First Presbyterian Church will hold a vote in three weeks on whether to leave the Presbyterian Church-USA and affiliate with a more conservative denomination that church leaders say is a better fit.
The 160-year-old church anchoring a prominent corner of downtown Hendersonville has been through a long process of exploring alternatives to staying with the Presbyterian Church-USA, which church leaders say "has gradually drifted away from what was once our mutually held understanding of Scripture as paramount to the rule of faith and practice."
The move to re-affiliate has strong support among the church's ruling body, called the Session, and is believed to have strong support among the congregation as well.
The congregational vote to leave the PC-USA, officially a request for dismissal from the denomination, has been set for Wednesday, June 5, in the sanctuary of the church. The church has set one more "town hall" meeting to explain the process and hear concerns on Wednesday, May 22.
Under rules set out by the church's regional authority, the Morganton-based Presbytery of Western North Carolina, at least 50 percent of active members on the current roll must be present and at least 75 percent of those must vote in favor of seeking dismissal before the Presbytery would grant the request. Voters will mark yes or no to the question: "Shall the First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, NC, be dismissed to this Reformed body: Evangelical Presbyterian Church?"
If the 75 percent yes vote is reached, the Session would appoint a team to negotiate terms of a property settlement with a team from the Presbytery. Both the request for dismissal and property settlement would be taken up by the Presbytery during a regular quarterly meeting, the church Session said in a letter to members dated May 2.
The disposition of the property has been a topic that both opponents and advocates of dismissal have raised. The two-acre square block bordered by King and Grove streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues is valued for tax purposes at $4.2 million. Neither the Session nor the Presbytery have publicly released projections for what the remaining congregation would have to pay for the building and land if it succeeds in the dismissal vote. At a hearing over the proposed dismissal, one longtime member said he did not want to pay the church a second time. Church members burned mortgage papers after paying off a $228,000 debt in 1983. Opponents of dismissal warned that the liberated congregation could be saddled with a large debt or demand for payment from the Presbytery.
Beliefs 'have been compromised'
In a five-page letter to the Presbytery on Dec. 10, the Session spelled out in detail the church's reasons for seeking dismissal.
"We have seen specific evidence that 'Solus Christus' (in Christ alone) is no longer a commonly held belief in our denomination, as the Lordship of Christ and the belief that Christ is the only way of salvation have been compromised," the Session said.
The letter went on to detail the ways that the church's national governing body, the General Assembly, had compromised the authority of scripture and its own Book of Confessions, the church's articulation of beliefs. In an argument over the definition of marriage, the elders said, a member of the church's Advisory Committee on the Constitution, said that the Book of Confessions covers "a large sweep of history ... (and) ought not to be treated as though it were a rule book."
The denomination has looked the other way, the elders said, when gay ministers have violated the church's bar of gay ordination.
"On Oct. 30, 2012, the highest court in our denomination ruled that a New Jersey pastor who married her same sex pastor was allowed to get married but not to officiate a same sex wedding," the elders said. "This splitting of hairs is but one evidence of many that the PC-USA has already caved in to a cultural accommodation of a redefinition of marriage, and the membership of the denomination is not far behind."
Church leaders say they want no part of that "accommodation" and instead seek a denomination more in line with what they say is the strong majority understanding of faith of its members.
In a letter to the congregation, opponents of the dismissal defended the PC-USA's adherence to scripture and its recognition of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and warned of the financial cost of splitting the church.
"Our church has struggled to stay in the black financially with full membership. This re-affiliation issue will lead to an incredibly unfortunate, but likely inevitable, split in the church and loss of membership," the dismissal opponents said. "If the church re-affiliates and splits as a result, either group would struggle to maintain the building financially due to membership losses. There is no outcome of re-affiliation that will not weaken us financially ...
"We want this church to stay together as a part of PC-USA. We want to continue to be this loving church family, embracing members, visitors and community members," the letter said. "But if that means sitting back quietly while an ultra-conservative leadership group leads the congregation in a direction that exhibits so little faith and compassion, two behaviors the Lord specifically calls us to show, we will be unable to follow."
EPC 'much like our church'
The Rev. Bill Campbell, the senior pastor, said he did not want to publicly address the points made by the opponents of dismissal. He said he wanted members to understand that the church will remain much as it is today even if it joins the new denomination.
"The EPC is more than any other denomination that we're aware of very much like our church," he said. "We want to stay together and be a loving, faithful witness to the community."
The denomination's movement toward compromising biblical principles, he said, has created so much anxiety and anger that "our congregation is about to come apart."
"The EPC's been around since 1981," he said. "There's a lot of stability there and they pride themselves to be over time a denomination that keeps the main thing the main thing. It seems like the best fit for our congregation. It sounds like a cliché but we don't feel like we're leaving PCUSA. We feel like they've left us."
The EPC originated with churches from both the north and south after the Presbyterian Church in America split from the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1973 and before the merger of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches in 1983. In March, it had 437 churches and 140,000 members, up from 330 churches and 85,000 members a year earlier, the Hendersonville church elders said.
"The EPC's commitment to the authority of scripture is evident throughout their presbytery meetings," the elders said in a letter to the congregation last month. "This is not just a saying but a foundation to every action they take."
The potential departure from denomination would not be the first time that First Presbyterian Church has suffered from a congregational split. Factions have split to form new churches at least three times, including a split in the early 1960s. In 1981, a faction split to form Covenant Presbyterian Church, affiliated with the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America. In 1998, the senior minister, in a theological split from the ruling elders, left to form Reformation Presbyterian Church, a part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination, which is also to the theological right of PCUSA.
Campbell called on all of the First Presbyterian flock to stay, whatever the outcome of the June 5 vote.
"Our goal is to stay together as a church family," he said. "We hope everyone will stay with us and we appreciate the prayers of the community."
Disclosure: Bill Moss, the publisher of the Lightning, is a member and former elder of First Presbyterian Church and is among the signers of a letter opposing the dismissal of the church from PCUSA. Information for this report was taken from letters and other material from the Session and from those opposed to the PCUSA dismissal and from material generated by the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.