(Photo courtesy FPC Houston)
One of the largest Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in the United States is presently weighing the possibility of leaving the denomination due to theological differences.
First Presbyterian Church of Houston, founded in the early nineteenth century and with an estimated 3,600 members, voted earlier this year to enter a discernment process over the possibility of seeking dismissal.
James T. Birchfield, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, told The Christian Post that the congregation wants to consider where they stand in relation to the views of PC(USA).
"Our congregation is attempting to discern the best place – the best denominational relationship – that will allow us to fulfill our mission statement, which is to 'carry the gospel to Houston and the world'," said Birchfield.
"The issues that prompted our season of discernment include a sense that the PC (USA) may be drifting theologically – especially around issues having to do with the authority of Scripture and the nature and work of Jesus Christ – and that it has drifted away from its historical mission of evangelism and church planting."
Birchfield also told CP that First Presbyterian Church was only recently beginning the process of discernment and that it would not be a quick decision.
"We are very early into the discernment process, which we expect to take at least a year," said Birchfield, whose congregation will be holding discernment meetings in early June, July, and August.
"We have been very intentional in working to include all voices within our congregation on a number of working teams that will help define the issues before us and then create a series of events (town halls, classes, etc.) which will allow us to discuss them as a congregation."
In 2010, at the 219th General Assembly of PC (USA), a majority of presbyteries, or regional bodies, voted to approve Amendment 10a, which lets presbyteries allow for the ordination of openly homosexual clergy.
Because of this amendment, many conservative congregations in PC (USA) have opted to leave the mainline denomination, usually for more conservative Presbyterian sects.
The Presbytery of New Covenant, the regional body which Frist Presbyterian Church belongs to, allows for a "gracious dismissal" policy. This policy lets a congregation seeking dismissal leave the denomination with minimal disruption to their ministries.
Although the Houston church is seriously considering dismissal, there are those in and out of the congregation who have argued against leaving PC (USA).
According to Laurie Johnson of KUHF FM Houston Public Radio, a week ago, members of First Presbyterian, who want to remain within the denomination, circulated an open letter among the church.
"[The letter alleges] that the leadership of the church is trying to influence the discernment process and lead the congregation away from the PC (USA)," wrote Johnson.
Rev. Craig S. King, Sr. of nearby First Presbyterian Church of Alvin told CP that he felt the dismissal process was not a preferable outcome.
"I hate to see another fracture in an already fractured church - and I refer not to just the PCUSA, but the Church universal," said King, who spoke for himself rather than his congregation.
According to KUHF, over the past 18 months, six other churches in Houston and the surrounding area have opted to leave PC (USA).