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First Presbyterian Church Members Try To Move Past Their Differences After Crucial Vote

A day after the First Presbyterian Church of Houston voted to stay in its denomination, congregants gathered for a noon-hour prayer service to start their reconciliation. A majority of members, including the church leadership, had hoped for a different outcome.


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It had been a long, sometimes emotional process for the church. About a year ago, First Presbyterian started discussing the possibility of breaking with its denomination, Presbyterian Church USA, or PCUSA. That discussion came to an end Sunday when congregants voted to stay with the larger body.

The day after, about 200 church members came together for prayer and to start the reconciliation process.

Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield, along with the rest of church leadership, was in favor of leaving Presbyterian Church USA and joining the more conservative denomination ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

“I was surprised and to be truthful. I was disappointed. But from the beginning we have said that we would trust that God would reveal himself to us through this process and through the congregational vote and he has done so. So we’ll trust in that same God that we trusted in in the beginning of the process. So, the people have spoken and we will go forward.”

The people may have spoken but the truth is just under 65 percent of those who voted wanted the church to join the evangelical denomination. The required two-thirds majority was 36 votes short.

Birchfield says everyone agreed on the process ahead of time and has to accept it now.

“So, that’s not going to be easy. It’s going to require that people begin to forgive one another. It’s going require that people begin to say, OK, how can we figure out how to accomplish the vision that we believe we have within the relationships that we will continue to have with the PCUSA?”

He says there will not be another vote on the matter anytime soon, despite the obvious differences between First Presbyterian and the national body.

Dr. Lawrence DiPaolo is the associate dean at the University of St. Thomas School of Theology. He expects that some church members will leave First Presbyterian and make a new congregation their home.

“We live in a very fluid religious environment and if you’re member of a congregation – let’s say it’s a Protestant denomination – and you’re not entirely happy with the way your particular church is going, people vote with their feet… That’s the wonderful thing about living in America, you can always find the church that fits you.”

Proponents of the break with PCUSA have said there’s a theological drift between the church and its denomination. That includes PCUSA’s more liberal views on issues such as the ordination of gays. The national body voted to end the ban on gay and lesbian clergy about three years ago.

Back at the church, congregants are certainly trying to get past their differences. The special prayer service ended with what Pastor Birchfield described as something “very non-Presbyterian”: Everyone joined hands while singing together.

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