12 May 2008


Note: The posts in this series are the opinion of the author. They do not reflect, nor should they be construed to reflect, the opinions or positions of Cozen O’Connor, Forks of the Brandywine Presbyterian Church, the New Wineskins Association of Churches, or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Some might suggest that this [the power to request dismissal] is a power held by the session. This argument must fail on at least two grounds.

First, the Book of Order is silent as to any power of the session to request dismissal on its own authority.

Second, when considering the other momentous topics that are specifically assigned to action by the congregation, such as pastoral relations and encumbrance of property, the idea that a session could unilaterally commit a congregation to a similar action—dismissal—fails the “smell test.”

Although any resort to common sense in discussions of government or polity is fraught with danger, in this case, it is probably safe to conclude that a presbytery may not unilaterally dismiss a congregation to some other denomination. Cf., Book of Order, anot. 21.194 (“When dealing with a request by a church for dismissal with its property. . .”) (emphasis added).

It then follows that a congregation would have to initiate such a request. However, the proponents of a strict reading of § G-7.0304 would have us believe that the congregation apparently has no constitutional authority to take such action. That erroneous and narrow reading of § G-7.0304 must fail, in favor of some broader permissive right of termination reserved to the congregation. If a request to be dismissed is one of the permissive powers of a congregation, then other similar powers to modify or terminate the voluntary affiliation between congregation and denomination should also be included in that broad, undefined category.

The congregation rather than a “governing body” is granted express power with respect to buying, mortgaging, or selling real property. It would follow that the congregation is also empowered to take at least one other action which impacts on its ownership of its property: maintaining that unfettered ownership even as it decides that it is called to embrace a new denominational affiliation.

By the PC(USA)’s own definition, the congregational meeting discusses property issues, melds individuals into a unified (corporate) congregation, and, repeatedly, gathers information and takes action to forward its mission. Because the church’s property is the home base for its mission to the community, state, nation and the world (cf., Acts 1:8), the congregation (as opposed to any other entity) must have control over its property.

Obviously, after prayer and deliberation, a congregation may actually decide to create a trust and then place its property in that trust for the use and benefit of some other entity, e.g., its presbytery or the PC(USA). However, the decision is that of the congregation, not a unilaterally imposed edict of the denomination.

Boiled down to its basics, at its annual meeting, the congregation asks and answers the following questions:

• Who shall be our leaders?
• What shall we agree and promise to pay our pastor?
• What shall we do with our land, buildings and other property which we, as a congregation have purchased for the purpose of our worship?

All of these questions go directly to the root of the congregation’s unique identity. Surely, the final component of that identity—denominational affiliation—must also be reserved to the congregation. Thus, we add to the foregoing list the question

• How (by what denominational name) shall we identify ourselves to the community?

Observe that in every instance, these questions go to the core issue of the identity of the congregation.

Accordingly, while a request to be dismissed is clearly one option for terminating denominational affiliation, it is not necessarily the only option under the Book of Order. Because the congregation is the body designated to make such essential missional decisions, absent a clear, unambiguous limitation on congregational authority, unilateral disaffiliation must also be an option open to a congregation. And such power is absolutely necessary to avoid the consequences of a presbytery which, wrongfully or in bad faith, withholds dismissal.

Some might argue that a presbyterian veto is necessary to prevent untoward departures. That is yet another symptom of the modern preference for coercion over trust.

While a presbytery’s deliverances and policy statements are not binding on the membership of the local Church, if a presbytery refuses to give its assent to a request for dismissal, and does so for valid reasons, its statements should be considered worthy of the respect and prayerful consideration of the requesting congregation’s members. Ordinarily, only if dismissal is improperly withheld would resort to unilateral disaffiliation be necessary.

Of course, when evidence exists of presbytery’s predisposition to withhold, such as previous action by the presbytery to ignore dismissal requests or previous resort to administrative commissions or civil suit, immediate resort to disaffiliation would be reasonable. A recent example of such appropriate evidence is the secret distribution by denominational headquarters to the presbyteries in 2005 of two documents: “Church Property Disputes: A Resource For Those Representing Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Presbyteries And True Churches In The Civil Courts” (Office of the General Counsel, PC(USA), rev. 12/05) and “Processes for use by presbyteries in responding to congregations seeking to withdraw,” (Department of Constitutional Services, PC(USA), September 2005).

These documents, which have come to be known as the “Louisville Papers,” are plans for a punitive and pre-emptive legal campaign against congregations merely suspected of considering seeking to leave the denomination.

Despite the attempt by some writers to characterize denominational affiliation as a permanent choice, we all know that members of a congregation may “vote with their feet” and change churches and even denominations at will. The most often used comparison is enlistment in the armed forces. See, e.g., Elder Bill Newkirk “To Leave or Not to Leave: An Open Letter to fellow Presbyterians,” Presbyterian Outlook on-line (03/05/2007) (“What makes anyone think that they can pick up and leave any time something comes along they don't agree with? In the military services they call that desertion.”); Rev. Paige McRight, “Personal reflections on the New Wineskins convocation,” id. (03/12/2007) (“Until I was ten, my father was an Army officer and we lived our lives by military orders. We drove the posted speed limit on base, my dad wore the uniform prescribed in the orders of the day and when the Army said move, we packed.”) But see, Elder Michael R. “Mac” McCarty, “Going Where God Has Ordained Us To Be,” id., (03/21/2007) (“The desertion analogy would be correct only if the PC(USA) were the one true church. But it isn’t. In this case, many congregations have received an order from God to ‘stand detached from the PC(USA) and proceed and report to the EPC for duty.’ God is our commander-in-chief. The entire Church is His. When He issues orders to ‘Go,’ and to ‘Do this,’ obedience of those orders is mandatory. Obedience cannot be desertion because the departure is with authority. The recipient of those orders must pack and go.”)

That's the finish line ahead!

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