The PCUSA’s Presbytery of Mississippi, having defeated an effort to overture the next General Assembly to cut ties with the EPC, has instead sent a letter to Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick. In it, they whine, distort, misrepresent, and generally thrown a temper tantrum over the events connected to Grace Chapel Presbyerian Church. The letter comes from the Layman Online:
Grace and peace to you from the Presbytery of Mississippi. Thanks to much help, we are recovering from Hurricane Katrina. However, other foul winds are blowing, and we seek your help. Our concern deals with the best way to respond to the unwelcome interference and hostile actions of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the harm this is causing in our presbytery.
For example, in 1995, this presbytery organized a church near Jackson, Mississippi called Grace Chapel. We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the property and support during the congregation’s early years. August 5, 2007, with active encouragement from the EPC, and against our wishes, the congregation voted to disaffiliate from the PC(USA).
We are aggrieved because the congregational vote was railroaded by the pastor and session who adamantly refused to permit the Presbytery to address the congregation before the vote was taken. We are angered because the vote intentionally defied a stay issued by our Permanent Judicial Commission. When we appointed an Administrative Commission to deal with this, Grace Chapel informed us that they have joined the EPC and filed suit against the Presbytery. We are now a defendant being sued by a church claiming EPC status!
We would not be in this position but for the active involvement of the EPC, which encouraged the congregation to leave, and which accepted this congregation while the Presbytery was contesting the election. This is hostile. This is morally wrong. It is illegal.
We object to representatives of the EPC visiting Grace Chapel and encouraging the congregation to quit the PC(USA). We object to the EPC’s unlawful attempt to enroll a congregation that is still a member of the PC(USA). We object to the EPC’s refusal to remove Grace Chapel from their roll even after we communicated to them the irregular and unconstitutional nature of Grace Chapel’s attempt to separate from us.
We have expressed our concerns to the EPC’s leadership, but have received no satisfaction. Therefore we request that the Stated Clerk and the general counsel of the General Assembly Council file a formal complaint with the governing bodies of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the New Wineskins Association of Churches requesting them, jointly and severally, to cease and desist from recruiting or receiving congregations of the PC(USA) before they are officially dismissed, and to meet with representatives of such bodies for the purpose of coming to an amicable agreement with respect to such matters.
We look forward to working with you as we all continue to pursue the peace, unity and purity of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Now, I didn’t think I was really in a position to answer all of this, so I’ve given that opportunity to the Rev. Steve Bryant, pastor of Grace Chapel, who is in the best position to refute this letter. So without further adieu, take it away, Pastor Steve:
The Presbytery of Mississippi letter to Kirkpatrick is based on mistaken information.
I. The facts regarding the EPC’s role in Grace Chapel’s disaffiliation from the PCUSA:
The Presbytery of Mississippi alleges “unwelcome interference and hostile actions of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church… the active involvement of the EPC, which encouraged the congregation to leave…” And, “representatives of the EPC visiting Grace Chapel and encouraging the congregation to quit the PC(USA).”
The EPC did not seek us out and at no time did the EPC encourage us to “quit the PC(USA).” After the Synod of Living Waters Administrative Review Committee wrongfully accused us of having “violated our ordination vows” for following the Property Policy of the Presbytery of Mississippi, we began to realize that God was calling Grace Chapel out of an increasingly hostile denomination. The first step in our discernment process was to carefully review material available on the EPC Website (Book of Order, Essentials, position papers, etc.). Upon studying this public information, a number of our Ruling Elders commented that they felt as though they had “finally found a denominational home.” On behalf of the Session, I contacted John Adamson, chair of the National Transitional Presbytery. No one in the EPC initiated contact with the Session. No one in the EPC initiated contact with any member of the congregation. After I initiated contact with the EPC upon the Session’s request, Mr. Adamson emphatically stated that the EPC is not in the business of proselytizing congregations, nor was he “selling the EPC.” Further, he counseled me to urge the Session to pray diligently about our decision, as either way, it would no doubt be a painful and difficult decision. Mr. Adamson was invited to an informational meeting with the congregation wherein members were given the opportunity to ask questions regarding the EPC. At that meeting, Mr. Adamson never once denigrated the PCUSA or suggested in any way that we should leave, nor did he paint a perfect picture of the EPC. He simply answered our questions and encouraged us to make our decision prayerfully.
II. Regarding the Presbytery of Mississippi’s assertion that “the congregational vote was railroaded by the pastor and session who adamantly refused to permit the Presbytery to address the congregation before the vote was taken.”
Initially, the Session envisioned having representatives from the Presbytery of Mississippi and from the EPC to conduct informational meetings for the congregation. However, several factors ultimately led to our decision to invite an EPC representative only:
A) The Presbytery of Mississippi’s COM sent a letter an offensive letter to the Session declaring that if we went ahead with our vote we would be removing ourselves from the “True Church,” which we took to mean the Body of Christ.
