Can a PC(USA) presbytery form a “union” with a “presbytery” that has been set up by a group that is not recognized as a denomination, and that has no existing congregations, ministers, seminaries, or programs?  Why would a presbytery want to do that?

At least part of the answer lies in the fact that the constitution of the group calling itself “ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians” is very different from the PC(USA) Constitution.  ECO would require that all ministers and lay leaders subscribe to “essential tenets” that have yet to be defined – a self-appointed committee of ECO’s organizers is still trying to reach an apparently elusive consensus on what they are – but that are clearly intended to require celibacy outside heterosexual marriage.  Since a presbytery’s “union” with ECO would provide grounds for arguing that mandatory provisions of ECO’s constitution trump more flexible provisions of our own, organizers clearly hope to overturn the effect of the GAPJC’s affirmation that Presbyterians must have freedom of conscience in this area, where “thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians is itself an important and faithful part of the Reformed tradition”   [Parnell v. Presbytery of San Francisco (2012)].

Part of the answer also doubtless lies in the fact that ECO’s constitution requires that ownership of all property used by a congregation be recognized as vested exclusively in that congregation – a clear departure from our centuries-old polity, now enshrined in the Constitution, that each part of the church holds property for the use and benefit of the whole church.  Given this change, organizers of ECO clearly hope that “union” may open the door for congregational departures without meaningful presbytery oversight.

Santa Barbara Presbytery voted on June 2, 2012 – over the opposition of a large number of its members – to form a “union presbytery” with ECO’s so-called “Presbytery of the West.”

Whatever motivated individual presbyters to vote for “union” with ECO, the proposal has far-reaching implications that contravene not just these but many other parts of our polity:  forcing teaching elders to join another denomination without their consent, depriving teaching elders not in active pastorates of the right to participate fully in presbytery decision-making, promoting the use of non-geographic presbyteries, and abandoning the challenges of faithful dialogue across the whole community of faith for the comforts of narrow affiliation with the theologically like-minded.

These are among the concerns that were raised by the Santa Barbara Presbytery action.  Believing the action to be irregular, the Session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and a number of teaching and ruling elders filed a remedial complaint against the presbytery on June 21.

The complaint includes 19 counts and asks the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission to declare the June 2 action null and void, and to order the presbytery to cease and desist from further efforts to join with ECO.  It was drafted by Covenant Network Director Doug Nave, who is serving as counsel to the complainants.