Union Presbytery?

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.


  1. http://Jeff%20Winter says

    As someone who has been ordained for 30 years in this denomination….ECO sounds good to me.

  2. ECO does have churches and pastors, at least 15 if not more.I find this Pastoral Rule refreshing- http://fellowshippres.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/A-Pastoral-Rule.pdf
    The ECO shares the same Book of Confessions with the PCUSA. And this Fellowship Covenant is also worthy of any Christian’s PCUSA or ECO’s faithfulness. http://fellowshippres.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/Fellowship-Covenant2.pdf
    Why are you so scared of a union of two like minded entities joining in their walk with Christ.

  3. http://Jeff%20Ogden says

    You seem to have some bad information. ECO does have actual congregations and ministers who have been officially received and are full members, and their Essential Tenets are clearly defined in their document titled “Essential Tenets”. The Presbytery of the West is not a “so-called” presbytery, it’s a real presbytery with real churches who are members. If you want to look down your nose at ECO fine, that’s your prerogative, but at least be accurate, please.

  4. Historically it has happened before in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, Ireland, and the USA. Just because you write that it isn’t necessarily so, doesn’t mean that it cannot be done.

  5. The PCUSA has “relations” with other denominations. Is ECO a “denomination?” Consider the Unitarian-Universalist Association. The PCUSA does not have relations with the UUA. We do have relations with the UCC, which has relations with the UUA. This is as close as it gets. The PCUSA doesn’t have to relate to ECO and unless it does nationally, I don’t see how a presbytery can go off on its own. Again, we have people who want to leave because they can’t have their own way, and then they really don’t want to leave and really want to have their own way, trying every window and back door and heating vent they can imagine.

  6. http://Matt%20Ferguson says

    I don’t think there is anything truly new about the idea of union presbyteries. Working out how conflicting views between the two denominations are resolved is an important part of making such an arrangement work.

    I do not understand the arrangement being proposed and challenged in this case well enough to comment specifically on it but, as I have thought about such arrangements in genearl, I have thought it would be good to allow each congregation in a union presbytery the choice about which requirement trumps best. If a presbytery makes the decision for all congregations, then in the case of a conservative-majority presbytery the liberal congregations within it would be forced to abide by rules they do not affirm. On the flip-side, if a liberal presbytery were to become a ‘union presbytery’ with the UCC and made the decision for the whole presbytery, then the conservative congregations within it would be forced to abide by rules they do not affirm. In a way doing what I would think appropriate would make a union presbytery like the proposed tier 2 option the Fellowship of Presbyterians proposed, but were told would not be allowed.

    I had great hopes the Middle Governing Bodies Commission’s recommendation on non-geographic presbyteries would have been given the go ahead at GA for the 7-year trial period, but that idea was not only rejected but killed and buried. I missed opportunity and, for many, the last opportunity available.

    As someone has already posted, ECO is a denomination with congregations and does have essential tenets clearly stated. How old is this post? Is this something being re-posted from many months ago when these things were not yet true?

    You write about ECO’s essentials, “are clearly intended to require celibacy outside heterosexual marriage”. Is that shocking? It was the standard for the PCUSA until very recently and continues to be the standard of 99.9999% of all denominations in the world today, as well as the universal standard throughout 2,000 years of church history. Even in the United States, with over 300 denominations, over 98.5% of denominations uphold that standard as the Biblical, God-given standard. I would ask, “Is the PCUSA is now only going to be working in close ecumenical relationships with those who agree with the PCUSA in this area?” I know the PCUSA has generally been mainly ecumenical with those of the same or to-their-left of the theological spectrum. The problem, as the PCUSA moves quickly to the left, is there are fewer and fewer denominations in the same or to the PCUSA’s left.

    About your statement about “centuries old polity” on church property being owned by denomination? That was added to the UPCUSA polity in 1981, hardly centuries old. Before 1981 you can find rulings supporting both views. The reality now is in most states the congregation is heavily favored in disputes over property and in some states the denomination is favored. The winners are lawyers who make large amounts of money working on these court cases. The losers are everyone else, including those not being ministered to because money that could have been used for ministry has been eaten up by unnecessary court battles. I don’t think Jesus is pleased by this.

