Why Yes, We Should Defrock Schismatics Just Like the #PCUSA

covenant meme

Grace Presbytery in Texas has officially defrocked a former renewal leader who led the charge to remove Highland Park Presbyterian (one of the larger churches in the Presbytery) from the Presbyterian Church (USA).  According to the report, Joseph Rightmyer lost all credentials with the church of his ordination:

“The censure imposed…was removal from the ordered ministry of teaching elder. This means that he is no longer a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is no longer a teaching elder member of Grace Presbytery. This is the highest level of censure permitted by the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The charges all stem from Rightmyer’s leadership of and participation in the process that removed Highland Park Presbyterian from the PCUSA and brought them into the ECO fold, including the charge of: “advocating and facilitating a process for Highland Park Presbyterian Church to determine whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

My guess is that this won’t actually bother Rightmyer all that much, since he will likely be enjoying the friendly embrace of ECO’s schismatic arms soon.  If it does, so much the better: there should be consequences for violating one’s covenant.  It’s even more troubling to me that Rightmyer led this effort in his capacity as an interim.  Funny enough, when you look on Highland Park’s website under “Our Denomination,” one of the things for which they praise ECO is a commitment to covenant: “To connect leaders in accountable relationships and encourage collaboration.”  I don’t they know what that word “covenant” means.  This is, after all, a new denomination built on stealing congregations from the PCUSA.

This story caused a bit of a stir among some United Methodists.  I find it encouraging, actually.  Yes, schismatics – people who tear the fabric of our fellowship – should be defrocked.  This is as much a no-brainer as there can exist in the church.  Many UMs seem to have little stomach for something that is rather common in other professions (and yes, I know that clergy represent neither a business nor a “regular” profession).  One regularly hears of lawyers being disbarred or doctors losing their license for malpractice of some sort or another.  Some state medical boards even publicly list those whose licenses have been revoked or are facing disciplinary action.  When one’s vocation can seriously impact the lives of others for good or for ill, a lack of faithfulness to that vocation should lead to consequences.  We either care about the church or we don’t; refusing to hold schismatics, abusers, and incompetents accountable is not grace, it is spiritually sanctioned indifference.

It’s one thing for a pastor to find themselves at odds with the denomination that ordained them; it’s quite another to lead an exodus of clergy and/or churches from that denomination.  The former is unfortunate, the latter is unconscionable.

Every healthy organism has boundaries; like a cell, a healthy boundary is permeable – it’s not a wall, but it does have substance.  The UMC needs some of the intestinal fortitude shown by the PCUSA to maintain some semblance of boundaries, otherwise the organism can only grow more sick.

And remember, friends, there are schismatics on the left and the right.


16 thoughts on “Why Yes, We Should Defrock Schismatics Just Like the #PCUSA”

  1. It is time this was spoken of openly. Thank you. Would someone need to file charges against those who have openly advocated splitting the UMC to get this process moving? Are we talking a whole other set of church trials?

  2. Any denomination has its origins in a schism in one way or another. We like to say that “Wesley remained a good Anglican” but really he was barred from preaching in churches and ordained a certain man named Coke to start a new church in North America…. I see two issue here. Rightmeyer should have probably joined ECO before. But I do not think it is fair to say leading an Exodus from a denomination is unconscionable. If they were such troublemakers wouldn’t you want theme to leave?

  3. So much as changed from 1972 to 2014. While we’ve had our rocky moments (and there are more to come), I pray we will come to a place of unity and renounce efforts for coerced uniformity. Will this come from lopping off the perceived extremes of left and/or right? Or will this come from refocusing on what we share as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition and by building up the common ground from which denominational mission is best waged?

    I oppose trials and defrocking for both (1) those who “push us from the left” (e.g., the Biblical Obedience movement) AND (2) those who “pull us from the right” (e.g., the amicable separation proponents). I propose we learn better to get along and indeed truly love one another even as many will continue to disagree about what the Book of Discipline should say concerning matters of homosexuality and heterosexism.

  4. So, in the UMC, who is the schismatic? The ones breaking church law? The ones who refuse to impose penalties of any kind on those breaking church law? Or those who say if church law will not be upheld, it’s time to recognize we’re not really one and then seek an amicable separation?

    1. “Schismatics” are, by definition, those folks who plan and/or act and/or support a movement to divide the church or a denomination. So folks laying plans for so-called amicable separation are by definition engaging in a schismatic act.

