraw itself unilaterally from the denomination … NPC remains a part of the PCUSA, and nothing in the law of Massachusetts changes that fact.”  

That proposition is challenged by the church, which expressly retained corporate property rights to do so when the PCUSA inserted the trust clause in 1982. While the parties differ on legal positions, both hope to avoid court.

Rejection of the PCUSA trust clause

A Q&A prepared by church representatives states:

“Our congregation rejected the PCUSA trust clause and took appropriate steps to document our rejection of the clause in our session minutes, which were sent to presbytery. We amended our by-laws to make it clear that our property remained (and remains) in trust for our non-profit corporation for religious purposes in accordance with the wishes of the membership.

 

“The amendment (made in 1982, and reported to the Presbytery of Boston in writing) remains part of our NPC corporation by-laws today. The Presbytery has tacitly accepted our dissent on their property trust clause for more than three decades:

 

Article 14: Of Property: Unless subject to a specific trust expressed by the donor, property received and held, whether heretofore or hereafter by this Corporation is held by it in trust for religious purposes, and will be applied, subject to that trust, in accordance with the wishes of the membership.”

Letters from the Administrative Commission

Sunday’s vote came after church members received two letters from an Administrative Commission unanimously created by Boston Presbytery. The first letter, dated Jan. 10, acknowledged the upcoming meeting and stated that:

  • the church could not withdraw from the denomination;
  • the PCUSA was not in full communion with the ECC, so the presbytery could not dismiss the church to that denomination; and
  • a vote to edit the corporation’s bylaws would not remove a church from the PCUSA.

The letter further stated that:

“that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is structured by our Constitution to be a steward of the covenanted unity of our part of the Body of Christ. When there is an irreconcilable division within a congregation, such as in a case where one group is determined to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other members wish to continue in the congregation, we have a tested, responsive constitutional process created by the wider church:

 

“If there is a schism within the membership of a congregation and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate congregations within the Presbyterian Church (USA), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (USA). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the congregation.” (Form of Government, G-4.0207)

Three days later, when the corporate meeting had not been canceled, the AC sent a second letter declaring that the church was “in schism” and the AC was assuming “original jurisdiction.” The AC took the actions the day before, Jan. 12, and told the congregation that it would soon be “laying out next steps to help the congregation determine its future.”

The letter ended, saying: “We inform you of these actions of the Administrative Commission in hope that you will understand that they were taken out of our concern for the whole Newton Presbyterian Church, in fellowship with you in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in response as Presbyterians to the ‘mission of God in Christ that gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church (from the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-1.01).”

Wishing to be thought of graciously

The “Declaration of New Affiliation: A Vision Toward Future Growth and Outreach,” signed by the church trustees, read in part:

“We recognize that NPC has been the largest congregation in the PCUSA’s Presbytery of Boston, and changing our affiliation is likely to impact their budget. We plan to continue to give them our freely pledged per-capita offering of $14,161 for next year. In accord with our Christian faith we have also gone through our books to make sure that we have no debts and have paid all costs, upkeep, insurance, and maintenance on our property and it is fully ours to use for religious purposes as our members wish. If PCUSA can document any debts we owe to them, then we would like to reimburse them. We wish to be thought of graciously by PCUSA, and will also plan to give them a departing financial gift, with the amount and any restrictions on use to be determined at a forthcoming session meeting.

 

“With this new affiliation, we envision our congregation will again become a thriving, growing church, filled and spilling over with people of all ages. We envision multiple services with different styles, that preserve our warmth and sense of community, with active, growing ministries for youth, young adults, families, and singles of all ages. We envision greater outreach with regular service to our local community and beyond, and greater boldness in sharing the Good News with neighbors and co-workers. We envision a ministry that engages minds, hearts, and hands in knowing the person of Jesus Christ, living the abundant life in Christ, and sharing the Amazing Grace and Love of God with all people.” (emphasis in the original document.)

