Calls for “Overture of Gracious Separation” in the PCUSA

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Linn Howard, who last week called for an “overture of gracious separation” between the conservatives and liberals within the Presbyterian Church USA, announced that he is running for stated clerk of the denomination. Howard, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy after Thanksgiving, will be pitted against several other elected nominees, including the incumbent clerk, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick.

Howard, pastor of Peter’s Creek United Presbyterian Church in Venetia, PA, was among five ministers who lead a dramatic protest against the PCUSA’s administrative board in Oct. 2002. Mimicking the image of Martin Luther, who nailed his “95 Theses” to a cathedral door in 1517 to protest the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the ministers taped a “Call for Confession and Repentance” at the entrance to the Presbyterian Center, revolting against what they called an “irretrievably apostate and decay” of the denomination.

Their main complaint was against the PCUSA officials, including Kirkpatrick, whom they believed had failed to enforce the provision of the denomination’s constitution that forbids the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians.

The statement urged local congregations to “refrain from giving undesignated mission money to governing bodies” and divert per-capita gifts “to ministries faithfully engaged in God’s ministry of compassion.” Howard’s own church has withheld its per-capita payments to the General Assembly since 2001.

Last week’s “overture for Gracious Separation,” partly penned by Howard himself, echoed the complaints of the 2002 protest.

The Overture, which was presented by Howard to the Washington Presbytery on Wednesday, Nov. 12, charged that the PCUSA “has become primarily a political institution devoting much of its time, talent and treasure to secular and unbiblical agendas,” and that the current moderator and stated clerk “by their actions undermine the will of the overwhelming majority of church members who have repeatedly upheld the historic and biblical constitutional standards of chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman.”

The statement also claimed a division has already occurred within the PCUSA. There are two churches, said Howard, “one consisting of individuals and congregations committed to the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit to actively transform sinners into saints; and the other consisting of individuals and congregations committed to a ‘progressive theology’ that affirms multiple ways to salvation, the shared authority of Scripture and human experience, and the belief that polity can bring unity among sinners and saints who do not share a common understanding of the Gospel.”

The division is “irreconcilable,” the statement added, “because we no longer share a common understanding of the authority of scripture, the person, work, and lordship of Christ, and the commitment to holy living that discipleship requires.”

During his statement to the presbytery, Howard said, "All of us have been in deep anguish over the continuing conflict which has been causing problems for us during the past 10, 15, 20, and 30 years. These conflicts, which have detracted us from our ministry as a congregation and a denomination, are rooted in key theological and faith differences, particularly our understanding of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the call to holy living.

"A growing number of individuals believe that we will never reach a point where our differences will disappear,” added Howard. “The net result of our conflict is that the ministry of local congregations and the denomination have been adversely affected. This negative effect is expected to broaden and persist.”

Howard then pointed toward the “gracious separation” undertaken by Apostle Paul during his ministry in the first century.

"This overture for Gracious Separation is a well-developed overture that provides for a fair and orderly process for dissolving the PCUSA and for creating two new reformed bodies. While I suspect your first reaction is, 'No way,' let us remember that gracious separation was practiced in Scripture. In Acts 15:36-40, Paul and Barnabus had a sharp disagreement over Jon Mark. Instead of continuing in futile conflict, they chose to graciously separate one from the other. Barnabas went with Jon Mark and Paul went with Silas. Their gracious separation led to the advancement of the gospel,” said Howard.

The separation, according to Howard, is a critical step to preserving the denomination, especially in lieu of the events occurring within the Episcopal Church.

"During the past three months, members and elders at Peters Creek have said to me, in light of the divisions taking place in the Episcopal Church, 'Thank God it's not the Presbyterians!' Their joy diminishes quickly when I point out that we are only 2-3 years away from a similar rupture,” noted Howard. “The Episcopal congregation which is our neighbor and which has a vibrant and faithful ministry is struggling now because of the events that have unfolded in the Episcopal Church.”

"This overture provides us the opportunity to have a healthy division, rather than a painful rupture,” added Howard. “The goal of gracious separation is to move us beyond the distraction of irreconcilable differences into a focused advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"This will be a major decision for us, one which we should not make hastily. Therefore I move that we refer the motion to a special committee of seven individuals, appointed by the moderator, for the specific purpose of designing a fair and balanced process for discussing the overture at our January 19, 2004, presbytery meeting in order that we may cast an informed vote at the meeting,” concluded Howard.

In accordance to his request, a six-member committee has been appointed to prepare the presentation of the overture during its regular meeting in January. The quadrennial election for the stated clerk, the top ecclesiastical officer of the PCUSA, will be held at the 216th General Assembly in Richmond, Va., in June.