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24 PC(USA) leaders issue ‘Letter of Reconciliation’

Urge GA leaders to be ‘bridge-builders,’ separatists to slow down

January 24, 2012

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.

  1. To Nate, You ask, "Is that fair?, in relation to comments about the national staff and other leaders writing their letter about reconciliation because they want to keep their job. No it is not fair. If any group in our PC(USA) are dedicated to holding together the denomination, believing that the presbyterian system, with its democratic way of doing business, always in prayer and love for one another, it is those called out from among us to lead. As one who has served on national and synod and presbytery committees, while I don't always agree with decision, the leaders are always about trying to be fair and honest. That is he best way to discern the will of God. That is not to say that mistakes are not made. But reconciliation is only possible when we are willing to accept the fact that we may be wrong. Helen

    by Helen Cochrane

    May 8, 2012

  2. Mr. Greenhow, at the end of your January 27 post on Christian unity you ask, "Have I got it wrong?" Actually I respectfully suggest that you do have it wrong. Of course you're right that Jesus prayed that all of his followers would be one. But what Jesus meant was that he wanted all of his followers to be in total unity on what the MISSION is: (1) to know Christ; (2) to make him known in all the earth; (3) to serve the poor; (4) to challenge sin and injustice in the systems and structures of society in Jesus' name. But once we're all in unity on what the mission is, God expects and even desires that we employ a wide range of different theologies, methodologies, messages, styles of ministry etc. to accomplish our common mission. So the PC(USA), EPC and the new ECO ARE one in Christ in the way God desires. When a PC(USA) church moves to the EPC or ECO, that is not schismatic or a breach of Christian unity. That church has simply concluded that it can better achieve the common mission of all three groups in the EPC or the ECO.

    by Jim Caraher

    January 27, 2012

  3. With all due respect to Jim, I would suggest that the call to dialogue and conversation can never become tired; it is the stuff of reconciliation. That said, I would like to see the church called not so much to dialogue, as much as to repentance, with all of us owning up to our culpability in getting us into this situation. The truth is we have all failed to seek God together. For years we have divided into like-minded affinity groups and pursued our own understanding of where God is leading. The deep spirituality of communal discernment behind our polity has never really had a chance. Repentance seems to be the only reasonable posture for any of us at this point.

    by Jonathan Hughes

    January 27, 2012

  4. The call to dialogue and conversation is a tired one that hasn't altered the ongoing, 44 year decline in membership. It's time to call for intentional and gracious separation so that churches can get on with life.

    by Jim Steadman

    January 27, 2012

  5. The night of Jesus betrayal he prayed for us. He prayed that we would be one, even as He and the Father were one. He didn't pray that we would have a correct Christology, that we would not have slaves, that we would judge correctly on Old School-New School controversy, ordain or not ordain women and not ordain homosexuals - He prayed that we would be one. To me that means that differing points of view can be accommodated if we accept that Jesus is Lord. Have I got it wrong?

    by Eric Greenhow

    January 27, 2012

  6. I do agree this is a thoughtful and respectful letter. I can't help but notice that a large portion of the people signing this letter are executive presbyters or administrators. I have no doubt they are saints, but they are also trying to keep their jobs. Fair statement?

    by Nate Stratman

    January 27, 2012

  7. Tracy, what a wonderful, sincere affirmation of both your devotion to Jesus and your very correct convictions about the important, valid role of women and gays in the church. For now you'll be fine in the PC(USA) because there are still Presbyterian churches which proclaim truths which are important to you but unfortunately the PC(USA) is on the same path as the Episcopalians. Episcopalians are trinitarian by history, tradition and creed but they are becoming functionally unitarian. Their national leader declared a year ago that the notion of personal salvation in Jesus Christ is a "western heresy." So your very poignant question, "where do I belong?" will become increasingly problematic for you in the years ahead.

    by Jim Caraher

    January 27, 2012

  8. In the 1970s the PCA churches grew as a result of the ordination of women. In this generation, there will be churches who divide over the ordination of gays and lesbians. We once used the bible to condone slavery and the subjugation of women. In God's long arc of justice, the time has come for people of conscience to be be able to proceed. Can't we live together in a tent big enough for us all? "One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. " No matter where we are in the body of Christ we are forever connected.

