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August 8, 2007
Column #1,354
Presbyterians Flee Presbyterian Church (USA)
by Mike McManus

Start with three facts.  In 1965 the Presbyterian Church (USA) had 4.25 million members.  In 2006 there were only 2.26 million, a hemorrhage of 47%. An average of 45,000 fled the PCUSA annually in the last five years.

Where have they gone?

By 1983 when northern and southern branches of Presbyterians merged after being separated by the Civil War, more than 1,000  conservative southern churches, who opposed abortion supported by the PCUSA, created the Presbyterian Church in America.  PCA churches, who also support the infallibility of Scripture, now have 350,000 members in 1,640 churches.  

A smaller spinoff began with 12 northern churches who also opposed abortion and backed Scripture's authority, created the Evangelical Presbyterian Church that now has 75,000 members in 188 churches.  (PCA churches do not allow women to serve as clergy, while EPC churches do.)

These defections account for only a minority of PCUSA losses.  More than a million members simply fled to join other evangelical churches... 

A more recent issue has been gay ordination. The 1978 PCUSA General Assembly placed into the constitution a declaration that clergy must be chaste outside of marriage and faithful within it. That proscribed  homosexual behavior as contrary to the teachings of Scripture.

However, liberals have pressed for change, resulting in no less than three national referenda on whether to ordain active homosexuals.  By increasing margins, including 73 percent in 2001, Presbyterians affirmed the constitutional standard of chastity and fidelity.

The debate wearied hundreds of thousands and prompted them to switch to America's growing evangelical churches.

For many the final blow came with the 2006 General Assembly's approval of a report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity, which declared that the constitutional ordination standards were "not essential." That allowed any local presbytery to approve gay ordinations.  Setting aside the national constitutional standard, affirmed by three national referenda was hardly a strategy to promote peace and unity.

A new wave of churches are voting by 90%+ to abandon the PCUSA.  In the past year, 27 congregations with 15,000 members voted to leave the PCUSA, requested to be dismissed or have sought to have their congregation declared the owner of their property. 

Real property is at stake.  PCUSA, like the United Methodist and Episcopal Churches, has a clause  in its denominational constitution stating that all property of the local church is held in trust for the denomination.  As I reported in this column several months ago, a very bitter and costly fight is being waged by a dozen former Episcopal churches in Virginia who now call themselves Anglicans and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Although some of those churches date back to the colonial era, before an Episcopal Church existed, it demands their property.

A similar Presbyterian legal battle is underway. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that though a Presbyterian church is an eccelesiastical body, it is also a corporation charted in a particular state and the law should view the owning of property with "neutral principles of law."

That gives churches who want to leave the denomination some leverage. A lawsuit involving Central Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Ala. was settled when the church agreed to pay $250,000 to the local presbytery by the end of 2010. Settlements are possible.

However, PCUSA presbyteries are playing hardball. In Oklahoma the presbytery "filed secretly an affidavit claiming our property in a midnight run, alleging that they were the owners of our property via a trust," charged Dr. Tom Gray of Kirk of the Hills Church in Tulsa, OK. The church filed a counterclaim noting that in the church's deed, no denomination is mentioned.

They are three months from going to trial. Negotiation?  No. The presbytery wanted millions for the 2,700 member church.  "This is ransom money," snaps Gray.

Of the 27 PCUSA churches who have begun to leave, all but one hope to become part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  In fact, there are 160 PCUSA conservative churches who are part of a group called "New Wineskins." They had been fighting for conservative reforms within PCUSA, but after the "Peace and Unity" declaration, virtually all are considering leaving.  The EPC voted to welcome them.

New Wineskins churches are evangelical and larger than average.  Together they have 90,000 members, which would more than double the size of the EPC. 

And that may be only the beginning.  Parker Williamson, Editor Emeritus of "The Layman," a conservative newspaper with 440,000 circulation, told me, "We are not recommending that people leave the denomination, but we take a strong stand in defense and support of any congregation that makes that decision."

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