Church Schism

All churches have their issues but right now mine is in the middle of schism and it is taking a toll on us all. I wrote this letter to our Session and emailed it earlier this year (I am a PC(USA) elder but am not currently serving on the Session). Today someone at the church posted this on the Church blog. At some point I may attempt to rebut parts of the what they posted but not right now. For now, here is what I sent to the Session (recorded for posterity if nothing else).

16 August 2016

My sisters, brothers, and fellow elders,

First, know that I love and respect you and it is out of that love and respect that I write to you. You have been friends in the past, are friends now, and will remain friends in the future. Friends often disagree and argue, but remain friends. Clearly, I and others disagree with you but the Presbyterian Church I know, love, joined, have served, and continue to serve allows for that disagreement. I would even argue that it encourages such disagreement for it is through wrestling with the tough issues that we all grow, learn, and discern God’s will. As we go through this process, know that we are friends and I intend to remain friends.

Those of you who have studied the Constitution of the United States know that it was crafted to protect the rights of the minority. Arguably, the Book of Order was similarly crafted to protect the rights of the minority. As I read the Book of Confessions, it is clear that many of the confessions were written about minority segments within the church or within other countries. This does not mean that the rights of the minority supersede those of the majority but merely reflect that the majority general does not need protection–they have the majority.

The recent actions of the Session and the calling of the meeting on 21 August seem to me to be an attempt to ignore the rights of the presumed minority. I admit that there may be a majority who wish to leave PC(USA) but I am not even sure about that. So many members have quit attending church that if they return I have no idea how the vote would be. I do know I have spoken to some who are not attending because we remain in the PC(USA) and others are not attending because we are considering leaving the PC(USA). Sadly, I know of many who left because they could not worship with a group that treated members the way some were treated.

We all disagree over theological issues. As I have said in several Session meetings, I have yet to find a denomination that has beliefs that are one hundred percent in accordance with mine. I certainly have and have had disagreements with the PC(USA). The issue is not so much what we believe as to what our response to those beliefs are. Many of you have chosen to react by leaving the denomination; that is not the reaction I choose to take. I respect your heartfelt desire to take action–I really do. However, I cannot stand to have my actions, those of others who are in agreement, and those of Presbytery to be deemed “evil” or “wrong”. We are merely trying to do what you are trying do, and that is work though issues in a way we see fit.

Presbyterians are a disagreeable bunch. A look at our history indicates that. We have fought and disagreed. Arguably this great nation of ours was founded because a bunch of Presbyterians got ticked off and started a revolution. However, please keep in mind that these same Presbyterians crafted the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As disagreeable as they were, they insisted that this country remain one in which people can have religious differences yet still live, work, associate, and worship together.

Our nation has fought wars to protect the minorities, to protect those whose rights were being denied. Hitler and the Nazis did not need protection–they had the majority–the Jews were the ones who needed protection. The South Vietnamese were the minority whose rights were being denied by the Communists. The same can be said for South Korea. Yes, I admit there were also other reasons for those wars but protecting the rights of the minority was part of the reason. From genocide in Rwanda to apartheid in South Africa, the minority are the ones who needed protection.

We are all proud of our Presbyterian heritage. Some love to wear their kilts once a year. Many of us love to hear the bagpipes (and of course many do not). We love to claim John Calvin. We are proud to trace our roots even to Martin Luther who was as angry as anyone could get and he chose to take on the entire Catholic church–and won! We have John Knox, John Witherspoon, and many others. But even they had disagreements. I am not aware of Calvin or Luther ever considering one another to be evil, yet we have both Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. Through similar disagreements our Book of Order has evolved; processes and procedures have been put in place to help settle our differences. It is often a messy process, and it often takes time. But I ask you, which nation has the longest standing constitution and which nation took the longest to write that constitution? It is through time, debate, argument, and messy disagreement that the longest lasting documents are forged.

At the meeting on the 10th of August I stated that this Session has been anything but transparent. I do stand by that comment but please understand it was not directed to any of you as individuals. The Session is a body as a whole, not a collection of individuals. Our beliefs are that as individuals you have no more authority or power than any other church member, it is only as a Session that you rule over the church. Many of you have been open and honest with me when I asked about certain things–and no, I am not merely referring to those who want to stay in the PC(USA) but some who want to leave the denomination have been as well. I will not name names but they know who they are and I believe they know I appreciate it.

However, as a group, there has been little transparency. The language used in announcing the ruling of the judge was hurtful to many, and seen by others to be self-serving. I hope we can all agree it was not the entire story. I am not accusing anyone of anything and I understand how in the interest of time and in being succinct, such language could have been used. However, many days and weeks have now passed but no clarification has been made. The ruling of the judge has not been posted on the website or generally made available to the members. Granted, many have seen the ruling but only through efforts of individual members of the congregation, not from the Session.

We all recently received a letter from the property committee about the ruling. When I read the letter my first response was why is the property committee communicating directly with the congregation? The committee reports to the Session, not to the congregation, and that issue was of great importance. Why was that letter not sent from the Session? Imagine how much further that would have gone to demonstrate transparency.

