A Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) committee has accused the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church of interfering in its affairs.
With dozens of congregations leaving the PC(USA), the Committee on Ecumenical Relations detailed in a report evidence of the EPC inserting itself into the denomination's internal struggles and fueling misunderstandings.
"[T]here was evidence that the interference of one denomination in the other denomination’s affairs had a deleterious effect on the conversation between the PC(USA) presbyteries and the congregations involved," the panel stated in their report to the 219 General Assembly, the highest legislative body in the PC(USA).
The report was compiled as part of an investigation into the conduct of the EPC and its alleged solicitation of congregations. Over the last year, an appointed task force met with presbyteries in which congregations had left the PC(USA) and interviewed those who departed and realigned with the EPC.
The task force determined that though the EPC did not take initiative in soliciting congregations, EPC representatives did breach "ecumenical protocol" by speaking to congregations that were considering leaving without consultation with PC(USA) leaders.
Additionally, the panel denounced the smaller denomination for creating a "transitional presbytery" in 2007 to facilitate the process of congregations leaving the PC(USA) and joining the EPC.
"[T]he creation of an ecclesial body within the EPC whose very purpose and name seemed to aim at absorbing PC(USA) ... congregations and pastors created a chilling in the relationship between the two denominations," the report states, adding that the transitional body has "been seen by some in the PC(USA) as inappropriate interference in our internal conflict."
Although the stated purpose of the transitional presbytery was to facilitate the receiving of the disaffected PC(USA) congregations, the EPC leaders interviewed by the task group said they did not actively solicit congregations and ministers to join the EPC.
In recent years, a growing number of congregations have voted to leave the PC(USA) – the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. Some date the beginning of the exodus to 2001 when the General Assembly would not affirm the singular saving Lordship of Jesus Christ. Also, a 2006 decision by the General Assembly that some believe allowed leeway for the ordination of partnered homosexuals led to more splits.
The conflict surrounding the departing congregations and the EPC has proven to expose a deeper problem – that is, the relationship between the two Presbyterian denominations, according to the report.
A lack of communication between the two church bodies has led to misunderstanding and lack of trust on all sides, the panel stated.
"There has not been evidence of a relationship that articulates and respects our differing ecclesiologies," it noted.
Historically, there has generally been tension between the two groups. The EPC was formed in 1981 after its members felt increasingly alienated by liberalism in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the "northern" branch of Presbyterianism, which merged with the Southern and border-state Presbyterian Church in the U.S. in 1983 to form the present PC(USA).
The panel noted that the bodies were able to maintain "relatively cordial working relations" until recent years.
In their report, the task force recommended that the two bodies engage in bilateral dialogue and enter into a season of confession.
"We must find a way to improve the quality of our relationship and improve our communication, in a way that will enable both communions to be faithful to our mutual and primary mission: to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior," the report states. "While we may not always agree on biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, or how to be in fellowship with one another, reconciliation and visible unity are possible through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.
"The PC(USA) and EPC owe it to each other as members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to engage in such a conversation," it adds.
With approximately 90,000 members, the EPC is presently the third largest Presbyterian church body in the United States, behind the 2.1-million member PC(USA) and 340-thousand member Presbyterian Church in America.
The recommendations of the Committee on Ecumenical Relations will be considered by the PC(USA) General Assembly when it meets in Minneapolis, July 3-10.