      Those “breaking church laws” in UMC are those who do not uphold the Book of Discipline either by acts of commission or ommission. It includes many types of offenders. And so, by deinition, that includes pastors engaging in what they (and I) would call “Biblical Obedience” which is same action as what others would call “ecclesial disobedience” (i.e., the church parallel to “civil disobedience”). So criticize them if you like for “breaking church law” but please do understand their motive.

      Trickier is what to call those who “refuse to impose penalties of any kind on those breaking church law.” Here is I suppose the cases are situational (“which violations are in play” and “why are they acting so”) and the label one applies is subjective (based on how one feels about their “why”).

      The salient case right now is for situations where some pastors are performing same sex weddings which is explicitly prohibited by parts of the BoD while at the same time very well supported (albeit not explicitly) by other parts of our BoD and by our UMC Constitution. Some folks feel passionately that the explicit violation trumps the other written rules and values, and they feel like a “guilty verdict” and “a painful punishment to deter others” is required. And they don’t care or place much stock in the defendants’ careful weighing of conflicting rules and covenants or their best personal judgement as to the pastoral needs guiding their reponse. Other folks feel like “an unjust law is no law at all” (from St. Augustine) and we’ve reached a point in our denominational life were these actions are okay and even, for some, inherent in their call. So as to the bishops and those entrusted to adjudicate and/or justly resolve these complaints, and cases where they resolve them as they have in cases of Bishop Talbert and Rev. Tom Ogletree, then I call them “wise leaders.” That is subjective, and others will disagree as to the wisdom, but I hope they will strive to understand the burden is heavy and the issues are complex and sometimes the right answer is gray rather than black-or-white.

      Please remember those bishops are charged with order, unity and prophetic leadership of our church. They have more to consider than than the simple guilt/innocence of an isolated BoD paragraph to consider. That is crucially imporant, of course, but there is more to it than that still. It is fair for them to consider the other paragraphs as well. And beyond even weighing the action relative to totality of the Book of Discipline, the bishops must consider what is best for the church at all levels (locally, regionally and globally).

      Consider the parallel in civil law where we allow (indeed we depend upon) discretion excercised by law enforcement, prosecutors and judges. Some civil laws remain on the books long after they cease being enforced in specific jurisdictions or societally supported in others. Remember, laws against mixed race marriage were in this non-enforced category in some jurisdictions for a long while before the Supreme Court got around to Loving v. Virginia.

      1. As I see it, in order to be a schismatic there must be an element of heresy involved. Wanting to “split” is not enough. I don’t think someone that is orthodox can properly be called a schismatic for wanting to split to preserve orthodoxy. I think is is possible for a denomination to slip by degrees over a long period of time to the point that they do not even recognize christian orthodoxy. I think that denomination that has slipped by degrees over a long period of time is then schismatic.

  5. Traditionalist congregations have a God given Associational Right to associate with like minded congregations and not be shackled to other congregations whose views they find deeply offensive. Associational Rights are at the heart of our God given liberties. The only interest Presbytery has is in insuring that a congregation that wants to leave has a fair, deliberative, orderly process and a majority vote. After that orderly process to leave, the congregation must be dismissed to another “Reformed” body. Highland Park Presbyterian spent at least a year on this “process.” There was a huge super majority to leave. I think it was in the mid 80 percent range. Isn’t that enough “process?” It was never about “process.” “Process” was always a club for Grace Presbytery.

    In terms of “process”, it was always open to “negotiation.” The church “worked” with a Presbytery committee for a long time and there was just no winning. Every church that leaves PCUSA has a congregational vote. Those votes are presided over by the Moderator, usually the pastor. What else were they going to do? And then to defrock Joe Rightmyer for presiding over a congregational vote that was in fact required……. But oh, you have to jump through a couple of more procedural hoops first before we deign to sanction your vote.

    In truth Grace Presbytery used scorched earth tactics. The “gracious dismissal policy” was anything but. Almost all congregations that have tried to leave Grace Presbytery have faced hard ball tactics designed to deter other congregations from leaving. Grace tries to make an example of every leaving congregation. We will change the locks. We will seize your property. You have to buy you church back from us. We will fire your pastor. That is not just Grace Presbytery but it is all over the PCUSA. With Highland Park Presbyterian it was all about a money shake down. Grace would let them go but what was the size of the pay off going to be? Grace’s leverage was always a lawsuit over the property and the threat of litigation.

    Highland Park Presbyterian had the money to fight back. There are plenty of small churches that would like to leave the PCUSA but do not have the money to hire lawyers to fight back or pay out a huge shake down fee to be allowed to keep their own property. They just suffer in silence being coerced to belong to a denomination that they can not relate to. Yes coerced. That is fundamentally unjust.

