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The Changing Face of Presbyterianism

July 28th, 2012

The past few months have brought some significant changes and re-alignments within the Presbyterian community on both sides of the Atlantic. The withdrawal of a significant number of congregations from the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), as well as the withdrawal of ministers and congregations from the Church of Scotland, has not only depleted these denominations, but has resulted in new alignments and associations.

Over the last decade, more than 130 PC(USA) congregations have either left or began the dismissal process from the denomination. Since the 1960’s, where the two churches that later merged into PC(USA) reported a peak membership of 4.25 million, more than 2 million Presbyterians have decided to find their church home elsewhere.

A majority of the groups leaving the PC(USA) have joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), a conservative group that began in 1981, which now has 115,000 members in nearly 300 churches. Others have joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) or the recently formed Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. The PC(USA)’s “gracious dismissal” policy requires that congregations join “another Reformed body” upon leaving the group.

One congregation which has left PC(USA) is the Presbyterian Church of Kennett Square in Pennsylvania where Rev Andrew Smith, formerly of Ballywillan and Dun Laoghaire, is now minister. As with many other former PC(USA) congregations, there was a growing unease with the theological standards and direction of the denomination which led to their withdrawal.

When asked about the move, Andrew said,

“The Presbyterian Church of Kennett Square’s decision to leave the PC(USA) and join the EPC was based on our perception that the PC(USA)’s adherence to the authority of Scripture continues to weaken, as demonstrated in its position on issues of sexuality and in its practice of ordaining ministers who profess some form of universalism. We do not feel we were the schismatics in this process. Our conviction is that we are seeking to continue on the path of historical biblical orthodoxy, a path from which the PC(USA) has departed.”

A new association of Presbyterian churches in the US emerged in January 2012 known as the “Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians” or ECO for short. “ECO is a denominational entity under the umbrella of The Fellowship of Presbyterians that is committed to growing and planting flourishing churches and nurturing leaders,” reads a Fellowship statement.

“The distinctives of ECO include an emphasis on connecting leaders in accountable relationships, peer review systems for churches, leadership training, and a flatter polity structure than the PCUSA.” The meeting at which the new group was launched was attended by 2,100 Presbyterians from over 500 PC(USA) congregations.

The main reason for the creation of the ECO was their opposition to the approval of an amendment to the rules of ordination for the PC(USA). This amendment allowed individual presbyteries of the PC(USA) to approve the ordination of people who are involved in homosexual relationships

The most recent report from ECO is that a further 13 PCUSA congregations have been dismissed by the denomination to join ECO and that ECO will seek membership of the World Council of Reformed Churches towards the end of 2012 when they will be in a position to give exact details of the number of congregations and members in their fellowship.

The issue of the ordination and installation of practising homosexuals is also causing much concern within the Church of Scotland. Even though the Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships set up by their General Assembly does not report until next year, a number of ministers and some congregations have already taken steps to leave the denomination. Most notable among those moving out is St George’s Tron congregation, based in Glasgow’s city centre.

The Rev Dr William Philip, minister of the 500 strong congregation said that their decision to separate from the Church of Scotland was the culmination of careful thought, sincere discussion and prayer for over 12 months.

“Last year, despite having had the clear opportunity, the General Assembly failed to reverse the stance taken in 2009 approving the appointment of ordained ministers in same-sex relationships. Instead, it clearly and deliberately chose to set an opposite trajectory towards normalising such relationships.  In doing so the highest court of the Kirk has marginalised the Bible, the written Word of God. We believe the Church of Scotland is choosing to walk away from the biblical gospel, and to walk apart from the faith of the worldwide Christian Church. This year, the General Assembly refused to affirm that its churches be marked out as for the unique and exclusive worship of Jesus Christ. We are saddened that the Church of Scotland has departed so dramatically and decisively from its moorings in the historic, reformed and biblical faith.”

If the leadership and congregation at the Tron needed any additional reason to quit the Church of Scotland, then the decision by the denomination’s General Assembly in May to allow other faith groups to hold services in Kirk buildings has provided a further prompt. The question was brought to the floor of the most recent Assembly largely because of the actions of Rev. Scott Rennie – the Aberdeen minister at the heart of the gay clergy issue – who has given permission to Hindu groups to use the Queen’s Cross church premises for worship.

Although some media headlines have stated that the Tron’s departure represents the first local church to leave the denomination, in a de facto sense the bulk of the congregation of High Hilton church in Aberdeen quit the Kirk last October. On that occasion, however, those involved moved out of the church building.

In the case of the Tron church, the congregation most recently raised millions of pounds to cover a major refurbishment. One church member who was at the heart of the very substantial upgrade to the building has commented:

“Regardless of the risks and the fact that many members provided substantial sacrificial offerings for the development of the building as a gospel station in the city centre, the membership have put biblical priorities in first place ahead of buildings.”

In the event, the overall total expenditure was close to £3 million, most of which was paid for by the membership. It seems that the situation will not be resolved without legal proceedings.

There is still much discussion taking place among those ministers and congregations who feel disaffected with the trends within the Church of Scotland with regard to their alignment with other Presbyterians and other Presbyterian denominations. Clearly many will wait to see what decisions the Church of Scotland takes following the report of its Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships in May 2013.

The changes that have come about among Presbyterians on both sides of the Atlantic raises key questions for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. How shall we relate to those who have left the established denominations? We recognise them to be our dear friends and close brothers and sisters with whom we share the same deep convictions about key issues like the Bible and the nature of the church. Can we simultaneously support and pray for those who have left while still officially maintaining fraternal relations with the denomination they have abandoned? How would we respond if one of the new conservative groupings sought closer links with PCI?

It is, as the TV news reporter often says, a “developing situation”. But it seems that the ecclesiological landscape is changing for Presbyterians, and Irish Presbyterians cannot remain isolated from those changes.

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