With little emotion or discussion, Presbyterian leaders voted this week to dismiss four South Sound churches that decided to leave the denomination after it started allowing noncelibate gay and lesbian ministers.
Like the end of an amicable divorce, the regional body Wednesday night approved the departures sought by each congregation, ending nearly a year of study and negotiation.
The four churches include Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor, which has 1,660 members and is the largest in the presbytery covering Southwest Washington. The other three are: First Presbyterian of Tacoma, which has about 460 members; 365-member Sumner Presbyterian Church; and 88-member Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Graham.
After some speakers praised aspects of the negotiation process, the Rev. David Alger of Tacoma spoke up.
Alger, who was a member of the committee negotiating with First Presbyterian, called that church a “major institution in our city.”
“I think we should shed some tears,” Alger said. “It breaks my heart to have to vote on this.”
He then voted to dismiss the church from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The action is the latest example of how disagreements over sexuality in the church have caused members to defect from mainline Protestantism locally and around the country. The issue has divided the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The 96 presbytery representatives from the regional body, the Presbytery of Olympia, voted unanimously – except for one faint “no” on two of the votes – to approve each of the four congregations leaving. The voting, held in University Place, was over in a half hour.
Each congregation previously had voted to leave and pay the presbytery a settlement based on the size of the congregation, its annual mission giving and its annual payment per member to the denomination. In return, the congregations assume ownership of their buildings held in trust by the presbytery.
Chapel Hill’s settlement is the largest: $283,908. Evergreen’s is the smallest: $19,490. First Presbyterian will pay $81,100, and Sumner Presbyterian will pay $61,765. The total for all four: $446,263.
The four congregations represent 8 percent of the 49 congregations in the 9,600-member Presbytery of Olympia.
By percentage, the number of South Sound churches leaving the denomination ranks at or near the top nationally in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In all of 2011, 21 churches were dismissed in the 2.3-million-member denomination.
A majority of presbyteries nationwide voted last spring to permit the ordination of noncelibate gay men and lesbians as pastors, elders and deacons. The Presbytery of Olympia opposed that constitutional change, which removed the ordination requirement of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.”
Leaders from Chapel Hill and First Presbyterian have stressed that gay ordination is just one of several reasons for them leaving. Another issue is maintaining the belief that Jesus Christ is the unique way to salvation, they say.
The Rev. Mark Toone, senior pastor at Chapel Hill, said Wednesday night’s meeting represented “a strange combination of sadness and hope” for his congregation.
“Sad because of the loss this represents and hopeful because we are excited for our future,” Toone said Thursday.
Chapel Hill and Evergreen will both join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. First Presbyterian will join A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, also called ECO.
The next step for Sumner Presbyterian takes place Sunday when it will be chartered as Faith Covenant Church and become part of The Evangelical Covenant Church on the 135th anniversary of the congregation’s founding.
A final worship service for the presbytery with the four congregations will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday at University Place Presbyterian, where Wednesday’s vote was held.
Four other congregations in the presbytery could be leaving as well. Parkway Presbyterian in the Parkland area and Montesano Presbyterian have taken initial steps to leave. Marine View Presbyterian in Northeast Tacoma and Little Church on the Prairie in Lakewood are studying the option.
The Rev. Dave Brown, pastor of Tacoma’s Immanuel Presbyterian Church, said in an interview there’s sadness in his church that some people feel so strongly against gay ordination, they feel they must leave. But he added, “At least we’re being honest about our differences.”
After the voting, Wednesday’s meeting concluded with a hymn.
With their voices united and Toone playing piano, the Presbyterians adjourned singing “It Is Well With My Soul.”