Changing TimesVicksburg’s First Presbyterian, Yokena, Port Gibson churches seek to switch affiliations

Published 11:45 am Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The First Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg has voted to cease its nearly 30-year denominational affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, church officials said Tuesday.

Meeting Monday night, a majority of the members voted to request the shift, said the Rev. Mike Herrin, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Mississippi, a state association of churches.

Herrin also is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson and Yokena Presbyterian Church, both of which, along with Presbyterian churches in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs, also voted to ask to be dismissed from PC(USA) to the EPC, Herrin said.

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The Presbytery of Mississippi will take up the requests at a meeting Thursday, he said, and there is “very little” chance the state association will refuse the requests.

“If there was not a clear majority the Presbytery might have said no,” Herrin said. “All of these five congregations requested dismissal by very large margins.”

The Vicksburg church, with 270 out of 402 members present for the 1½-hour meeting, voted 83 percent to 17 percent to request dismissal, said the Rev. Tim Brown, pastor.

The issue has been under study by the church’s Session, its elected body of elders, for about a year, Brown said. The Vicksburg congregation was troubled by a number of doctrines and practices that the national PC(USA) had embraced in recent years.

Theological doctrines at issue included the authority of Scripture, the person and work of Jesus Christ and the extent of salvation and “a broader set of moral issues as well,” Brown said.

“Churches are weary over what’s become battles that have diverted us from the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ,” he said. The decision last summer by the PC(USA) to ordain practicing homosexuals was “a flashpoint of controversy.”

“It is not the reason we are leaving or voted to leave,” Brown added. “It’s one of many reasons and certainly not the most important. We take a more traditional, orthodox biblical approach to all issues. In some ways we feel like our denomination has left us behind.”

Longtime First Presbyterian member Betty Bullard voted against the move, but said she has no problem accepting the decision.

“One of the most important things about this whole procedure has been the loving, thoughtful and documented process, all done according to the polity of the church,” she said. “What it boils down to is, this is the way we do business. The conclusion was absolutely a conclusion, no question. I might be opposed to disassociating from the PC(USA) but I believe so strongly in the process, the vote was absolutely conclusive for me.”

“I thought the meeting was handled very well,” Herrin said. “The ruling elders of First Presbyterian Church of Vicksburg did a very good job. (The church) was not completely of one voice, but they have a very loving spirit.”

The Presbytery of Mississippi, which comprises 42 churches, meets three times a year. Each church is entitled to send a representative, or commissioner, from its Session to the meetings, as well as its pastor.

“The Presbytery’s main goal is for the church to survive and thrive — to do the work of the body of Christ,” said Herrin. “It has a set of guidelines to help make this decision, not to be punitive, not to be mean-spirited, but to help the congregation.”

As the Presbytery dismisses a church, it must dismiss it to another denomination, Brown said. All five under consideration at this week’s meeting have requested dismissal to the Livonia, Mich., based EPC. a denomination founded in 1981 which currently numbers about 300 churches and 115,000 members.

Brown said hundreds of Presbyterian churches nationwide have taken that step in recent years.

The Layman, the website of The Presbyterian Lay Committee, includes Wiggins Presbyterian and Grace Chapel in Madison among the Mississippi churches that have left the PC(USA).

Above all, Brown said, he prays for healing within his congregation.

“This is a very loving and grace-filled congregation, and in spite of our differences we still love one another deeply,” he said. “I hope that we remain united and charitable and gracious to one another as we always have been.”