 

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PCUSA’s Way Forward Commission Establishes Process to Encourage Engagement

(Office of the General Assembly news release). The General Assembly Way Forward Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has released its process for receiving initial communications and suggestions from any interested PCUSA groups or individuals. The online form is designed to assist the commission in identifying areas for continued discernment about the ministries and structure of the national denomination.

The form is available in English, Korean, and Spanish, although the commission will accept submissions in any language. Recognizing the timeframe and scope of their work, the commission has set February 28 as a deadline for submissions, which are limited to 2,000 words.

Since the body’s first meeting in mid-December at Auburn Seminary in New York, the commission’s working groups have been active in candid conversations throughout the church. This current process for receiving input is an important step in broadening those conversations as the commission develops a vision for the structure and staffing of the national church.

The commission has committed to modeling shared values of humility, openness, and innovation as Reformed and ever-reforming Presbyterians, believing in the power of the Holy Spirit to provide courage to nimbly move in new directions. Regular, two-way communication among commission members and with the church about the commission’s agendas, observations, emerging discernment, and recommendations is being established to ensure transparency and effective communication.

The Way Forward Commission’s moderator, Mark Hostetter, encouraged wide participation in the comment process, and asked that it be done quickly. “Now is the time for Presbyterians, individually or together in groups, to come forward with their best thinking, their most creative dreaming, for how we will engage with each other as a denomination in our changed world,” he said.

Again, the deadline for submission of the comment form to the commission is February 28, 2017.

The Way Forward Commission’s scheduled meetings for 2017 are: March 5–7 at Johnson C. Smith and Columbia Theological seminaries in Atlanta; May 15–17 in Chicago; and September 17–19 at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kentucky. The commission also plans to hold conference call meetings February 7, April 18, and August 9.

For more information, click here.

Comment Form for the Way Forward Commission

The Way Forward Commission

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PCUSA Signs on to Climate and Justice Letter to President-elect Trump

(Be Gregg Brekke, Presbyterian News Service). The Presbyterian Church (USA), via its Office of Public Witness, has joined 30 other faith communities endorsing a letter to President-elect Trump urging him and his administration to prioritize issues of climate change, the environment and justice.

Saying the group believes “the United States can and must play a leadership role in addressing these environmental challenges which threaten our planet, our security, the health of our families, and the fate of communities throughout the world,” the letter asked the new administration to work across party lines to “safeguard God’s creation, address the impacts of climate change on our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.”

Key policy areas identified for action by the faith communities are greenhouse gas emissions, energy—specifically clean energy production, just transition and job creation in pursuit of a clean energy economy, climate finance, upholding international climate commitments, preserving public and sacred lands, safeguarding American Indian and Alaska Native rights, protecting endangered species, ensuring humane U.S.-Mexico border policies, and a renewed commitment to ensure all communities have access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.

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Presbytery Denies Church’s Request to Leave PCUSA with Church Property

(By Lee Shearer, The Athens Banner-Herald). An assembly of Northeast Georgia Presbytery leaders emphatically denied a breakaway Athens congregation’s request to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and take the local church property with them as they join a more conservative denomination.

But the effect of the vote remains to be seen.

Church leaders Monday night said some members of Athens’ Central Presbyterian Church’s breakaway faction filed a pre-emptive lawsuit in Clarke County Superior Court, and a judge issued a temporary restraining order that would prevent the presbytery from taking control of Central’s Alps Road property, valued at more than $3 million.

Under the rules of the Presbyterian Church (USA), also called PCUSA, church property is owned by local congregations, but agree to a covenant that property is held in trust for the benefit of the denomination.

Presbytery leaders also received letters Monday from Central pastors Bob Bohler and Deb Trimpe renouncing their affiliation with the denomination.

Presbytery leaders were already poised to oust the two from the denomination for what they said was a failure of leadership and violations of their ordination vows, among other reasons.
 

