Sunday’s vote concludes a year-long so-called discernment period, during which church members discussed the pros and cons of leaving their parent denomination. Those who want to break away say there has been a theological drift between the First Presbyterian Church and the larger body since at least 2001. One example some point to is that the larger general assembly almost allowed a path to gay marriage less than two years ago.
In an interview with KUHF about a year ago, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor Jim Birchfield said that is not the main issue.
“No, at this point it’s really not about gay marriage. It’s really more about the fundamental differences in how we interpret scripture and how we view the nature and the work of Christ.”
But Lynn Mitchell, director of the University of Houston’s religious studies department, is not so sure. He says there has been a trend of Presbyterian churches around the country ending their affiliation with PCUSA after the larger institution allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy in 2011.
“It becomes a central issue for a congregation like the one in Houston because Houston and congregations in Houston of all kinds — Presbyterians and otherwise — tend to be more conservative.”
Not long after that decision by PCUSA, Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO, was formed. As the name implies, ECO is an evangelical denomination as opposed to the mainline PCUSA. It has currently 114 congregations across the country, three from the Houston-Galveston area. First Presbyterian could become the fourth.
Mitchell says what has historically led churches to leave their parent denomination is differences over moral issues.
“The biggest division of mainline churches was over slavery and then there was a lot of division over the civil rights movement and more recently the gay liberation.”
First Presbyterian Church, which lies in the museum district, is one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the country and goes back to Sam Houston’s times.
Its more than 3,000 congregants are asked to decide on the church’s fate this Sunday.