The pastor of Chapel by the Lake said Friday that the Presbyterian congregation’s recent decision to quit the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in favor of joining a new, more conservative offshoot was made because the new denomination is a “better fit” for its members’ beliefs.
Douglas Dye listed three main reasons why Chapel by the Lake fits better within ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, as the new group is known, than it did within the PC(USA) — including ECO’s emphasis on Christian mission, its smaller organization and its more conservative doctrine.
Chapel by the Lake left the PC(USA) last month, together with five other churches in Southeast Alaska, to join ECO, which broke away from the larger group early last year. All six churches previously belonged to the Presbytery of Alaska, which covers the Southeast region.
“There was a very wide-open conversation in the presbytery about this,” Dye said. “And you know, some churches thought, ‘No, you know, we’re very happy in the PC(USA),’ and that’s wonderful, and I hope they flourish and do well. But you know, just who we were, (it) was time to go to another place.”
ECO split from the PC(USA), which is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, several months after the national group voted to amend its ordination standards — which specify who can and cannot become church leaders — by removing any reference to sexuality.
The PC(USA) previously prohibited people who engaged in sex outside of heterosexual marriages from being considered for ordination. Since May 2011, however, openly gay individuals in sexual relationships or people who have sex outside of marriage are eligible to be ordained as deacons, elders or ministers.
Dana Allin, synod executive of ECO, said those who decamped to the new denomination disagreed with that decision.
“Our stance is those who are unrepentant in practicing sexuality outside the covenant of a marriage between a man and a woman … are not able to be ordained as a pastor or a deacon or an elder,” said Allin on Monday.
“They changed the constitutional standards for ordination so that people who are not practicing as we understand the Bible to teach us, not practicing a lifestyle that’s consistent with Scripture, especially relative to sexuality, should not be called to be church leaders, to be ordained as church leaders,” Dye said. “We were uncomfortable with that, frankly. We’re not happy with that.”
Dye mentioned the change in ordination standards as a reason why Chapel by the Lake went to ECO, describing it as “the theological component” among the three main factors behind the move.
David Dobler, pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska, said that to many conservative Presbyterians, the change in ordination standards represented the PC(USA) moving further to the left on social issues.
“The trajectory perceived by many in recent years has been in the progressive direction,” said Dobler. “You can say that it’s ordination standards, but for many people, it’s just an indicator of a wider drift.”
At its General Assembly last year, PC(USA) members voted to reject a measure redefining marriage to be between two people regardless of gender. But the 338-308 vote was much closer than a similar vote in 2010, which saw voters affirm the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman in a 439-208 vote.
Not all Presbyterians in Juneau were displeased by the ordination standard changes made in 2011.
Ten and a half miles from Chapel by the Lake, downtown Juneau’s Northern Light United Church responded to the change with a statement supporting the decision to allow openly gay church leaders and declaring it will not consider sexual orientation in considering individuals for ordination. After Chapel by the Lake and the five other churches were dismissed to ECO, Northern Light’s April newsletter again affirmed the church’s place in the PC(USA) while wishing the six departing congregations well.
“There are differences in understanding of Biblical interpretation and there has been specific concern about the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the leadership of the church. And Northern Light, as a congregation … would embrace the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s understanding of Biblical interpretation,” said Phil Campbell, pastor of Northern Light, which is a “union church” between the PC(USA) and the United Methodist Church. “We also are a church that’s committed to inclusion. I say at the beginning of every worship service, ‘No matter who you are, no matter where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here.’ And that welcome extends to people without regard to sexual orientation.”
The five other Southeast churches that joined ECO last month are the First Presbyterian Church of Skagway, Frances Johnson Memorial Church in Angoon, Haines Presbyterian Church, Hoonah Presbyterian Church and Kake Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Dye said that another reason why Chapel by the Lake moved to ECO was its members’ perception that the newer, smaller group placed a greater emphasis on mission, the tradition of preaching to those who are not practicing Christians and seeking to convert them.
“Frankly, the old PC(USA) is kind of tired and overly bureaucratic,” said Dye. “We wanted to find a group that would be more supportive of missional living, as we see it, and that kind of thing.”
Bureaucracy was another factor behind the formation of ECO, according to Allin, Dobler and Dye.
“Most of the people who have left PC(USA) were paying three times more to the bureaucracy than they’re paying in ECO,” said Allin, who described himself as the only full-time paid staff member at ECO.
Dye said, “The commitment is to have minimal bureaucracy, minimal administrative complexity, and so that there’s more resources given over to the churches, congregations, to do missions.”
Campbell said he believes the amount Presbytery of Alaska congregations pay in membership dues every year for administrative costs — about $50 per church member, Dobler said — is reasonable.
“We’ve not seen the Presbyterian per capita as an excessive request,” said Campbell. “I’m not one who automatically believes that funding such endeavors is necessarily a bad thing.”
Despite Chapel by the Lake’s move to ECO, the Presbytery of Alaska — now reduced to nine churches, which is below the minimum of 10 churches outlined in PC(USA) rules — maintains its office at the Auke Lake church.
“We have good relationships with the rest of the presbytery,” said Dye. “They continue to have their office here. And we support that. I mean, in a sense, we host them. They don’t pay anything for rent there.”
The cordial relations between the PC(USA) and ECO are by design, Dobler indicated.
Throughout Presbyterian history, churches and groups of churches have joined together and split apart. Dobler said the PC(USA) General Assembly took steps to avoid a painful ideology-driven schism by asking presbyteries around the country to develop protocols for “graceful dismissal” of congregations that sought to leave.
Some 88 percent of Chapel by the Lake members voted to leave the PC(USA) and join ECO, according to Dye. He said there was “overwhelming support” in his congregation for the move.
But, Dye added, “There were some people who were disappointed, because they held a different theological view and they liked the PC(USA), for various reasons — not just theology, but it was the church they were raised in and had a rich sense of history and identity with that.”
Dye said some people — fewer than five, he estimated — have left Chapel by the Lake as a result of the move and are now attending Northern Light.
“That was to be expected,” Dye said. “It’s a better fit for them, theologically, to be in that place. So that’s a good thing, and I hope — I know they’ll get very invested in that place and serve the Lord well in that place.”
“There are people attending here that used to attend Chapel, and you know, that’s happened over the years, back and forth between the two churches,” said Campbell. “But I think some (came to Northern Light United Church) specifically in response to Chapel’s vote more recently.”
On the whole, though, Dobler said Chapel by the Lake and Northern Light remain in the same spots on the doctrinal spectrum — one tending toward the traditional and conservative, the other taking a more progressive stance — that they have occupied for years.
“Pretty much, these churches are continuing on their mission as they understand it,” Dobler said, adding, “For many, many people, you’d never notice that anything had ever happened.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.