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07090
February 14, 2007

Formally engaged

New Wineskins votes to move ahead with “marriage” to Evangelical Presbyterian Church

by Toya Richards Hill

ORLANDO, FL – After a yearlong courtship, a formal engagement between the New Wineskins Association of Churches (NWAC) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) was agreed to on Friday, Feb. 9.

     The NWAC, a group of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations unhappy with the state of the denomination, voted unanimously on Feb. 9 to petition the EPC to create a non-geographic, transitional New Wineskins presbytery (NWEPC) for those churches wishing to leave the PC(USA).

     The EPC, whose leadership has been working with the New Wineskins on the presbytery idea and was already circulating an internal proposal, will now vote on the matter at its General Assembly (GA) in June. If approved, the NWEPC presbytery, transitional for a period of five years, could be set up immediately following the GA, said the Rev. Dean Weaver, co-moderator of the NWAC.

     A courtship that began with a first meeting about a year ago has led to an engagement, and “Oct 29 and 30 is our wedding date, if you will,” Weaver told members of New Wineskins-endorsing churches gathered for the group’s winter convocation Feb. 8-9 at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, FL.

     Oct. 29-30 is when the New Wineskins meet again for their fall convocation in Sacramento, CA, and will be the first gathering under the NWEPC presbytery, if all goes as planned.

     The decision to petition the EPC to create the new presbytery was one of five recommendations presented to New Wineskins’ delegates by a nine-member NWAC strategy team charged with devising an action plan. All five recommendations, which also include endorsing the overall plan, were approved with the one vote.

     Highlights of the plan include:

  • The NWEPC will be self-governing under the NWAC Constitution and shall have the authority to ordain, install, receive and dismiss pastors.
  • NWEPC pastors and staff shall be immediately eligible to participate in the pension and medical plans of the EPC.
  • Each NWEPC church will own its own property and will elect and ordain elders and deacons from its own congregational members.
  • The NWEPC shall have the authority to plant churches.

     “I believe we have crossed the Rubicon, for which there is no turning back,” the Rev. Gerrit Dawson, co-moderator of the NWAC, said immediately following the vote. He cautioned the group that, “there will be those who will not be pleased” with the action taken, but he told them to look to Christ and “be of good courage.”

     Under PC(USA) law, a PC(USA) congregation must ask its presbytery to dismiss it in order to officially leave the denomination. A presbytery can only dismiss a congregation, either with or without the church property, to an ecclesiastical body “whose organization is conformed to the doctrines and order of this Church,” according to a 1976 General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission decision. The EPC falls within that rubric, said Office of the General Assembly officials.

It’s not clear exactly how many PC(USA) congregations might seek to leave the denomination and join the EPC via a newly created New Wineskins presbytery, but the New Wineskins say they have 151 endorsing churches overall.

     Not all will opt to leave, particularly with weighty issues over whether they could take church property with them often hanging in the balance, and workshops held in advance of the vote on Friday were indicative of that fact.

     Question-and-answer sessions were held separately for those wanting to leave the PC(USA) now, those wanting to leave in the future, those not sure what they want to do and those wanting to stay in the denomination.

     All four sessions were well attended, although the meeting for those wishing to remain in the PC(USA) had the least number. Chief among the concerns of those in that workshop was the possibility of being left by themselves without moral support if the NWEPC is formed.

     Weaver, Dawson and others in the leadership stressed that staying in the denomination is a “faithful option,” and promised that those New Wineskins churches remaining in the PC(USA) would stay formally connected to the NWEPC for cooperative ministry and mission, among other things.

     “It’s a realignment into a new, additional thing,” Weaver said. “The churches that remain are part of that realignment.”

     NWAC delegates voted to create a task force to flesh out how to handle those New Wineskins churches that opt to remain in the PC(USA), and asked that the task force bring recommendations to the fall convocation.

     One concern raised during the discussion of the new presbytery and joining the EPC is the lack of women in ministry in the EPC. The denomination leaves decisions over ordaining women “to the Spirit-guided consciences of particular congregations concerning the ordination of women as elders and deacons, and to the presbyteries concerning the ordination of women as ministers,” according to a position adopted by the EPC’s General Assembly in 1984.

     The EPC, which has 75,000 members in 182 churches within 8 presbyteries in the United States, has two ordained female ministers, one of whom is retiring, said EPC Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah.

     The Rev. Carmen Fowler, NWAC vice-moderator, assured delegates that women would not be forgotten, and encouraged them to trust.

     “I feel confident in saying that the brothers involved are not going to let the sisters involved fall by the wayside, because frankly they know how much work we do,” she said.

     Fowler also responded to complaints about the all-male, all-white NWAC strategy team — which came up with the recommendations that included joining the EPC — by pointing out that the nominations for the strategy team came from “names you placed in nomination.”

     New Wineskins’ delegates ended up passing a motion calling for the leadership to form a team to “affirm and outline” the biblical basis for women to serve as pastors, elders and deacons.
 
             
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