The Rev. David Swanson, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. (Orlando Sentinel file / October 28, 2011)
Everything is in place to create a new Presbyterian denomination comprised of conservative congregations and led by First Presbyterian of Orlando.
The only thing missing is churches.
“It’s kind of like an empty warehouse,” said First Presbyterian Pastor David Swanson.
That empty warehouse denomination called the Fellowship of Presbyterians will start filling up in January when a convention of Presbyterian churches meets in Orlando. The churches are dissatisfied with the Presbyterian Church (USA), which voted last year to allow the ordination of gay ministers, deacons and elders.
“We feel like in a very short period of time, this new denomination could become one of the largest Presbyterian denominations in the country,” said Swanson, one of eight Presbyterian ministers behind the Fellowship of Presbyterians.
The creation of the Fellowship could speed the decline of PC(USA), which has been losing members almost since it was formed in 1983, said Tony Tian-Ren Lin, a sociologist of religion and academic researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
“What I see is the PC(USA) will be much smaller and the decline will be much faster,” Lin said.
Others doubt the number of defecting congregations will be large enough to challenge PC(USA). They view the Fellowship more as an umbrella organization that provides cover for conservatives who aren’t happy with the direction of PC(USA), but aren’t sure what to do about it.
“Joining the Fellowship doesn’t mean leaving the denomination. The Fellowship is a very wide range of conservatives and evangelicals who want to get together and talk about the lay of the land and what their place is in it,” said Barbara Wheeler, former president of the Auburn Theological Seminary, a liberal Presbyterian divinity school in New York.
Trinity Presbyterian Church in Satellite Beach said it intends to join the Fellowship. The 150-member College Park Presbyterian Church is one of those exploring whether to join and to what extent.
“The Fellowship leadership has done a terrific job of presenting a myriad of options. It’s not a one-size fits all,” said College Park Pastor Jeff Ryan.
Members would have the option of remaining within PC(USA) but affiliating with the Fellowship, or breaking away from PC(USA) to become full-fledged members of the new denomination.
That half-in, half-out option appeals to conservative Presbyterians who still feel a strong attachment to the denomination, but don’t like being associated with a church that endorses things they don’t believe in.
“A lot of the people who plan to be in Florida in January do not want to be a formal part of a new denomination, but would be happy to be part of a body that includes both people who stay in and those who leave,” said Richard J. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, a conservative Presbyterian theology school in Pasadena, Calif. “A fellowship would allow us to be one foot in and one foot out.”
But for some Presbyterian churches – among them the largest in the nation – leaving PC(USA) seems the only option.
First Presbyterian of Orlando – the fourth largest Presbyterian church in the U.S. with 4,900-members – is already moving toward “dismissal” from the Central Florida Presbytery. Swanson said as many as 10 of the Presbytery’s 75 churches could leave the larger denomination for the Fellowship.
In many ways, the divisions between liberal and conservative in the Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches reflects the left-right political polarization in America. The critical mass in the middle is no longer strong enough to keep the two extremes in the same church, or political party.
“Religion and politics inevitably get intertwined,” said Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University. “I think you are seeing a very similar polarizing dynamic in religious organizations that probably originates within the political arena.”
Any loss of Presbyterian churches to the Fellowship would be harmful to PC(USA) in terms of members, money and influence, Wheeler said.
“It’s damaging to the larger denomination. It’s damaging to morale, and damaging in some sense to our power, and financially damaging,” she said.
But the denomination survived when conservative congregations created Presbyterian Church of America in 1973 and Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1981. With 10,000 churches, PC(USA) will weather this rift as well, said Rev. Gradye Parsons, Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly in Louisville, Ky.
“We have gone through this before in the life of the church,” Parsons said. “I’m always sad when people leave the denomination. We are better witnesses together and more effective witnesses together.”
Swanson says the differences between the PC(USA) and Fellowship churches go beyond the ordination of gays to such basic doctrines as the belief in Christ as the only salvation. Yet it was the ordination of gays that became the defining moment that prompted the split.
“What a lot of churches feel like is that the denomination has left them more than they are leaving the denomination,” he said. “We are really looking forward not to fighting the same battle we’ve been fighting for 30 years.”