On Thursday, October 18, I attended the meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery at the Mt. Hope Community Church. High points in the meeting included our time of worship, our action to dismiss the Beverly Heights Church, and ongoing vocational matters.
There were 131 ministers and 129 elders representing 77 churches; there were also 25 non-voting visitors.
Worship. We began the meeting with a time of worship including Holy Communion. During the service we received the Hunger Offering of $1544.16. Acting Pastor to the Presbytery Doug Portz preached on the changing ways in which mission is being supported within the PCUSA. As part of the service we also remembered the ministers and elders who had died in the past year.
Dismissal of Beverly Heights church. One of the big events at the meeting was the debate and vote on the request for the dismissal of the Beverly Heights United Presbyterian Church to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
In order to understand the debate and decision, one needs to remember how the Pittsburgh Presbytery got there. Almost nine months earlier the Presbytery Council had set up three teams to deal with situations that might emerge as some congregations were considering asking for dismissal from the PCUSA. One of the teams created was a negotiated settlement team (NST) "to pursue the possibility of mutually-agreed upon terms whereby a church could be dismissed without ecclesiastical or civil proceedings." On April 22, 2007 the Beverly Heights church voted to request dismissal through a presbytery-observed vote of the congregation. From the time that the NST and the Beverly Heights representatives began meeting together, the Presbytery had virtually accepted the notion that some form of separation with the Beverly Heights church was going to happen. The primary reason for reaching a settlement agreement seemed to be that it was a way for Christians to avoid suing each other in the secular courts. The two negotiating teams did reach an agreement, which the Presbytery Council approved on July 17. The Presbytery had a first reading of the settlement agreement on September 6, and it was brought to this meeting for final action.
The debate began with a remarkable speech against the proposal by Prof. Andrew Purves, who said that "separation and complicity in separation are acts of unfaithfulness." His comments were theologically grounded with quotations from John Calvin. It was a remarkable speech, and I noticed that one of the people present was using his cell phone to record it. I wish I had thought to have a recording device running before he started to speak.
My heart rose with the expectation that we were actually going to have a theological debate, but then I did not hear any speaker in favor of the proposal offer so much as a Bible verse in support of the dismissal. There were a lot of speeches in favor of local option, that if a congregation wants to leave the PCUSA, the presbytery ought to let them go. There were criticisms from speakers on both sides of the debate for the Beverly Heights church's history of withholding per capita. There was a concern about whether the ballots with different colors for ministers and elders (assigned to match the colors of our name tags) in some way violated the privacy of those voting; the moderator ruled that the colors of the ballots would not interfere. We voted 174 to 73 with 2 abstentions in favor of the dismissal. (see also this article)
I found Dr. Purves' comments highly persuasive, but I consider the dismissal decision the Presbytery made in light of the Christian unity that Christ is leading us to seek and make real through our ecumenical relationships. We did not simply dismiss the Beverly Heights church to the outer darkness; rather, we approved the transfer of the congregation to the care of a church body that is one of our ecumenical partners. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church is a member church (along with the PCUSA) of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Officers of the EPC have been ecumenical guests at PCUSA meetings I attended, a fact that indicates the number of ecumenical relationships we have with the EPC.
I wish the Presbytery had had a deeper discussion of the issues Dr. Purves raised. Those issues have serious implications for how we will act as a church. A more effective time for us to have that discussion would be prior to any negotiations between the NST and representatives of a church.
Vocational matters. In the remainder of the meeting, life went on as Christ continued to call men and women to different forms of service. The Committee on Nominations nominated the Rev. Lowell Meek for Senior Vice Moderator; There was a nomination from the floor of Rev. Don Ewing for the same position. This means that there will be an opportunity to hear from both candidates at the next meeting. The Committee also announced a number of nominations that it will make at the December meeting to fill existing vacancies and the class of 2010 on standing committes and the council.
The Presbytery received the following as Inquirers: Carrie Hanson (First Presbyterian Church of Edgewood), Cinda Isler (Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church), Michael Ludwig (Oakmont Presbyterian Church), and Bethany Portz (Hampton United Presbyterian Church). The Presbytery received the following inquirers as candidates: Christopher Graham Ford (Westminster Presbyterian Church), Janice Holmes (Central Presbyterian Church, McKeesport), Laura Strauss (Whitehall United Presbyterian Church), and Meredith Weaver Yuckman (Bethel Presbyterian Church). The Presbytery approved the oral parts of trial for Todd Leach, who will be ordained to serve as an Associate Pastor of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
The Presbytery also approved calls for the Rev. Mark Simonds to be the pastor of the Oakdale Presbyterian Church, and for the Rev. Theodore Martin to be Designated Pastor of the Hampton United Presbyterian Church.