Universalism at play? Or is this church split only about sex?

The Dallas Morning News — which dropped its paywall Oct. 1 — had an interesting story this week on a mainline Presbyterian church split. This is a big one, folks:

Members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church voted overwhelmingly Sunday to disassociate with its national body to join a more conservative denomination.

With a vote of 1,337 to 170, the church decided to leave Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. Another vote cemented the church majority’s desire to join A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), which was formed by former PCUSA congregations in 2012. Other churches, including First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, have also recently made the move.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, said in a statement on the church’s website. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

At this point, here’s what I want to know: What exactly makes the new denomination more conservative? Conservative is such a subjective word.

Will the rest of the story provide insight into the specific theological and doctrinal issues at play?

Sort of.

But in general, this 630-word report (read: not a lot of space for a reporter to provide deep background) seems pretty disjointed and disorganized.

For example, the Morning News quotes a supporter of leaving the PCUSA up high:

Kent Krause, a church elder, said the debate about leaving PCUSA has been bubbling for decades.

Many members of the congregation disagree with the a la carte religious beliefs taken by the national body, he said.

“There’s disagreement to the extent that the church believes the PCUSA has adopted the universal approach that there may be lots of ways to salvation as opposed to what is the basic reformed belief that salvation through Christ is kind of the main [path],” he said.

OK. Universalism is, according to the church elder, a key issue. How do the opponents of the split respond to that claim?

Go ahead and cue the crickets, or click this link if you’re really curious.

The story moves from that issue into a paragraph of background on property issues related to the decision. (The Morning News does not mention this, but my GetReligion colleague Father George Conger tells me that Highland Park Presbyterian’s leaders have been talking to the breakaway Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth about how to leave. The diocese won a recent victory against the national Episcopal Church in the Texas Supreme Court. The court held ownership of church property is governed by what the deeds to the building say, not what the denominational hierarchy says. According to Conger, the Anglican wars in Texas appear to have cleared the way for conservative Presbyterians to quit the PCUSA and keep their buildings.)

But back to the real reason for the split …

Later in the story, there’s this:

The church largely disagrees with a 2011 vote by PCUSA that effectively allows people in same-sex relationships to be ordained as pastors and deacons. Krause said that is not a driving force of the split “by any stretch of the imagination,” but (split opponent Martha) Wilson disagrees.

Another fracture stems from disagreement with Grace Presbytery rules requiring that candidates for the ministry come from certain seminaries. Some who oppose the split believe the rule ensures people have proper training in the reformed faith before becoming teachers in the church.

For starters, that would be “Reformed” faith, not “reformed.” Meanwhile, there’s a lot of potential meat in those two paragraphs. But once again, the Morning News breezes right past the crucial issues. Not only do readers not hear from split opponents on the Universalism claim, but the same-sex vote — and the Highland Park church members’ positions on it — is boiled down to a single paragraph. Moreover, the precise meaning of “proper training in the reformed faith” is left annoyingly vague.

Certainly, a reporter writing a typical daily news report lacks the space — and time — to present an in-depth account. On the other hand, I wish the Dallas paper had worked harder to focus on the key issues behind the split mentioned by the stakeholders and where the various parties stand.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Anti-Catholic Wesley Mcgranor

    If they are merely attempting to be a more conservative or moderate hippie, then they will exist with the rest of that portion of society, that did not act until after the downfall.

  • FW Ken

    This congregation had a split about 25 years ago which led to the formation of Park Cities Presbyterian Church, which joined the Presbyterian Church in America, another conservative denomination. I would like to see a follow-up article on that bit of history. What was different then from now? What was the same? What role did same-sex issues have then, if any?

  • Reformed Catholic

    I’m not sure if you could find anyone in the congregation who would be able to refute the universalism charge.

    When you have the Presbyterian Survey (an internal PC(USA) organization) reporting that 45% of ordained clergy agree with the statement that there are more than one path to God, and some very vocal clergy denying central tenets of Christianity without any type of church discipline being administered, there’s not much of a defense one can put up.


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