Sunday, January 28, 2007

Is the Montreat Presbyterian Church Leaving for Big Reasons, or Small?

Montreat Presbyterian Church voted 311 – 27 to ask to be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The conservative congregation had been upset with the denomination for some time for what it regarded as the denomination's drift away from the Bible and toward pluralism. Moderator Joan Gray met with them before the vote to attempt to answer their questions.

So far, this story has only been reported in The Presbyterian Layman, which reads the congregation's actions wholly in light of national Presbyterian issues. The congregation itself has not issued an announcement, and other news sources – the Presbyterian News Service, the Presbyterian Outlook, the secular press – have not covered the story yet. Others who have discussed the issue with me see this departure as part of a slow national schism driven by the General Assembly's adoption of the Peace, Unity, and Purity task force report.

I wonder, though, how much this particular congregation was moved by a local issue not mentioned in the Layman account: the decision to close the Presbyterian Historical Society office at Montreat. This has been a passionate grievance for many Southern Presbyterians. Surely the anger over the PHS closing has touched more people personally at Montreat Presbyterian Church than anywhere.

Until there is wider coverage of this vote, I can only speculate. But I urge those who see each congregation's departure as a symptom of a national schism to consider how much local issues also drive these votes.


Tyler Ward said...

Excellent analysis. I'm sure that the the PHS closing had something to do with the staggering vote, however, I don't think that would have been enough for them to vote in that large of a majority to leave.

You must remember (for "orthodox"/"evangelical"/"conservative" what ever label you want to apply) Biblical faithfulness is more important than some local situation. I think this assumption that maybe people and churches aren't disaffected by the national church demonstrates a lack of ability to see what the problem is as churches like Montreat perceive it. National standards are important and aren't insignificant to these churches, regardless of some local situations that may add to the general ill will.

Gruntled said...

Yes, I expect that there are a large number of evangelical congregations where a majority of members are disaffected with the denomination. Few of them, though, would actually go all the way to ask for dismissal; those, I expect, may often be pushed over the edge by something local.

Quotidian Grace said...

An excellent question. I've wondered about this myself and would like to know the answer. There's no doubt that to those with roots in the old PCUS the vote to close the Montreat Historical office and move it up north was resented.

ceemac said...

I bet the local issues get even more complicated by the fact thst there is a Black Mountain Church just down the road from Montreat.

I'd be willing to hunch there is some disagreement as to which one is the "real" Montreat church.

Russell Smith said...

While at GA, I had a pastor in NC tell me that the Montreat decision might just be the "tipping point" for many of the southern evangelical churches. "local" in this instance is more than just the Montreat community -- it's all across the south.

However, another factor that might push evangelical churches to ask for dismissal (other than local issues) is the precedent issue. If these first few "test cases" are able to leave without loss of property, then there will likely be a perception that the doors are open. I suspect that's why Louisville has an aggressive legal strategy (which ironically, is further alienating some congregations).

Gruntled said...

I thought the presbytery set a reasonable level for a dismissal vote: half the members present, and 3/4ths of them voting to leave. In the Montreat case, this standard was easily met. If I were in charge in Louisville, I would not contest departures that met these standards.

John Foreman said...

Is this the new national bureaucratic strategy... trying to explain away 30 years of denominational drift as the primary cause of disaffection among conservative congregations? Please... get your head out of the sand!

Gruntled said...

Lots of conservative congregations are disaffected -- few have voted to leave. I think local factors are often involved when a congregation goes over the brink.

Alan said...

I continue to be baffled by conservatives in the PCUSA. They get everything their way and yet they continue to complain. They get G-6.0106b passed and they complain. Again and again they defeat attempts to amend or strike G-6.0106b from the BoO and yet they complain. GA refuses to allow same-sex marriages and yet they complain. Many ministers have been charged with violating the BoO, and yet conservatives continue to complain. They complain that liberals are being unfaithful to the denomination, and yet it is the conservatives who want to cut and run at every opportunity. They complain about violations of the BoO, yet want to ignore church polity when it comes to their property.

I suppose this is reading like a screed against conservatives. It isn't. I think the church needs them just as desperately as it needs liberals and moderates. But, at this point, I just don't think that anything outside of an enormous purge of all liberal elements from the PCUSA is going to make them happy. It just seems to me that at this point they're looking for reasons to leave, and I'm sure if they look hard enough, they'll find one.

I guess we'll see just how strong their convictions are if they're not able to leave with their property.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why you say there has been little coverage. I read the story in several papers and in several web sites. Explaining the departure by noting the closing/moving of the historical soceity is without real merit. The issues are much greater.

Anonymous said...

I am in the Presbytery of WNC and will let you know that I am grieved over the decision of MPC. They are and have been a very important voice in our Presbytery and our Church at large. However, to say that the closing of the Historical Society was what tipped the scale is rediculous. They have been struggling with what they perceive to be much bigger issues than that for a long time and although I do not agree with their decision to leave (they will be missed) I have to say that their decision was, I am sure, based on careful and deliberate discerment of what God was calling the congregation to do and be. I don't know if you have spoken to anyone in the MPC about their decision. I have, because I used to attend there and will miss them at Presbytery meetings. (BTW- I'm one of those slightly liberal types who beleives that God put us all here for a reason.) Part of our problem right now is second guessing other people's motives. If you want to know why they did it, then how about making contact with someone in the church and asking how big an impact the closing of the Historical Society had on their decision before stirring the pot. If you don't know anyone in the congregation, then how about not trying to figure it out on your own. It does a dis-service to the relationship we should have as the body of Christ. Now is a time to foster relationships, not build more mistrust and misinformation.

