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Longview First Presbyterian Church might split from national group

By Peggy Jones
May 15, 2012 at 10 p.m.

Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Longview will vote Sunday on whether to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church of the USA - a vote considered by many to be a referendum on homosexuality within the church.

The debate over gay clergy and efforts by local church leaders to leave the denomination has created a widening rift among the members.

"There has never been a vote like this here," said Pastor Jonathan Jehorek.

Jehorek said he relinquished his ordination to the Presbyterian Church of the USA effective May 21. Likewise, he supports the local congregation seeking dismissal from the denomination.

The internal discussion began after a ruling by the Presbyterian General Assembly this past summer to allow ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. That led the Longview church's governing body of elders on April 3 voted, 21-3, to seek dismissal.

While Sunday's vote is non-binding, it will determine whether a majority of the local congregation's 700 members are so strongly opposed to gay ordination that they would abandon membership in the denomination and seek membership in the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Retired Eastman Chemical engineer Casey Rathbun, a member of First Presbyterian since 1981, said he was disappointed by the local church's reaction and called the issue "personally hurtful."

"I am so disappointed in our pastors," he said. "They started with a 10-week all-church class on the issue (of ordination of gays and lesbians) where one side was pounded, pounded, pounded. They have given sermons with an undercurrent of propaganda. I don't remember ever hearing the word 'love.'

"It's just the most unfortunate thing I've ever gone through. I've lost friends over this issue."

His wife, Sally, agreed.

"We've cried a lot of tears over this," she said. "I've been a Presbyterian all my life."

Church leaders have become selective literalists, Sally Rathbun said, by zeroing in on homosexuality.

"They're picking and choosing what scriptures they're going to hone in on," she said. "They're dwelling on this issue of homosexuality- but what about adultery? The Bible says if you divorce and remarry you're committing adultery."

Jehorek said he was aware not all members share his stand on the issue.

"We have found ourselves to be Christians who see things very, very differently," Jehorek said. "We have tried to see each other, not as doing battle with a warring sect; we are wrestling with brothers and sisters in the faith."

The Rev. Ed Koster, stated clerk for the Presbytery of Detroit, compared the vote to seek dismissal to a divorce. As in all divorces, Koster said, the most bitter part of the fight is over division of property.

That could be the case with the split at First Presbyterian: if a majority of the church members vote to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church of the USA, what happens to the property and buildings at the corner of Methvin and Center streets?

Those seeking dismissal hope they will be able to negotiate a price to buy the church and continue worshiping in the same building - as Evangelical Presbyterians.

Not so fast, said longtime member Suzanne Cook.

"The property is legally held in trust by the Presbyterian Church USA," she said. "That includes everything from the ground to the building to the leaded glass and the beautiful organ. If a group decides to split and join a different denomination, they don't automatically get the property. That's why it's so contentious."

Cook said the congregation and its property have been her church home for 31 years.

"There will be a group choosing to remain with PCUSA, and it would be our intent to keep the church and rebuild the congregation membership," she said.

But Cook looked at the issue from the perspective of earlier battles over clergy.

"We had the same issues over ordaining divorced people and ordaining women. This is another bump in the road," she said. "You can accept the differences within us and still love us or not. And my path has been to accept the differences."

But people who seek dismissal over the issue of gay ordination believe the Presbyterian Church has weakened its stand on scripture to a point they cannot abide.

The General Assembly determined in 2011, with passage of Amendment 10-A, to remove the fidelity and chastity standard as a requirement for ordination. That rule required all ordained officers in the church practice "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."

After that change, the Session of First Presbyterian Longview issued a statement to church members, saying, "The Session is greatly saddened and troubled by the change because it seriously weakens scripture as the principle authority, source and norm for faith and practice."

But others counter that just because the General Assembly allowed the ordination of gay ministers, it didn't require it.

"It simply allows churches who choose to ordain gay or lesbian people to do so. But they don't have to," Cook said. "That's why it is so sad to me. This is so unnecessary. They're taking a segment of the population and telling them they are not welcome, and I think that's wrong. I don't think that's what Christ would have done."

Jehorek said that for him, the dividing issue is not about acceptance or rejection of gays but "if you are going to follow scripture."

He said he believes the Presbyterian Church is straying from basic Christian teachings to conform with contemporary culture, and in doing so, the leadership is reinterpreting scripture.

The congregational vote on the request for dismissal will be Sunday evening. The church meeting has been called for 6 p.m.



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