    EVERY traditionalist congregation that wants to leave WHATEVER protestant denomination is branded “schismatic.” It is always the same…..

    As a matter of history, Presbyterianism or the Reformed tradition, has never been without various branches. Sometimes more, sometimes less. ECO is just one branch more or less.


  6. As an interesting aside, in the early 1990s the staff of Highland Park supported a vote to STAY in the PCUSA. Even a vote to stay can be divisive. About 30-40% of Highland Park Presbyterian’s membership left to form another church.


      1. No not PCA. The staff of Highland Part Presbyterian fought a costly battle to stay in the PCUSA in the early 1990s precisely because they did not want to be in PCA. They are more moderate than you would think. They are not in PCA now and never have been. They are now in ECO. ECO is just the Presbyterian church before things went crazy. My 2 cents is that they reject postmodernism. I don’t think that constitutes far right. Far right and Presbyterian is a contradiction in terms. Presbyterians are inherently moderate. Presbyterians are people of the “Via Media” or middle way.

        Sorry for too much inside baseball. But I think there is a larger point in the Highland Park Presbyterian story about how mainline denominations that have slipped by degrees over time treat traditionalist congregations. They use hard ball tactics and procedure to bully people that disagree with them instead of letting them go quietly on their way. It is the same in every mainline denomination.

  7. I worked for the PC(USA) for several years and I think this issue is a bit more complicated than you might think. Towards the end of my time with the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, several churches expressed interest in leaving the denomination. I’m thinking of one church in particular that was moving to ECO. The pastor was in favor as was most of the congregation. The process put in place was for both sides to act with grace towards one another. A settlement was reached and both sides were able to gracefully go their separate ways. In that case no pastor was defrocked.

    I don’t know the all circumstances with Highland Park, but I think one of the reasons that they might have defrocked the pastor is because he took the congregation out of the denomination before any settlement was reached, in essence burning a bridge. I could see defrocking someone for that kind of breach of ethics but not simply because a church wants to leave the denomination. I think there is a time for harshness, but doing it because you don’t like that they are leaving is mean-spirited.

    I would add one note. While I disagree with ECO (they don’t endorse gay clergy), I think it is somewhat a misnomer to say that they soley exist to steal congregations. That has happened, but more often than not, the congregations have chosen to leave.

    1. I am glad the church you are familiar with was able to leave peacably. That does happen. The problem with the Highland Park Presbyterian case is that there was never going to be any reasonable offer from presbytery. What do you do then? I know of more than a few churches that has happened to. I think we also know that churches have had their locks changed by presbytery in the middle of the night just for starting preliminary discussions on the subject of leaving. I don’t know but it sounds like your presbytery was good. Others can be quite arbitrary.

  8. I think there are two things here that I want to raise. These issues always seem to bring out the worse on both sides. “Traditionalists” see the denomination as out of step with Christianity, while the “liberals” tend to see the traditionalists as bigots or schismatics. It starts to look like a nasty divorce proceeding because people hold their emotions so front and center and are blinded to the concerns of the other.

    All of this bothers me. I think there comes a time when people in a church or group can’t be in fellowship in person anymore. They may not see eye to eye anymore. What I wish would happen more is that both sides learn to understand the other instead of instantly judging the other. Just because someone might think allowing gay men and women to be ordained doesn’t mean they are heretics. You are free to disagree with them, but the other side should not be viewed as somehow unfaithful. On the other side, we need to stop thinking that those that want to leave are automatically disloyal or wanting to inflict harm.

    We need to see the other as a child of God and we need to have some humility with the opinions and values we hold dear. We need to not act out of anger. The fact is, churches split all the time. The real issue here is not who is loyal or who is faithful. The matter is how we treat each other and how we view each other. Yes, there are times we need to be tough, but I think they are fewer than we like to think.

    Long story short, it would be nice if we made loving our enemies a real thing instead of just nice words.

  9. Dennis, you sound like an thoughful and outstanding individual. I have a dear friend that goes to Buddist retreats. Another that is very active in MCC. Another teaches torah at his synagogue. Another is Southern Baptist. Another is athiest etc, My goal is to treat each as if he or she is as good as gold. I would never suggest to them that my church is perfect or has all the answers. I would not presume to dictate to them where they should worship, nor they me. My answer is a multitude of houses of worship for a multitude of different outlooks and a love of inquiring minds. Thank you for your last comment. In case you couldn’t tell, this thread was a hot button issue for me. I almost never blog. By the way the church that I attend is PCUSA. I doubt it will ever leave so I never bring that subject up.

    Best wishes “Arbuthnaught”

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