Nearly 200 people gathered in Winder’s First Presbyterian Church for Tuesday’s meeting. After more than four hours of discussion and debate, they voted by about a 5-1 ratio to deny the dismissal with property request of Central Presbyterian’s “Session,” a local governing body like a board of deacons.

In a January 2016 vote, Central members voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the mainstream PCUSA denomination. But some former members and others speaking Tuesday described an atmosphere of hostility and aggression that some felt was a deliberate campaign to drive out members who didn’t agree with the conservative side that wanted to leave the denomination.

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Related article: Central Presbyterian in Athens Disaffiliates from PCUSA; Joins ECO

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6 PCUSA Affiliated Christian Theologians Sign Letter Opposing Sessions’ Nomination as Attorney General

Six representatives of Presbyterian Church (USA) related theological institutions are among 57 Christian theologians who have signed a letter opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.

“As theologians across the denominational spectrum, we add our voices to the growing number of Americans who urge you to reject the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of Attorney General of the United States. We are concerned that Senator Sessions does not embrace the conception of justice that we hold as Christians; we have no confidence in his ability to enforce the values we share as Americans. His racist track record erodes the trust of many of the members of our faith communities and we are united in our opposition to his nomination,” the letter states.

It was delivered to Charles E. Grassley, Senate Judiciary Chairman; Dianne G. Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary on January 9 the day before the Senate Judiciary Committee met for the Attorney General Nomination.

Signers affiliated with PCUSA related institutions include:

Auburn Seminary

Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, President of Auburn Seminary

Macky Alston, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Growth

McCormick Theological Seminary

Dr. Reggie Williams, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics

Princeton Theological Seminary

George Hunsinger, Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology

Kaitlyn M. Dugan (Kait), Curator of the Barth Collection

Sonia E. Waters, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology

The letter:

“As theologians across the denominational spectrum, we add our voices to the growing number of Americans who urge you to reject the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of Attorney General of the United States. We are concerned that Senator Sessions does not embrace the conception of justice that we hold as Christians; we have no confidence in his ability to enforce the values we share as Americans. His racist track record erodes the trust of many of the members of our faith communities and we are united in our opposition to his nomination.

Why is this important?

The justice that is central to the work of Attorney General is a value that is shared by people of many faiths. As Christians, we are guided in our understanding of justice by the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. As made clear in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), we are to “seek first the Kingdom,” as the righteous reign of God “on earth, as it is in heaven.” This reign is marked by love, justice and life. In his teachings, Jesus deepens the love of neighbor to the love of enemy. He calls us to move from retaliatory justice to an ethic of restorative justice. He invites those who follow him to an abundant life that crosses borders.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25). The Sermon on the Mount directs our care to the flourishing of all people, especially the vulnerable, and is consistent with the values of justice and human flourishing that are vital to our American democracy.

While Jesus stood in embodied solidarity with the vulnerable, it is through the law that our country offers protections for its most vulnerable members. Vulnerable populations in our country — victims of police brutality, undocumented workers, LGBTQ persons, women, people of color, and people of non-Christian faiths — are placed at increased risk of further harm when our laws are not upheld. Yet, throughout his career, Senator Sessions has taken positions that compromise the rights of these vulnerable populations. His racist comments reflect prejudice against people of color. His opposition to immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and equal access for persons with disabilities make it unlikely that he shares the Christian vision of justice and protection of the vulnerable that we embrace.

Senator Sessions’ racist remarks and unjust policies make it morally unacceptable for him to be America’s top law-enforcement officer. We urge you to reject his nomination.

The letter also stated that the seminary affiliations were listed for identification purposes only.

Related articles:

Christian groups express ‘grave concerns’ about Trump agenda, appointments

Statement by Major Christian Organizations on President-Elect Trump’s Policy Agenda and Political Appointments

A Call to the President-Elect from the National Council of Churches

 

 

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Central Presbyterian in Athens Disaffiliates from PCUSA; Joins ECO

(Press release). ATHENS, GA, January 9, 2017 – Central Presbyterian Church leaders announced today that the church has disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in order to immediately associate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which is another national Reformed Presbyterian denomination.

