A proposal for First Presbyterian Church to separate from the PC (USA) failed Sunday by eight votes.
The 900-member congregation, which has been divided over gay marriage and other doctrinal issues, voted 266 to 146 in favor of the measure. But the number fell short of the 274 votes needed for dismissal from the denomination, which required a two-thirds vote.
Some members were seeking to separate from the national denomination, which has become more liberal about same-sex marriage and other doctrinal issues in recent years. They had hoped to join the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a new denomination formed out of churches that have separated from the national church.
Doctrinal differences with PC (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in America, escalated in June 2014 when the General Assembly approved an amendment in the Book of Order that allows ministers to marry gay couples in jurisdictions where such marriages are legally permitted. Some members also disagreed with the denomination’s decision to divest from companies doing business with Israel and they were disappointed when a motion to identify essential tenets was defeated.
The marriage amendment has since been ratified by a majority of the denomination’s presbyteries, which are regional governing bodies throughout the organization.
A total of 412 members voted Sunday at a special meeting held directly after the congregation’s 11 a.m. service. Before the vote, a motion was made for First Presbyterian’s “dismissal to another Reformed body of its choosing.” Then members representing both sides of the debate lined up to express their views.
Joan Cheves, in her 80s, has been a member of First Presbyterian since 1968. She told the congregation that she had just returned from Tallahassee, Fla., where she attended a same-sex wedding for her nephew and the partner he has lived with for 15 years. She said it was a double-wedding shared with an assistant district attorney in Tallahassee and his partner.
Cheves said she was concerned about people like her nephew not being accepted at First Presbyterian in the future. “I think we’ve been so busy in the church being Presbyterians that we’ve forgotten to be Christians,” she said.
Emmie Van Doorn, a teenager, said she has gay friends in school who are wonderful people.
“I make them smile and they make me smile,” she said, soon breaking into tears. “I just want to say that this a good church and I hope everyone can see that everyone is God’s child.”
Among those representing the other side was Frank Lumpkin, 57, who said his family has roots at First Presbyterian dating back to 1848.
“Christianity is under attack and America is fast becoming a secular nation,” he said. “In the last few years, little by little the government has been chipping away our religious freedom and Christianity as we know it at this time.
“Most of us don’t know how to stop it and there’s probably not much we can do about it on a national scale,” he said. “But the issues that arise like this one at our church right now, we can do our part and say, ‘No, I am not changing my core beliefs to simply appease a (denomination) that cares more about political correctness than the foundation of our faith.”
Mary Casey Powers, a 19-year-old freshman at Samford University, said First Presbyterian had been one of the most important and influential forces in her life and she didn’t want to see it stray from its standards.
“God never changes,” she said. “We are called to be in the world, not of the world.”
Dudley Wells co-headed the Education and Communication Committee charged by the elders to educate the congregation about the effort to seek dismissal. After Sunday’s vote, he was reflective.
“To come that close, it’s one of those things where you look back and think ‘what could've, should've, ‘” he said. “There’s some disappointment, but I’m trying to look forward instead of backward.”
Lisa Powers, Mary Casey’s mother and a non-sitting elder who supported the dismissal, said there were many people against the proposal who don’t regularly attend church but showed up Sunday to defeat it.
“Homosexuality was not the main concern for me,” she said. “My concern is that PC (USA) has been increasingly reluctant to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.”
She said her family would remain at the church but others have told her they are leaving.
The Rev. Charles Hasty, the church’s senior pastor, said it was time for the church to start healing.
“We knew the church was divided on this issue and I already observe among the worshipers and members that it is very sobering,” he said. “They know this has not been a group that has won or a group that has lost, because in essence it was divided two to one.”
Hasty says the church’s recent experience is an opportunity for renewal.
“We have read our doctrines and our polity, how we govern ourselves, maybe more than we have in the last 50 years,” he said. “But more importantly, we have searched God’s Word more faithfully and eagerly and humbly than we have as a church in a long while.
“There’s some healing that must take place,” he said. “And there is now an opportunity to focus on the things that indeed hold us together, doing the work of the church which is beyond itself. We’ve been focused on interior matters here for a good while. Now the move is to look outward in a unified way to do the things that the Great Commission calls us to do: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, to baptize and to share the Good News. When we recover from all of this, we have that very exciting work to do.”
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.