    by Howard Dotson

    January 26, 2012

  9. Friends, the labels and language in use alone do not allow us to have a dialogue. The very worlds we use and the spirit behind them almost guarantees that what we most want, we most assuredly will not get because too often our language only engenders defensiveness in others because they feel attacked. How can we get past debate and approach dialogue? Sometimes in marital counseling, I ask couples to take a post-it note and write on it "I'm not your enemy" and post it on their own foreheads. Just a gentle reminder. Perhaps, not a bad practice for our church in its current state. Correction: not a bad practice for the Church of Jesus the Christ. It is not our church to defend and protect. This is the church of Jesus the Christ and God is strong enough. Plenty strong.

    by K.O. Noonoo

    January 26, 2012

  10. @ Bruce I appreciate your comment that the true mark of our Christian unity is HOW we engage this situation. I am reminded of a comment by Stanley Hauerwas during an interview in Christianity Today some time ago. Paraphrased, he pointed out that we are all congregationalists now. We may not like it, but finding a way to manifest the unity of the church is one of the biggest challenges before the church in our time. I am grateful for those who wrote this letter and for the hope it expresses. While I agree that the ship has, in some sense, already sailed, I am also frustrated that there is not more effort and energy directed toward clinging to one another. We presbyterians have proven that we know how to fight. We fought like crazy to keep "fidelity/chastity" in the BoO; we fought like crazy to keep it out. We became really creative about pursuing both. Why can we not show such tenacity for our unity? We are already one in Jesus Christ through baptism. What we are talking about here is being willing to step back, dream a little, pray a lot, and allow the Spirit to lead us into ways of manifesting the unity of the church in our life together. It may not look like it used to, but I'm willing to take that risk. For the record, I signed the fellowship letter last year. I believe it has an important underlying message the church needs to hear. What we have been doing isn't working. I have no desire to leave the PC(USA) and do not intend to do so. To my brothers and sisters in the PC(USA), please don't write us all off. i believe there are a lot of us who are saying we're hear, we would love to have some deep dialogue. I want to see a flourishing witness to Jesus Christ in the PC(USA), as I know you do. I simply refuse to accept the status quo of rancor and discord any longer. I am confident that if we would wait on the Lord in prayer and penitence, we would find a way forward together. Why? Because our unity is Christ's prayer and the Spirit's mission. To the glory of God. (Sorry all, this has become a little preachy.)

    by Jonathan Hughes

    January 26, 2012

  11. The document states,..."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." Hope? Whose hope are we talking about? In bending over backwards to accommodate this group, the writers seem blinded by the fact that there are others who have a different view of "hope." By scurrying about anxiously to do anything to try and get this group to stay, the significant numbers of us who are are so turned off by this struggle may also soon leave in disillusion and frustration. There is no way to please everyone, there never has been and sometimes it is time to say this is who we are and we can't compromise on things like porous presbyteries and separate COMs and COPMs. When you keep bending over backward, sooner or later, your back will break. And then we will be saying tsk tsk what a shame. I urge the writers of the letter to recognize the fact that there are others who see this as anathema.

    by Susan Osoinach

    January 26, 2012

  12. So...someone clarify for me what is meant by "a lack of respect for conscience based on Scripture." I think I can agree with most of the rest of the letter, but if it is suggesting that the existing structure doesn't respect folks who are guided by Scripture, I think that's a bit too far. Also, I agree with Bruce that I think, at least for some, the ship has sailed. As Christians we should always be striving toward reconciliation. However, that may be impossible while holding the structural integrity of the PC(USA) completely in tact as we have known it.

    by Clayton Rascoe

    January 26, 2012

  13. I'm not sure where to go. I believe in Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior. I believe in the resurrection, I can affirm the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed as written. But I think women and gay people should be ordained, if they clearly have the gifts and the call of God. My fundamentalist friends do not agree. So where do I belong?

    by Tracy

    January 26, 2012

  14. @Caleb, at one point in our history, "just doing what God's Word says" included owning slaves. Interpretation, perspective and privilege play a significant role in our lives whether or not you associate them "liberalism." @Margaret I can assure you that churches seeking to join the Fellowship do not intend to respect our celebration of the ministry of our LGBTQQIA sisters and brothers. In full conscience of the scripture and Jesus' message we cannot now "declare unclean what God has made clean." When the Spirit is moving in a clear direction, who then is the "stumbling block." With whom does this new Order now associate itself with through our history?... denominations that split away when the church starts using instruments in worship, when we ordain African Americans, when we ordain women, and now when our scriptural interpretations catch up to reality in regards to our LGBTQQIA family.