“We are excited to be joining ECO,” said Dr. Bob Bohler, senior pastor for nearly 20 years. “It is a growing, vibrant denomination with a strong, Biblical theology, and a great match on all counts for our church.”

The church’s corporate board of directors, which also functioned as the church’s “Session,” unanimously voted on January 4 to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join with ECO as soon as possible..

“We had been trying to work with our local presbytery,” said Associate Pastor Deb Trimpe. “But the presbytery announced that it intended to fire all pastors, remove the church’s governing body, and take over the church, telling us that anyone who didn’t like it was free to leave.”

Under the circumstances, the leadership of the church believed that continued strife was not the best course for this vibrant church. As part of the move to the new denomination, the church changed its name to Alps Road Presbyterian Church and filed an equitable action asking a judge to determine the status of the property in light of the change of denominations.

“We are ready to refocus our efforts on our programs and missions, both in our community and beyond, and we believe becoming the first ECO church in our area will best further our work,” Bohler said. “I’ve been humbled by the community’s overwhelming support for our church during this time.”

The number of churches in the ECO denomination has grown more than 10-fold in the past few years, making it one of the fastest growing denominations in the country. Other ECO churches include Highland Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, and Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the San Francisco Bay area in California.

Related articles:

Dissenters Can’t Take Central Presbyterian Property With Them if They Leave PCUSA

Central Presbyterian Church Legal Battle with PCUSA Heats Up

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PCUSA College Event: Tower of Babel a ‘Holy Nudge Towards Diversity,’ Myth

(By Michael Gryboski, The Christian Post). A large annual college gathering of Presbyterian Church (USA) has labeled the punishment God gave at the Tower of Babel “a holy nudge towards diversity.” A pastor at the event also suggested that the Babel account is a myth.

While cautioning that he was not saying that “the Bible is a bunch of made-up stuff,” the Rev. Paul Roberts Sr., president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, told over 1,000 college students earlier this week, “We use this word ‘myth’ in the best possible sense of the word. This particular type of literature is not aimed at presenting history but truth, about God and how God’s people function in the world,” as reported by PNS.

The theme for this year’s Jan. 2-5 conference was “Beyond Babel” and centered on the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel, where God confuses the people’s language and scatters them after they decide to build a city with a tower “that reaches to the heavens” and make a name for themselves.

According to the promotional material sent out in advance of the college conference in Montreat, North Carolina, God’s punishment of scattering the people of Babel by giving them different languages was meant to advance diversity.

“One people with one language become scattered and multilingual. A united community finds itself confused and scattered. Clarity becomes babble. Construction on a tower stops,” the promotional material states.

“In 2017 we will we see how God gave an ancient people a holy nudge towards diversity, and we will consider how God is nudging us today too.”

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Related article: College Conference attendees are challenged to move ‘Beyond Babel’

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Presbyterian Leaders Consider Future of ‘Church With a Broken Heart’

(By Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald, GA). Presbyterian leaders from across northeast Georgia gathered in Greensboro Tuesday to consider the future of what one member called “a church with a broken heart.”

Most members of Athens’ Central Presbyterian Church want to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and affiliate with the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. They also want to keep the church’s property as they leave.

Central’s session, an elected group somewhat like a board of deacons, has petitioned the Northeast Georgia Presbytery for “gracious dismissal” with property. The church’s 380 Alps Road building and other assets such as vans are valued at about $3.4 million, with a $600,000 mortgage still remaining on a large addition 10 years ago.

The local congregation paid for it all, but under Presbyterian Church (USA) rules, local congregations hold property in trust for the benefit of the denomination, locally represented by the 53 congregations of the Northeast Georgia Presbytery.

The Central session offered to turn over about $371,000 to the Presbytery as part of the church’s departure to ECO.

