Louisville

Twenty-four leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ― many of whom met in Orlando during a gathering which launched a new Reformed body ― have written a letter urging reconciliation between the denomination and the dissident group.

According to the Rev. Paul Watermulder, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, Calif., who originated the letter, its intent is to urge “our General Assembly leadership to immediately become bridge-builders with those churches and leaders who out of conscience have become disaffected from our denomination. “

The second intent, Watermulder added, is “to urge all those who are talking about leaving or distancing themselves from the PCUSA to slow down and recognize that there are several viable signs of unity coming to the GA in Pittsburgh which are supported by a wide range of centrist leaders.”

Those signing the letter include presbytery and synod execs, seminary presidents, directors of mission organizations, members of boards of directors of several institutions, and other Presbyterian leaders involved in our national church presence.

The letter comes after the Fellowship of Presbyterians announced the creation of a new denomination ― the Evangelical Covenant Order ― which will be comprised of dissident PC(USA) congregations. At its Jan. 18-20 gathering in Orlando, the group unveiled its theology and polity documents and announced it had applied for membership in the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

The full text of the letter:

Greetings in the Lord!

A significant number of PC(USA) congregations have entered into a period of discernment, prayerfully considering  how they can remain part of the PC(USA) while also maintaining theological integrity.   Their sense of increasing estrangement from the trajectory of the PC(USA) reached a breaking point with the recent changes in ordination standards and has been further fueled by some of the overtures now being sent to the upcoming General Assembly.  They are feeling betrayed by and alienated from this branch of the Church, believing that these recent legislative changes are symptomatic signals of other, deeper changes that have set the PC(USA) on a course of unfaithfulness to the heart and will of God. While they accept the reality of these changes, they see them as hindering the effectiveness of their witness and they sincerely believe the changes to be undermining God’s mission in the world. In light of that, some are exploring their ecclesial options – from reconfiguring some of our polity structures to developing joint affiliations with another Reformed body, to  transferring to another denomination altogether.

A new organization, the Fellowship of Presbyterians has emerged as a voice for many of these sisters and brothers.  Originally, it was conceived around missional concerns.  With the change in ordination standards, leaders of The Fellowship were transparent about the range of their concerns. They initiated and have continued to meet repeatedly with denominational officials and other influential leaders over the past 15 months.  Taking the initiative to propose and explore ways of maintaining a working relationship within the PC(USA), their goal has been to preserve ministry partnership while providing venues of service that would not feel like mere accommodation to policy decisions they believed to be in error.   

They have suggested the possibility of developing  non-geographical presbyteries (organized not around  ethnic origin but around missional and theological conviction), of allowing congregations to transfer from one existing presbytery to another, or  forming dual Committees on Ministry and Committees on Preparation for Ministry in the same presbytery (differing by theological conviction).

To be honest, we are inclined to support and defend the existing structures, maintaining familiar patterns of operating.  We fear that some proposals could unleash unintended consequences, not the least of which is the possibility of weakening the structures that tenuously hold us together even now. 

However, we also know that the existing structures and patterns are already creating unintended consequences of their own – including a lack of respect for conscience based on Scripture, and a sense of violation, grief and/or despair among our sisters and brothers.  And we believe that all ecclesial structures, existing or new, are in reality the means to an end:  our witness to Jesus Christ.  Our unity in Christ, our common fellowship in the Spirit, our partnership in fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission and Great Commandment, and our shared pursuit of the Great Ends of the Church are far more important than any polity structures or processes designed to fulfill those ends.

Accordingly, we want to state for the record that we are committed to continuing theological and missional conversations with all of our sisters and brothers in Christ, our colleagues in ministry, exploring and supporting any and all reasonable pathways that could help us continue in fellowship, mutual accountability, and partnership in Christ’s mission – in good conscience.  In acknowledgement that none of us is entitled to throw any first stones, we will resist the tendency to react against any constructive ideas proposed.  We will refuse to punish anyone for judgments expressed about our church – even when we disagree with those judgments. Rather than arguing in ways that are “unworthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” we will seek to sow seeds of grace, kindness, respect and cooperation in every possible way -- all toward the end of us all serving as agents of reconciliation before the watching world, as Scripture requires of us.

We call upon all our fellow Presbyterians in ecclesial leadership positions – including members of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, the General Assembly Mission Council, the other four denominational agencies, the staff members serving each, and all middle governing body/Council leaders – to redouble efforts to respect, listen to, dialogue and pray with those who are struggling to keep in fellowship with our body.  Examples of fruitful discussions we seek include porous presbyteries formed around missional goals and convictions, union presbytery relationships, and parallel COM’s and CPM’s in presbyteries. Indeed, in upcoming days we plan to offer some other possibilities (including the formulation of overtures to the General Assembly) that may help facilitate the realization of this hope.  We believe that God’s wisdom is best discerned together. 

Finally, we call upon those seeking to be faithful to Christ and Scripture and feeling disaffected to prayerfully engage these matters not only within congregations or subgroups, but also with leadership and various voices in presbyteries and elsewhere.  We ask that we and others be included in discussions and discernment processes, demonstrating the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to one another in such a way that the world will know that we indeed are Christ’s disciples.  

In addition to Watermulder, the author of the letter, signers include (organizations listed for identification purposes only): Jan Armstrong, executive presbyter,  Presbytery Santa Barbara; Amalie Ash, presbytery administrator,  Presbytery of Tropical Florida; Jack Baca, pastor, The Village Community Presbyterian Church,  Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.; Mike Cole, general presbyter, Presbytery of New Covenant; Kathy Goodrich, co-executive presbyter, Presbytery of Yellowstone; Jack Haberer, editor, The Presbyterian Outlook; Graham Hart, general presbyter, Peace River Presbytery; Anita Hendrix, executive presbyter, Riverside Presbytery; Bob Henley, pastor, Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, Ketchum, Idaho; Edwin Hurley, pastor, South Highland Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Ala.; Curtis Karns, executive presbyter, Presbytery of the Yukon; Joey Lee, executive presbyter, Presbytery San Jose.

Also, Michael McClenahan, pastor, Solana Beach (Calif.) Presbyterian Church; David McKee, executive and stated clerk, Synod of the Mid Atlantic; Paige McRight, executive presbyter, Central Florida Presbytery; E. Stanley Ott, executive director, Vital Churches Institute; Jeff Ritchie, executive director, The Outreach Foundation;  Doska Ross, executive and stated clerk, Synod of Southern California and Hawaii: Mark Veredy, general presbyter and stated clerk, Providence Presbytery; Louis Weeks, honorably retired president, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.; Walter Wilkins, transitional presbyter, Presbytery of Sacramento; Stan Wood, adjunct professor of congregational leadership and evangelism, Fuller Theological Seminary and executive director, Sower's Field; Steve Yamaguchi, presbytery pastor /executive presbyter, Presbytery of Los Ranchos.