Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor voted today to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) primarily because the denomination changed its constitution to allow non-celibate gays to be ordained as clergy and lay leaders.
With 1,660 members, Chapel Hill Presbyterian is one of the largest mainline Protestant churches in the South Sound region.
The Rev. Mark Toone, senior pastor of Chapel Hill, said his congregation reached a “tipping point” last spring when a majority of regional governing bodies, called presbyteries, voted to change the church’s constitution to permit gays and lesbians to be ordained.
“For 30 years, we have battled over the same theological turf,” Toone told 1,200 parishioners before today’s vote. While it’s painful to leave the denomination, Toone said, “it would be more painful to remain.”
Sumner Presbyterian Church also voted Sunday to depart. Two other South Sound Presbyterian congregations, First Presbyterian of Tacoma and Evergreen Presbyterian in Graham, also decided recently to leave the denomination.
Chapel Hill members voted by written ballot whether to leave and join the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. About 92 percent of the members who cast ballots voted to do so.
After dropping their ballots into purple bins after a congregational meeting, several members said they voted to leave in response to the ordination of gays and lesbians and other issues of disagreement.
“The church is being influenced by culture,” said Deanna Nilsen. “There has to come a point when we stand on the word of God.”
“It’s a mixed feeling,” said Tiersa Chaffin. “It’s bittersweet. It’s hard to separate.”
Chapel Hill prepared for the vote for seven months, studying issues and working with its regional body, the Presbytery of Olympia.
“It’s been a long process,” said Margie Doerksen. “It’s sort of a relief today to take this first step.”
Doerksen said Chapel Hill welcomes gays and lesbians into the congregation.
“We choose not to have them in leadership because we feel that’s scripturally correct,” Doerksen said.
At 134-year-old Sumner Presbyterian, 90 percent of the members present today voted to leave their denomination and join The Evangelical Covenant Church.
“It’s a big step to take,” said the Rev. Steve Starr, pastor of the 365-member church. In the decision to leave, he said, “I think there’s a lot of unity.”
The congregations’ advisory votes to leave are not final.
The Presbytery of Olympia is expected to vote Thursday to set up commissions that would negotiate with congregations on terms of withdrawal. Those agreements in part would address how much a congregation would pay to assume control of its land and buildings. Properties currently are held in trust by the presbytery on behalf of the denomination.
The congregations would then take another advisory vote on whether to accept the terms of withdrawal. A final vote by the presbytery could take place as early as January.
Last spring, a nationwide vote gave presbyteries the option to ordain gays and lesbians as clergy by removing the ordination requirement of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” The Presbytery of Olympia voted against the change and has not ordained gays and lesbians. Congregations can now choose whether to ordain gays and lesbians for positions as lay leaders, called elders and deacons.
The Presbytery of Olympia includes all of Pierce and Thurston counties and extends to Woodland, north of Vancouver. It has 9,600 members in 49 congregations.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has about 2.3 million members, joined three other denominations that permit the ordination of gays and lesbians: the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Starr described in an earlier interview the decision to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians as a “lightning rod.” But other stands by the denomination, such as a pro-choice position on abortion, are factors as well, he said.
“We see the denomination drifting more and more in a direction we don’t agree with,” Starr said. “I think they’re getting away from biblical standards.”