Presbyterian leaders in Pittsburgh reeling from latest exodus

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Members of Pittsburgh Presbytery expressed grief and frustration with three churches that recently voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) without going through the constitutional process for doing so, while the church's national moderator, who coincidentally was at their regular meeting Thursday, said he had offered to meet with leaders of those churches and two others that are pursuing the formal process for leaving.

Representatives from only one of the five, later identified as Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland, agreed to meet with the Rev. Neal Presa. About 140 churches are in the countywide presbytery.

During the meeting at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Bethel Park, Rev. Presa said the theological concerns cited by the churches that want to leave must be taken seriously.

"These are actions and reactions that have been bubbling up for a long while. They are not knee-jerk actions to something that happened yesterday," he said.

Recently, Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church, Round Hill Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Township and the First Presbyterian Church of Bakerstown voted to secede without going through nine to 18 months of discussions with presbytery officials or negotiations over property. They joined the more theologically conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

At least 200 other churches have similarly left the 1.9 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) since 2007. The most prominent issue was acceptance of local option on gay ordination, but those departing say that changing sexual standards reflect a broader disregard for the biblical authority. Defenders of the changes compare them to earlier reinterpretations of scripture involving women's ordination, divorce and slavery.

Those who have won the battle over gay ordination can't dismiss conservative concerns, Rev. Presa said.

"Too often when we get into trouble, the knee-jerk reaction in the Presbyterian Church is to restructure," he said. But "there is an ecclesiastical problem that needs to be confronted. ... Theological and spiritual problems are at the root of what is plaguing us."

Although Presbyterians have a history of splitting, they also have a history of reunifying, he said. "Perhaps we can have a sustained conversation ... so that perhaps reunion can happen 50 to 100 years down the road. The God who can change water to wine and move mountains, I believe, can change hearts."

Some commissioners compared the Rev. Sheldon Sorge, the general minister of Pittsburgh Presbytery, and the Rev. Doug Portz, one of his associates, to Jesus standing silent on trial because they were refused the right to speak when the Mt. Lebanon and Bakerstown churches voted. Both received a standing ovation for their efforts.

The presbytery leaders "faced public humiliation and have done so in a Christian manner," said the Rev. Daniel Merry of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon, who called the past two months "the hardest I have ever lived through."

Rev. Sorge said he didn't believe that most members of the departing congregations understood that they were voting to violate the church constitution. He is sending letters to explain why the presbytery still maintains jurisdiction and will be sending a commission to work toward an acceptable departure under church law.

"Our effort is not to try to stop them from leaving the PCUSA but to do it in a way that is in conformity with our constitution. We aren't trying to blockade anybody," he said.

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Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.


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