The splitting branch of the Presbyterian vine produces some sour grapes

exit closedThe angst is palpable in the June 27 letter from Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), to Jeffrey Jeremiah, stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. At issue is the EPC’s reception of congregations that have disaffiliated from the PCUSA.  Parsons asserts that the EPC can only receive a congregation that has been formally dismissed by its PCUSA presbytery of membership.

Any other exit route is barred, Parsons says.  “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.”

Parsons’ final sentence in the paragraph is an open threat of ecclesiastical and civil lawsuits.  But cause for greater alarm is the revelation that the PCUSA’s highest official is negating the guaranteed right of free association under the Constitution of The United States of America.

Parson acknowledges that presbyteries have the constitutional mandate to have policies in place to effect gracious dismissals of PCUSA congregations to other Reformed bodies. However, the majority of PCUSA presbyteries do not have such a policy. Others have such unwieldy policies as to make dismissal virtually impossible.

He says, “The congregation’s presbytery of membership has the responsibility to coordinate, guide, encourage, support and, resource the work of its congregations for the most effective witness to the broader community. If a session or congregation expresses a desire to be dismissed from the PC(USA), the presbytery, in light of its mission, has the responsibility to counsel and consult with the session and congregation, and to ultimately determine whether a congregation should be dismissed to another denomination.”

That statement begs the question what legitimate mission does the presbytery have beyond its congregations? Does not the presbytery exist to support the witness of Christ through its constituent congregations? Or, in fact, do the congregations exist to support the higher governing bodies of the denominational structure, including the presbytery? Has the traditional inverted triangular Presbyterian icon of representative governance been officially inverted?

There is a related issue that is not addressed in the letter: The regular transfer of clergy from one denomination to another. A pastor is called to serve a local congregation, but he or she is a member of the presbytery. In the case where the congregation wants to leave the PCUSA the pastor is understandably caught between competing loyalties. In most cases where the congregation votes to disaffiliate the pastor must renounce the jurisdiction of the PCUSA or face ecclesiastical charges for having allowed such schism to foment under his/her watch. Remember Heidi Johnson?

Some pragmatists out there are going to ask, “How many churches are we really talking about? How many churches have taken the disaffiliation route to the EPC?”  The answer from recent history is 25 but the forward looking question is as presbyteries close the dismissal door is the disaffiliation option preserved by U.S. Constitutional right?

The effect of Parson’s letter may be much broader than churches actively seeking to depart the PCUSA for the EPC. The letter is not only copied to all the executive presbyters and presbytery stated clerks in the PCUSA it is also copied to the two highest ranking officials in the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The WCRC is the only international ecumenical body whose membership includes both the affected denominations: PCUSA and EPC.  If Parsons can raise concerns about the EPC with the WCRC that may also affect the current provisional membership of the ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Why? Because the EPC is one of the two WCRC “sponsors” of the ECO for membership.

Maybe it’s all just sour grapes, but I fear it portends negatively of things to come.

August 22 update: The Stated Clerk of the EPC, Jeffrey Jeremiah, has replied to the June 27 letter from Parsons.
Read Jeremiah’s letter to Parsons.


Carmen Fowler LaBerge