B) The Session invited Executive Presbyter Bill Deprater and COM Chair Steve Ramp to meet with the Session for the purpose of considering their demand to meet with the congregation. At that meeting, a Ruling Elder asked the Executive Presbyter a simple question regarding the PCUSA’s funding of abortions in the medical plan. In an attempt to answer the question Deprater offered to have the PCUSA pay for an abortion for my wife (Elizabeth Bryant).
C) At the same Session meeting, a Ruling Elder pointed out several major flaws in the Presbytery’s “Recommended Guidelines” for a process of dismissal to COM Chair Ramp. When Ramp could not satisfy Session’s reasonable concerns, Ramp was asked what would happen if we chose not to follow the “Recommended Guidelines.” Rev. Ramp said, “Oh, you don’t want to go there; there have been enough lawsuits already and you don’t want another one.” We interpreted his statement as a threat.
After much discussion, the Session decided not to subject the congregation to any more potentially hostile Presbytery of Mississippi representatives.
III. Additional facts are ignored by the Presbytery of Mississippi’s letter as well as the accompanying report:
The Louisville Papers
In an effort to “assist” presbyteries in dealing with churches that want to leave with their property, a series of memoranda was drafted by PCUSA lawyers, outlining draconian tactics to employ against the churches. The memoranda known as the “Louisville Papers” recommended the following tactics:
a) the use of “administrative commissions” specifically for church property disputes, offering advice regarding how to remove the local pastor and/or governing board of the local church;
b) advising how to freeze local church assets and physically seize property;
c) placing a cloud on local church property titles by filing affidavits in property records, irrespective of state law or the facts of any property in dispute;
d) mailing letters concerning contested property to any banks or other financial institutions that hold accounts for the local church, which letters “order” that no assets be released to the local church;
e) instructing presbyteries to investigate the religious background of any judge assigned to the case in order to exploit potential partiality or religious bias;
f) that presbyteries in their pleadings “use spiritual language” in order to posture themselves in a positive light, and to negatively refer to the local church in the caption and in pleadings as “schismatic”; and
g) that presbyteries, through the use of administrative commissions, try and keep the local church in a defensive secular legal posture, counseling “Let the schismatics seek Caesar’s help.”
IV. The Presbytery of Mississippi Property Policy
The Presbytery of Mississippi, on the other hand, initially decided that it was a better policy to allow churches which wanted property rights confirmed by a court order to receive a property rights determination from a court, without the Presbytery attempting to enforce the trust provision. The parties agreed that it would be accomplished by the local churches filing a “friendly” lawsuit in state court, asking the court for a declaration of property rights. Thereafter, the Presbytery and church would enter into an agreed declaratory judgment declaring that the church enjoyed exclusive ownership and control of the church’s property and that the Presbytery could not attempt to control the property. It was understood that this final declaratory judgment would prevent any dispute over who owned or controlled the church property in the event a church decided to leave the PCUSA.
On March 19, 2007, Grace Chapel filed the “friendly” lawsuit, which asked the Madison County Chancery Court to declare that (1) Grace Chapel enjoys full and exclusive ownership of all its property; (2) the Presbytery and the PCUSA have no rights or interest in Grace Chapel’s property and (3) the Presbytery and PCUSA have no right to interfere with Grace Chapel’s ownership or exercise of its rights in the said property. On March 23, 2007, less than a week after the “friendly” lawsuit was filed, the Presbytery and Grace Chapel submitted an agreed Final Declaratory Judgment to the court. The agreed Final Declaratory Judgment was then entered by Madison County Chancery Judge Cynthia Brewer.
The Final Declaratory Judgment entered by Judge Brewer declared that “all property…held by, for or in the name of Grace Chapel…is held and owned in fee simple for the sole and exclusive use and benefit of Grace Chapel, which it holds…in accordance with the laws of the State of Mississippi, [Grace Chapel's] recorded deeds and [Grace Chapel's] Articles of Incorporation.” The Final Declaratory Judgment further ordered that the Presbytery or any person or commission acting on behalf of the Presbytery had no right to (1) control directly or indirectly the use or ownership of Grace Chapel’s property or (2) take any “retaliatory action” against Grace Chapel or its officers, agents, or employees that directly or indirectly violates the terms of the Final Declaratory Judgment or that affected Grace Chapel’s property rights.
To date, approximately 10 churches still remaining in the Presbytery of Mississippi have obtained virtually identical, agreed declaratory judgments from the Presbytery.