The language that has been used in discussions has, in my mind, been simply unacceptable. Saying “we won” implies that we are all in agreement, and we certainly are not. I have had others question the beliefs of others and ask things along the lines of “how can any Christian remain in the PC(USA)?” I have heard statements that anyone who remains in the PC(USA) is supporting gay rights. Where do such generalizations come from? Using the same logic, the argument could be made that we all support gay rights because we live in a country in which gay marriage is now legal. Furthermore, I could argue that those who want to leave the PC(USA) over those issues should also be packing their bags and leaving the USA. However, I do not make such arguments because they are illogical, intellectually dishonest, and wrong.

Language such as “us” and “them” is equally divisive. We are all “us”. We are the church of Christ, we are Presbyterians. It is certainly easier and faster to use that language but I prefer to take the time and refer to the groups as those who wish to remain within PC(USA) and those who not. Such language is not only more accurate; it is not offensive.

The Session chose to pursue legal action to determine the ownership of the church property. I have no qualms about making that attempt with a few qualifications. I do disagree with the decision to ask for a restraining order against the Presbytery. That action delayed their ability to come in and work with the church and I believe has caused irreparable harm to the church. I remember the statement being made that the injunction was being sought to keep Presbytery from taking over the church. My understanding is that a compromise was offered that would require the Presbytery to give 48 or 72 hours advance notice before assuming original jurisdiction. I have no idea how that was misinterpreted but it was clear to me that it was an attempt to allow Presbytery to still work with us yet give the Session plenty of time to petition for an injunction should the property become an issue.

Throughout the case, it was always stated the purpose of the case was to determine ownership of the property. That has been done. The congregation was declared the owner of the property but that was never in contention. The issue was over the so called trust clause that most people simply do not understand. However, there was more to ruling of the judge that was not reported to the congregation. The last paragraph of the ruling reads:

At this time, FPC is still affiliated with PCUSA and nothing shall prohibit or restrain that relationship to continue. Nothing herein contained shall prohibit the parties from continuing their relationship until proper steps are taken in keeping with church law and doctrine to end the relationship, if ever. However, continuation of the relationship shall in no way be conducted in a manner contrary to this opinion and FPC shall be unencumbered to deal exclusively with its property as it deems fit without interference from PCUSA.

The actions taken by the Session at the meeting on the night of 09 August 2016 seem to me to be clearly in violation of this part of the court order. Comments made at the meeting on the 10th about the judge not willing to intervene in the matter are, in my opinion, being misinterpreted. The judge has not said the last part of his ruling is null and void, merely that the remaining issues are ecclesiastical in nature and he has no authority to intervene in those matters. To me, the ruling says we are a PCUSA church and must operate under the PCUSA church law.

Prior to the injunction being filed, the Session was in the process of exploring other denominations. They were, in effect, following the dismissal policy of the Presbytery. If I am not mistaken, the Session said it would follow that policy. Now that the property issue has been settled, why are we not following the process?

The Session seems to be unwilling to follow a process unless they are certain of the outcome but that is simply the way life is; we are never certain of outcomes. I also point out that the Session is pursuing a path for which you do not know the outcome–you are trying to leave the PC(USA) with no certainty of where you will go. And if you want to talk about unsettled issues, if you think the issue of choosing a new denomination is settled then you have not spoken with the people I have. I think that fight may be the ugliest one yet.

I ask you to opt to take no action at the meeting scheduled on the 21st other than to inform the congregation that you will follow the dismissal policy of the Presbytery and to attempt to explain some of the intricacies of the issues before us. I ask that you remember that unlike some of you and me–die-hard Presbyterians–many in our congregation are not and they may choose to go to non-Presbyterian denominations. Are our members not entitled to know about what they are being asked to do? I think they are and following the process will merely allow them to make an informed decision.

It is clear from the meeting with the commission on the 10th that reconciliation is not an option. That is one step of the process we could skip and proceed with determining what denomination the church wishes to be dismissed to, what those numbers are, and working on how those who choose to remain with the PC(USA) can do so.

In the end, we are all one church. Another reason I beg you to follow the process is so that the ultimate split in the church can be as amicable and friendly as possible. We are all dealing with finite resources and near infinite needs. We will need to work together. I cannot see the future but I can imagine one in which the two churches would need to work together on common missions–perhaps childcare, or Habitat for Humanity.

When you were elected elders, you all agreed to be leaders of the church, not of a portion of the church. You are not merely political or business leaders, but we were all elected elders supposedly because we were also spiritual leaders. I have not seen much spiritual leadership and we all desperately need it. I ask you to take a stand and protect the rights of everyone in the church. There is a compromise; there is a way for everyone to come out of this process as winners. However, that will require some patience and some hard work.

I have said this many times, most of the people in the church are not in disagreement over theology but merely in the response that is being taken. And even those who disagree over theological issues still have much more in common than in difference. Please show that you respect those differences and responses to those issues.

In closing, as you go down such a path of making decisions that will impact the lives and faith of many of your brothers and sisters, I ask you to remember the words of Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken”.

Yours, in Christ

Robert A. Green

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *