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First Presbyterian Church of Longview members vote to leave denomination

By Peggy Jones
May 21, 2012 at 11 p.m.

Longview will have a new Presbyterian church after members of First Presbyterian Church of Longview voted in favor of leaving their national denomination over its decision to allow ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

The move will create a new church known as Evangelical Presbyterian Church Longview.

More than 370 members of First Presbyterian turned out for a congregational meeting Sunday evening to vote whether to leave or stay with the denomination, or to stay with the church's property regardless, according to a prepared statement Monday from Grace Presbytery of Dallas, the local church's governing authority.

The vote was 282 in favor of leaving the Presbyterian Church of the USA and joining Evangelical Presbyterian Church; 84 in favor of remaining with the denomination, and six voting to stay with the property regardless of denomination affiliation.

The church had 670 members on its official roll in April, said the Rev. Stuart Baskin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church Tyler and moderator of Sunday's meeting.

Jim Bartlett, a member of the majority leaving the denomination, said the departing group would have services Sunday in a church at 600 W. Garfield St., a building that once housed First Lutheran Church Longview.

Bartlett said First Presbyterian Pastor Jonathan Jehorek has agreed to lead the new church, which will be known, for the time being, as Evangelical Presbyterian Church Longview. Jehorek said last week he resigned his ordination with Presbyterian Church USA as of Monday. He did not respond to requests for an interview Monday.

Those who voted to remain with the Presbyterian Church of USA will worship at First Presbyterian Church at Center and Methvin streets, according to Grace Presbytery. Beginning June 1, the Rev. Harry Meissner will be interim pastor.

The future of the First Presbyterian property at Center and Methvin streets has not been determined, Baskin said. He is acting as moderator for an administrative commission appointed by Grace Presbytery to advise on the church's request for dismissal from the denomination.

"There was a significant enough minority that we can't dismiss the entire congregation," Baskin said. "First Presbyterian Church itself remains part of the Presbyterian Church USA."

Whether it can be sustained at its current location is a more complex question.

"The biggest thing we need to know is simply - of the folks who are remaining at Presbyterian Church USA - is there a vital enough congregation that can support that property? And we won't know that until the dust settles," he said.

Baskin and members of the commission met Monday with leaders of the remaining group, the church office manager and business manager to determine operating costs and what income the remaining congregation could expect to generate.

"Of the folks remaining," Baskin said, "I can tell you they are very excited. They are not mad. They don't harbor ill will. But they are ready to get about the business of rebuilding the congregation. And they were actually having fun today."

Bartlett said it was his understanding that if the smaller group cannot sustain the church property downtown, the Presbyterian Church USA might offer it to the majority who voted to leave.

Baskin confirmed that if it was determined First Presbyterian's members could not sustain the church, "We would certainly entertain that option, to offer it to the group that left, depending on what their interests would be at that time."

Sunday's vote was called because the church Session - First Presbyterian's governing body of elders - voted 20-3 to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church of the USA after the denomination's general assembly agreed to allow churches to ordain non-celibate homosexuals. Departing members contend the decision by the General Assembly in the summer of 2011 strayed from basic Christian teachings to conform with contemporary culture.

"We are very excited about the new church," Barlett said. "We are especially excited that our first service will be on Pentecost - the birth of the church," he said.



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