V. The Synod of Living Waters Administrative Review Committee’s condemnation
In July 2007, the Synod of Living Waters condemned the Presbytery’s policy and declared that all Ruling and Teaching Elders who “participated in the passage and implementation of the Property Policy had violated their ordination vows.” The Session of Grace Chapel, along with many leaders in the Presbytery of Mississippi, were deeply offended by this harsh condemnation. Further, we believed that the Synod Administrative Review Committee’s harsh tone of their report and the demands therein, were a prelude to even more harsh action from the Synod.
VI. The Presbytery of Mississippi “Recommended Guidelines”
Recognizing that two congregations (Covenant and J.J. White) were exploring the possibility of leaving the PCUSA, and in the absence of a constitutional policy governing a process of dismissal to be used by congregations and Presbyteries, several members of the Presbytery of Mississippi proposed a mandated policy. The proposed mandate was not well received by the Presbytery and ultimately was amended to render the document as being merely “Recommended Guidelines.” To insure that there would be no confusion about the proposed policy, I offered the amendment which titled the document “Recommended Guidelines.” However, Presbytery leadership continues to misrepresent the Presbytery’s will in communicating “Recommended Guidelines” as though it were in fact a body of mandated policy.
VII. Grace Chapel’s vote to Disaffiliate
On August 5, 2007, as a result of the our frustration with the PCUSA’s continued departure from Biblical principles, our disgust at the escalating hostilities directed toward conservative and evangelical congregations in the PCUSA (i.e., “Louisville Papers”), and in light of the Synod’s condemnation and the possibility of imminent action against those who had followed the Presbytery’s property policy, Grace Chapel’s members voted–by a margin of 105-27–to leave the PCUSA and to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In disaffiliating, Grace Chapel instantly severed all ties with the PCUSA. Grace Chapel has been accepted by and is now affiliated with the EPC.
VIII. The Presbytery of Mississippi’s violation of the Final Declaratory Judgment
Perhaps due to the Synod’s disapproval of its policy and fear of Synod retribution, the Presbytery has now changed course in dealing with churches that have obtained a final judgment. In response to Grace Chapel’s disaffiliation and in an apparent violation of Judge Brewer’s Declaratory Judgment, the Presbytery formed an Administrative Commission on August 27, 2007, which has the purported authority to: assume “original jurisdiction” over Grace Chapel (despite Grace Chapel now being affiliated with the EPC); make decisions for Grace Chapel regarding, among other things, control of Grace Chapel’s property; remove Grace Chapel’s leaders and decision makers (called its Session); and remove Grace Chapel’s pastor. The Administrative Commission, chaired by Bubba Martin, has recently taken and continues to take steps to effectuate the Presbytery position by, among other things, investigating Grace Chapel and sending letters and surveys to members of Grace Chapel.
Facing immediate and irreparable harm by the Presbytery’s violations of the Declaratory Judgment, Grace Chapel moved for and Judge Brewer granted a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) against the Presbytery on August 29, 2007. The TRO enjoined the Presbytery from taking any further actions to attempt to control Grace Chapel’s property or further violating the Court’s Declaratory Judgment. In an attempt to seek a peaceful resolution, the Session of Grace Chapel gathered with the members of the Administrative Commission. At that meeting, the Administrative Commission proposed a joint worship service wherein both the Presbytery of Mississippi and Grace Chapel, EPC, would pray for one another and ask the Lord’s blessings upon our respective ministries as we went our separate ways. However, the next morning, Grace Chapel was informed that the Administrative Commission and their attorney had removed the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, asking the Federal Court to dismiss Grace Chapel’s attempt to enforce the Judgment. This was also one day before Judge Brewer was to hold a hearing on whether the TRO should be extended.
The Presbytery’s position seems to be that despite signing a judgment acknowledging that it does not have any right to determine who can control or use Grace Chapel’s property, and even though Grace Chapel is now affiliated with the EPC, the Presbytery still has the “ecclesiastical authority” to award the property to whichever faction of Grace Chapel it chooses. Our view is that the Presbytery has undertaken an effort to gain control of Grace Chapel’s property, an EPC church, under the guise that it has “ecclesiastical prerogative” to decide who the “true church” is. Our view is that under the Mississippi statutes regarding non-profit corporations, the Presbytery lacks the legal authority and its actions are not enforceable.
Grace Chapel’s motion before Federal Judge Dan Jordan asking the court to remand the case back to state court was granted on December 21, 2007. We are prayerfully awaiting a hearing before Madison County Chancery Court Judge Brewer, on March 24, 2008. In the meantime, Grace Chapel remains hopeful that the Presbytery will choose to end this unfortunate and unnecessary litigation, honor the Chancery Court’s judgment it agreed to, and allow Grace Chapel to continue its ministry in the EPC without further interference.