    by Kurt Esslinger

    January 26, 2012

  15. If some need to create and be in another denomination amidst the MANY already in the Reformed Community, fine. Go. Follow your heart. Just don't complain about others doing the same thing. Its already a travesty that Christians are not more united. This is a tiny blimp on the screen. Fulfill you calling. But stop sniping at those who don't line up and follow your every need, idea and action. "In my Father's house(hold) are many mansions...." Clearly that's the reality here on earth as elsewhere. Peace.

    by Rob Stewart

    January 26, 2012

  16. My first inclination is that the boat has sailed and that no matter how much folks want this NOT to be a new denomination, it probably will turn into one. I do not necessarily feel that this this a bad thing, but that HOW we engage in all of this will be the true mark of our Christian unity.

    by Bruce Reyes-Chow

    January 26, 2012

  17. I hope the organizers of this organization and the signers of this document understand that all involved love the Church and care about scripture. It is a violation of my conscience and my interpretation of scripture for it to be stated denominational policy that sexuality determines who God may call. I sincerely believe that both sides are arguing in good faith and that all of us genuinely believe that we are working to bring about God's kingdom on earth--we are talking about differences in scriptural interpretation. Surely the sentence below applies just as well to how those of us who love our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers in Christ and welcome them in the church have felt for many, many years: "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. "

    by Elizabeth

    January 26, 2012

  18. Please clarify--does the Fellowship actually intend to create a new denomination, or a parallel structure within the PCUSA? I'm confused by recent coverage.

    by Stephen Hamilton Wright

    January 26, 2012

  19. Historically, attempts to reconcile "offshoot" groups like FOP always end in failure. Even though there is goodwill on both sides, the moderate voices rarely prevail. For one thing, those wishing to breakaway have been slowly moving toward this moment for years. This is simply the most visible step in an invisible mental and emotional process going on for years. The FOP cannot be "roped" into returning to the fold. Efforts to do so only make the UPCUSA look like a whimpering and pouty lover scorned. Let them go. Wish them well. Let us move on with those who are committed to a church with a wider visioion of social justice, global engagement, and the presentation of a gospel that welcomes everyone not simply those who suscribe to an orthodoxy that does reflect the Jesus of the Bible.

    by Rev Dan Clark

    January 26, 2012

  20. Ms. Davis, I was present at the gathering in Minneapolis in August as an observer and with an open mind. I came away with great hope that our denomination would hold together in the end. The Fellowship of Presbyterians made it quite clear at the gathering that they did not wish to create another denomination. What discussions they have had with the leaders in Louisville between August and January and what I am reading now about the Orlando gathering lead me to suspect our dear folks in Louisville have been more of a stumbling block to unity than a help. From what I heard and observed, the Fellowship does not want the church to become 'fundamentalist' but wishes for everyone to respect each others approaches to the Scriptures and beliefs and to allow everyone to live in peace and unity as Presbyterians in the PC(USA) while being allowed to practice their faith with integrity and a clear conscience.

    by Margaret French

    January 25, 2012

  21. Ms. Davis, there is no reason for you to feel disaffected in the PC(USA). If you want "to leave supernaturalism behind and come into the 21st century," stay right were you are in the PC(USA). You church is moving in the direction you desire.

    by Jim Caraher

    January 25, 2012

  22. I cannot tell from this letter what it is about. I am a Presbyterian, an ordained deacon and elder. Is the Fellowship of Presbyterians a conservative group that wants the Church to remain fundamentalist in regards to homosexuality? I am a disaffected church member because I want a more progressive approach to Christianity. I want to leave supernaturalism behind and come into the 21st Century. I want a church that takes theology seriously. I feel as if I am wandering in the desert.

    by Isabel Davis

    January 25, 2012

  23. Have we ever thought about just doing what God's Word says? We did not get to this point by following His Word. In repentance, let us all turn to the Lord and forsake worldliness and liberalism.

    by Caleb

    January 24, 2012

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