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New Presbyterian Body Aims for Orthodoxy with Less Bureaucracy

(UPDATED) Stats show five times as many churches left the PC(USA) in 2012 as in 2011.

Update (June 3, 2013): Last year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dismissed 110 congregations to other denominations, a five-fold increase after dismissing 21 congregations the previous year, according to new statistics revealing the denomination's largest total membership loss (5 percent, or nearly 103,000 members) in nearly a half century.

In a related ruling last year, a PC(USA) synod court decided that one presbytery's decision to let its churches be members of both PC(USA) and ECO–an attempt to keep churches from leaving–was void, finding that ECO was not a Reformed denomination but a special-interest group because it requires members to believe in more than just "personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord."

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Update (February 6, 2012): The Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) held its first national synod last week, numbering 28 member churches thus far. The Institute on Religion and Democracy reports "another 48 churches are in the process of transitioning to ECO, and over 75 more are discerning a possible dismissal to ECO."

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Conservative Presbyterians launched a new denomination last week, saying that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is too consumed by internal conflicts and bureaucracy to nurture healthy congregations.

"This 'new Reformed body' is intended to foster a new way of being the church, just as traditional, mainline denominations rose to serve in their day," wrote leaders of the new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

More than 2,000 people attended the ECO's meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, but a straw poll indicated that most have not yet decided whether to leave the PC(USA), according to the Presbyterian Outlook, an independent magazine.

The creation of the ECO follows the PC(USA)'s churchwide vote last year to lift its longtime ban on gay clergy. Though homosexuality is not mentioned in the ECO's founding documents, its stated commitment to conservative theology and the inerrancy of the Bible indicates that gay clergy will not be tolerated.

The ECO also hopes to distinguish itself by creating peer review systems for churches, promoting leadership training, and instituting a less hierarchical form of government than the PC(USA), according to a statement.

Incoming congregations will be given the option of pursuing joint membership in both the PC(USA) and the ECO, or joining the ECO as full members, which would require dismissal from the PC(USA).

Several dozen congregations have already started to leave the PC(USA) to join another conservative denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Unlike that denomination, the ECO says it is "fully committed" to allowing female clergy.

Though still the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S., the PC(USA) lost more than 500,000 members between 1998 and 2009, according to church statistics, and now has about 2 million members.

In a joint statement, eight PC(USA) elders pleaded with conservatives not to leave the denomination, even as they acknowledged tensions over the gay clergy decision.

"Do not allow one-sided presentations to be all you consider as you seek to discern God's call to you and your congregation," the elders wrote.

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Posted:January 23, 2012 at 11:32AM
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