Presbyterian Divide

Today’s Charlotte Observer features this large front page spread regarding our Presbyterian brothers and sisters.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) — the largest of several Presbyterian bodies — has in the last several years adopted progressive stances regarding homosexual practice, ordained clergy, and the life of the church.  From all indications, that leftward move will continue for the forseeable future.

So the Observer did a report on some of the local backlash to those national decisions.

What the article describes is an accurate foreshadow of what would happen in the Methodist movment should our General Conference ever abandon 2000 years of church teaching on human sexuality:  celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage. 

Here’s the article in full:

Denominational divide grows among Charlotte’s Presbyterian churches

Decisions on gay clergy and same-sex marriage have some considering breaking away

By Michael Gordon

Presbyterian churches around Charlotte now face the same philosophical debates over Biblical authority and homosexuality that have cleaved other religions.

To date, nine area congregations have either left the Presbyterian Church (USA) or have announced wishes to do so over what they believe to be the liberal drift of the church.

The latest: Huntersville Presbyterian, which voted Sunday to dissolve its affiliation with the Presbytery of Charlotte.

Bethlehem Presbyterian in Union County has already left. There, the Rev. Ken Thomas says, dissatisfaction with PCUSA had been growing for years.

The 2010 decision by Presbyterian leaders to open the door for gay clergy – plus a looming debate in three weeks over same-sex marriage, brought the tension to a boil.

Bethlehem wants a new affiliation with Presbyterians who practice what Thomas calls “a more Biblical strand of Christianity.”

“The folks in Louisville (PCUSA’s headquarters) have just lost their bearings. They’ve embraced a philosophy of whatever floats your boat and gives you a religious feeling is legit,” he said. “We disagree with that. We think it should be a faith issue and not a feeling thing.”

Likewise, Huntersville Presbyterian plans to join the newly formed Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians once its departure is formalized by the Charlotte Presbytery delegates in July.

Sue Black, a church leader, said the Huntersville vote followed difficult months of prayer and discussion by the 460-member congregation. The break with PCUSA came over the proper role of the Bible in church teachings and the new ordination standards that not only allow gay clergy, Black said, but also removed clear behavioral benchmarks for deacons, elders and pastors.

Huntersville Presbyterian chose to join the religious body known as ECO, Black said, because it embodies “the old standards of PCUSA.”

Turnover, staff cuts

Meanwhile, the Presbytery, a collective body representing 40,000 church members in seven area counties, has been hurt by falling donations, leadership turnover and staff cuts.

In February, General Presbyter Sam Roberson, who ran the staff for almost a decade, was fired. The workforce has been pared from around 10 to two full-time staff members plus Roberson’s part-time replacement, the Rev. Timm High.

Charlotte is the country’s third-largest Presbytery. Statistics on the PCUSA website show that the 10 largest Presbyteries nationwide are all shrinking.

If all nine area churches leave, the local Presbytery will be down to 120 congregations. More departures could come if the church’s General Assembly votes later this month to broaden Presbyterians’ traditional view of marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

“I don’t know of any more churches wanting to leave, but I’m not naïve enough to think there aren’t,” said High, who will give up his post as soon as an interim presbyter is found.

“Basically it comes down to that, for these churches, the Presbyterian Church as they have known it has left them, not them leaving it.”

Thus the denomination, which founded all of Charlotte’s earliest congregations and which still is the spiritual home for many of the city’s political and business elite, finds itself at a familiar crossroads. It is there that matters of faith collide with culture and politics.

Thomas Currie, dean of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, said many faith traditions have been struggling with “forces in our society today that celebrate pulling away, that cause us to retreat among ourselves. In the absence of a compelling call by the church to work and live together, that’s what people will do. And that is what is happening now.”

Debate in other churches

The Episcopal and Lutheran churches already have been wounded by moderate-conservative debates over scriptural interpretation and homosexuality. U.S. Catholics remain divided over abortion, contraception and the proper balance of clergy vs. lay influence.

A month ago, Christians who say they worship the same God and read the same Bible voted on opposite sides on North Carolina’s marriage amendment.

“The tectonic plates are moving. We’re in the middle of an earthquake, and that makes it hard to know what the future will look like,” said the Rev. Robert Austell, pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian of Charlotte, a PCUSA congregation. “But even in the middle of an earthquake, there’s work to be done. It’s not all duck and cover.”

Austell heads the Presbytery’s executive council and is a candidate for the church’s national moderator (the General Assembly votes in early July).

Covenant Presbyterian in Charlotte will also stay with the Presbytery. The Rev. Bob Henderson described the ongoing changes as a “movement toward clarity, focus and simplicity … across all denominations,” a theme that High also cited.

“It’s very chaotic, it’s very unsettling,” High said. “We’re in the time between the time. It creates a lot of anxiety.

“…But if we trust in God, we can figure it out, and that’s what God wants us to do.”

Bethlehem, like all congregations wanting to leave the Presbytery, went through a yearlong “discernment” process. Church members voted April 29 to end the affiliation.

The church, founded in 1831, was “dismissed” May 15 by the Presbytery delegates. Bethlehem is joining the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, founded in 1981 by church leaders unhappy with changes in PCUSA

“It was very civil; Presbyterians aren’t going to trash the place,” Thomas said.

As the reshuffling continues, Currie says the future of “liberal Protestantism, which seeks to be faithful to scripture and open to the world, is not clear.”

“The church is scrambling for its life; the church is always scrambling,” he said.

That, he added, is when it is at its best.

Departing churches

Here are the nine congregations who want to leave the Charlotte Presbytery, according to Timm High, acting general presbyter.

• Bethlehem Presbyterian in Union County (left May 15)

• Benton Heights Presbyterian in Monroe (has voted to leave)

• Huntersville Presbyterian (voted Sunday to leave)

• Albemarle Road Presbyterian of Charlotte

 Garden Memorial Presbyterian of Charlotte

• Bethel Presbyterian in Cornelius

• Siler Presbyterian in Wesley Chapel.

• Troy Presbyterian in Montgomery County.

• Ridgecrest Presbyterian near Locust in Stanly County

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