    I hope the ruling in this case goes in favor of the presbytery as I applaude the efforts of conservative evangelicals seeking to find a faithful way within the PCUSA if at all possible. Recognizing this is not possible for all conservative engelicals in the PCUSA, I would hope there will be less fire and more grace extended to those who are seeking faithfulness to God over ties to mere man-made structures of governance, even when those man-made structures of governance are part of the fabric in the Body of Christ. And it would help such to happen if posts like this one from a leading group in the denomination were more accurate and less fire-feeding.

  7. http://Gary%20Nance says

    I wonder if this is purely a way to deny equality and justice to Gay people. I wish people would stop the judging.

  8. http://Ray%20McCalla says

    Let me digest this: You are concerned with Presbyterians engaging in “a clear departure from our centuries-old polity, now enshrined in the Constitution.” That’s rich. Maybe this whole argument has been about power and control all along.

  9. http://Joe%20Bendot says

    “organizers of ECO clearly hope that “union” may open the door for congregational departures without meaningful presbytery oversight” – What does this mean? From all I have seen and heard around the country, presbytery oversight sounds much more like it is being used as a hostage situation. So, if my congregation at CPC Ventura wants to leave, how is it the business of PCUSA and why should it be? My greatest hope lies in the fact that our presbytery as a majority looks to be seeking relief from PCUSA. Personally, I cannot abide by the back door way in which PCUSA has opened the door to same-sex relationships. If they had called it for what it was, I would at least respect the changes.
    May God fully bless our departure.

  10. http://Thomas%20L.%20Fultz says

    The Covenant Network never ceases to amaze me – I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of these two items posted on your website:

    A. Regarding the action of Santa Barbara Presbytery (PCUSA) to establish a Union Presbytery with the ECO Presbytery of the West: “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.

    B. Regarding a call for a new Covenant and Mission Statement, the Network affirms: “With the help of God’s grace, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is called to strengthen the Church of Jesus Christ by…..working for the unity of the church, engaging in conversations with those with whom we disagree, seeking understanding and reconciliation. In this crucial time in church and culture, the Covenant Network remains committed to serving the church, believing that Jesus Christ has already made us one and that we are better equipped to carry out our larger ministry and witness when we are together.” and “As individuals and congregations committed to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, we are called to:
    Serve the PC(USA), supporting its mission, honoring its historic understanding that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” and by God’s grace, working for the unity of the church.
    Bear witness to Christ’s love with kindness and compassion in the midst of conflict as we seek to live together with differences in perspectives, beliefs, and practices.
    Welcome in the name of Christ all whom God calls into community and leadership in God’s church…”

    So on the one hand the ecclesiastical legal expertise of Doug Nave is seeking to preclude union presbytery (unity within the church and the primary way that the northern and southern streams of American Presbyterians came to be reunited in 1983), while the Network (of which Doug Nave has long served as a Director on their governing board) calls for welcoming all whom God calls, and working for unity; for conversation, understanding and reconciliation. How does the use of a judicial proceeding drafted by a Director reflect the Covenant Network’s call for “kindness and compassion in the midst of conflict?” Is this approach a way to live out the covenant to “seek to live together with differences in perspectives, beliefs, and practices?”

    I fail to see how the approach outlined in the Network’s website article toward the Union Presbytery is consistent with the Network’s Mission Statement and Call to Covenant. I encourage the Board of Directors to reconsider their involvement with this complaint and to decide to implement the specifics of their own Covenant that point toward grace and eagerness to find ways to live together. May you chose to include, encourage and tolerate fresh new approaches to the polity of the PC(USA), for without them the PC(USA) will shrink into a denomination of a very narrow affiliation with the theologically like-minded folks who agree with Doug Nave. You have affirmed that is not what you desire, but this case offers an opportunity for the Covenant Network to proceed either in that manner or to walk away from a broad view of polity and doctrine.

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