Gruntled said...

Ok, Anonymous, then what did tip the Montreat church over the edge? Hundreds of conservative churches are mad at the denomination, but only a few leave. Why this one?

Alan, I have noticed that conservatives in general are prone to split no matter how much they win. I think they they value purity more than liberals do (which makes sense to me).

Joel in Atlanta said...

I was a staff member of the Montreat entity then known as the Historical Foundation, more recently the Presbyterian Historical Society in the 1980s. I still have family connections in the valley. In the 1980s there were many folks who volunteered for various actvities at the "HF", including some folks from MPC. I agree with annonymous that the closing of the historical office had little to do with MPC leaving. Even back in the 1980s there was disagreement with denominational stands. The disagreements actually go back much further than that. It will be fascinating to see how Montreat College responds to this and what it does with its varied constituency and donor base.

One reality is that like many other congregations most members of MPC came to it from other denominational traditions. My observation is that most of those at MPC do not value what the PC (U.S.A.) tradition brings to the table. For example, it has been many years that the summer worship services of the Montreat Conference Center and MPC were one; and though MPC has supported many missionaries through the years, they have always passed certain litmus tests.

Also look at the status of Richard White. When I checked the OGA ministerial directory site this evening he is listed as the associate pastor of the church - since 1989. I am personally aware that he has done good pastoral work, yet there has never been an appropriate pastoral transition since the retirement of Calvin Thielman who retired in 1995 and died in 2002.

Gruntled is correct to suggest that we look at local conditions to help gain clarity as to local actions. Annonymous is correct to suggest that you need to ask people who are involved. There was a perfect storm in the creation of the PCA and the EPC which was both national circumstances as well as local conditions like status of the local pastor. Seems like the Montreat circumstance is that as well.

David said...

I suspect that the vote was more of the hanywork of Parker T. Williamsom than the dumb move of the Montreat archives to Philly.
Parker has a love hate reltionship with Montreat. He has a history of trying to disrupt things in Montreat since he was turned as summer worker in his youth.

Anonymous said...

The closing of the Historical Foundation is not a small matter to many of us in the region of the old Southern Presbyterian Church. We see our history, of our denomination and its culture, being discarded like so much trash. It is so easy for some people to dismiss this as a triviality, but we feel deeply insulted. Ironically, the Historical Foundation was never controversial. The denominational agencies that some of us find offensive--the Washington office, for example--will evidently be the last things standing. But the Historical Foundation had to go. And you children just hush; you have nothing to cry about. We adults know best.
And you wonder why people are leaving the PCUSA.

Montreat Member said...

I am a member of the Montreat Presbyterian Church. I'd never heard of this blog before today, but found it doing a web search to see what news there was about our church.

As regards the historical society and it's relation to our vote: You have to understand that only a fraction of the membership of our church have more than a basic knowledge of the PHS. And it never once came up during countless meetings about our decision to leave. I can see how someone might suspect it had something to do with it merely because it's in Montreat within spitting distance of the church, but it was completely off the radar relating to this decision.

Why did we decide to do this? I can only speak for myself, but I know many others would agree. We've remained in the PCUSA for decades trying to be a force for healthy renewal, and for many of us, me included, it's extremely hard to walk away. I would much rather see the denomination healed and whole, but I'm convinced that's no longer possible.

What happened at last year's general assembly was this:
Rather than facing the difficult, but critical task of getting full general assembly approval to change the constitution of the church to allow changes in ordination requirements, those charged with the "peace unity and purity" of the church chose to simply make the constitution, and abiding by it, optional.

Can you imagine the uproar if those in our government voted to make our constitution no longer the standard by which our laws are tested? This is what is now the case in the PCUSA. Presbyteries and even church elders can simply decide not to adhere to one part of it if they don't want to.

It makes the PCUSA something other than a protestant denomination and maybe something other than a church. A denomination, and definately a church is a group of people who believe together that certain things are true. In our case, we believe these truths are what make life worth living. They are what drive us to work to love and care for people in our community and to share our faith and hope with others.

It's impossible to imagine how a denomination can have any value when it doesn't believe anything in particular.


One of our teens stood up the day of the vote and said (in response to a comment from a presbytery rep. that our leaving would be like a divorce) that we were not married to the PCUSA, but to Christ.

Well said.

Gruntled said...

Thank you for that helpful clarification of the (minimal) role of the PHA controversy in the Montreat Church's decision. This still leaves open the question, why did the Montreat Church leave now? Sure, they fear, as many conservative churches do, that the PUP report might lead to local option in applying the constitution. As I have argued then and many times since, that is not what the PUP report said. But still, no one has done it yet.