Sheep Stealing Studied
A yearlong Presbyterian Church (USA) investigation found no evidence to support accusations that the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) actively solicited PC(USA) congregations. However, the April report expressed concerns over "inappropriate interference" by the EPC's New Wineskins Presbytery, which works with disaffected PC(USA) churches.
Neither denomination will comment until the PC(USA) General Assembly meets this July in Minneapolis, where delegates will consider asking the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to create guidelines for interactions between member denominations.
"There is going to be tension between the two groups, as there is between other Presbyterian and Reformed groups in the country," said Jeff Jeremiah, stated clerk for the EPC.
A renewal group leader doubts the potential guidelines will do much to stem an exodus, which in recent years has claimed more than 100 churches from the denomination.
"I think this is an attempt by a dying denomination to corral whatever churches it has left, rather than to be reformed and change its policies," said Parker Williamson, editor emeritus of The Presbyterian Layman.
The strains between the EPC (100,000 members) and the much larger PC(USA) (2.1 million) were likely exacerbated by mid-May events: a cutback of 49 positions at PC(USA) headquarters just days after First Presbyterian of Aurora, Illinois, left the denomination and an Arizona church announced its intention to do likewise.
Some say the divide mirrors conflicts between more than 35 renewal groups and other mainline denominations.
David Runnion-Bareford, president and CEO of the Association for Church Renewal umbrella group, said some renewal groups are critical and others try to work within the system.
Presently, he sees a third set of groups emerging: "lifeboat groups," such as the Anglican Church in North America, which is distancing itself from the Episcopal Church. "They are more associative and draw people together … encouraging each other, finding qualified pastors, and keeping churches healthy," he said.
Another is the North American Lutheran Church, which plans to form this August in Columbus, Ohio, one year after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved same-sex unions and noncelibate gay clergy.
Already, more churches have left the ELCA over the past year than the PC(USA) over the past four years, according to reformists' estimates. By early May, 351 congregations (out of more than 10,000) had voted to leave since August, although only 122 successfully completed the process.
Whether this could prompt a Presbyterian-like dialogue is unclear. However, Alan Wisdom, director of Presbyterian Action for Faith and Freedom, hopes all denominations remember the need for civility, lest non-Christians think such disputes are primarily about church property. "I would hope church officials dealing with these questions would put people first," Wisdom said. "Christ came to die for people, not denominations."
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Previous Christianity Today articles on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) include:
Ready to Implode? | PCUSA congregations prepare shift to Evangelical Presbyterian Church. (March 15, 2007)
Official Presbyterian Publisher Issues 9/11 Conspiracy Book | Process theologian David Ray Griffin is among the most prominent proponents of theory that Bush administration, not Al Qaeda, was behind attacks. (July 31, 2006)
'Assault on the Jewish People' | New Presbyterian policy on Israel raises hackles. (December 1, 2004)
Talk of Presbyterian Split Grows | Homosexual ordination, lordship of Christ are ongoing issues for conservatives. (December 3, 2001)
PCUSA Opens Door to Gay Ordination and Other Ways to Salvation | The real big news out of the denomination's General Assembly may not be its revoking of its ban on gay ministers. (June 1, 2001)