A special Presbytery fact-finding group called an administrative commission recommended denial of the request. The commission recommended instead a settlement that would give those who want to depart about $243,000 and a church van, if the dissident members found a new ECO church within three months.

A big part of the schism is differing views on what rights gays and lesbians should have within the church.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination has in recent years relaxed its historical teachings on homosexuality to permit same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays or lesbians as teachers within the church.

ECO holds to the older Presbyterian interpretation of God’s will, that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that ordained leaders should live either live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man or a woman, or practice chastity if single.

The sometimes bitter schism actually goes back years.

“I want to talk about broken hearts,” said Central member Louie Boyd, quoting a former Central leader who’d described the 380 Alps Road church as “a church with a broken heart.”

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Toward a New Vision: Way Forward Commission Forms Subgroups, Discerns Next Steps

(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). The Way Forward Commission has begun to discern next steps for its work – including considering some issues it may be able to act on quickly, and starting to figure out how to organize its longer-term work.

Part of the conversation is structural: for example, deciding what kind of subgroups to establish to work from now until the board’s next meeting (via conference call) on Feb. 7.

But the structural nuts and bolts all link back to deeper concerns about how the denomination functions – such as when commission member Eileen Lindner, a teaching elder from New Jersey, said the intent of considering a potential polity change would be to “take a look at access to the places that allow people to lead and participate fully in the life of the church.”

In several instances, while discussing what needs to change, commission members raised questions of how seriously the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is taking its work with people of color.

“The fact that Latinos and Hispanics are the largest minority and we have no funding to hire anybody … this just doesn’t make sense,” said Adan Mairena, a new church development pastor from Philadelphia.

Eliana Maxim, a mid council executive from Seattle, questioned the terminology of “racial ethnic ministries” in the PCUSA structure. “It’s this – pardon the language – little ghettoized area where they put all the black people and all the brown people and throw in a couple of people of color to lead them, and say ‘we’re doing good work.’ ”

The commission has a broad mandate, and a big job.

The 2016 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) created the 12-member Way Forward Commission to “study and identify a vision for the structure and function of the General Assembly entities of the PCUSA.”

By creating a commission – rather than a committee or task force – the assembly gave the Way Forward the authority to act. And the commission’s first meeting, held Dec. 12-13 at Auburn Seminary in New York, gave the sense the commission is perfectly willing to do that, when the time and the issues seem right.

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Presbyterian Scholars Conference: What Happens When Mainliners Sit at Table with Split P’s?

(By Chuck Wiggins, The Presbyterian Outlook). “I often wonder what kind of shape the Presbyterian Church would be in today if the Orthodox Presbyterians, the PCA, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO had not departed,” mused Joseph D. Small, former Presbyterian Church (USA.) Theology & Worship director.

Those particularly thought provoking words came during the recent Presbyterian Scholars Conference held October 18-19 at Wheaton College in Illinois.

A glimpse of that musing was evident as 30 scholars from various streams of the Presbyterian enterprise gathered to offer papers and exchange remarks on “the future of American Presbyterianism.”

From my perspective, the spirit and the tenor of the conference with scholars from the PC(USA), OPC, EPC, and ECO under one roof during both the lectures and at table during meals was — how shall I say it — downright genial.

Headlining a list of outstanding scholars besides Small, included Bradley Longfield of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary; OPC historian extraordinaire and Hillsdale College professor Darryl Hart; and George Marsden, distinguished professor from Notre Dame University and arguably the premier historian of American church history.

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Longfield’s groundbreaking work, “The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates.” Longfield’s award-winning book has been widely regarded by Presbyterians of all theological stripes as an even-handed analysis of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s and their aftermath. (In my opinion, previous historical narratives by mainline P’s have largely tended to dismiss departing conservatives as simplistic cranks; while the “split P’s” have approached their forbears uncritically with a kind of surreal, hagiographic reverence.)

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