As the audience began to settle into their seats in the auditorium at 5300 Main, a row of automatic shades quietly rolled down over the rear windows. Darkness descended, and with it the mood: Smiles were tight, greetings perfunctory.
"I think we're about ready," said moderator Randy Butler, standing on the floor front and center behind two concentric circles of chairs. They were set up for anyone wishing to speak, he explained, and when all were done a new group would come down and take their place. There would be civility and order, he emphasized. But that was a given. To disagree without being disagreeable was a virtue so important it was enshrined in the church rulebook.
Sunday mornings at First Presbyterian Church in Houston usually provide a pleasant respite, a moment of pause for connection and camaraderie for its large and mostly upscale congregation. But this morning was different. The "season of unrest," as one senior staff member had called the last 12 months, was taking a toll. And now it was time for the members to make their case directly to each other. A case for and against divorce.
A week from today the membership of "First Pres" will vote on whether to leave its current denomination, the nation's largest Presbyterian body, in favor of a conservative breakaway group that promises more evangelism, no liberal politics, a strict constructionist view of the Bible - and zero possibility of homosexual clergy. The latter was the apparent impetus for the new denomination's founding last year when gay ordination was approved on a local option basis. Though no Presbyterian church would be forced to have a gay pastor, supporters of the split say the decision violates Scripture and represented a surrender to cultural changes.
Serious controversy rarely shows up on the red-bricked campus in the museum district, home to more than 3,000 worshippers and the "mother church" to a number of other Houston congregations. A bulwark among "big steeple" establishment churches, First Pres boasts property and assets of more than $100 million, a history going back 175 years, and members who populate local board rooms and election-year ballots.
Now it will become smaller, at least in the short term. People will quit the church - both sides agree - and friendships will be torn. There will be financial consequences, possibly big ones.
On its face, the issue of which initials to place below the church's name on a masthead is relevant only to those who make First Pres their church home. In truth, the effort to take Houston's oldest congregation away from Presbyterian Church USA is an important piece of a much broader campaign. The goal is to move as many large and prosperous churches as possible into a year-old, largely unknown organization. These defections would deal a significant blow to a national organization that in recent years has pushed social justice issues more strongly than evangelism and bestowed on its regional governing bodies, known as presbyteries, the right to accept gays for ordination if they so choose.
The new denomination - A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO - rejects both and promises a more essential Christian faith. Though ECO is unlikely to put a large dent in PCUSA's 10,000-plus churches and 1.8 million members, scores of congregations are in the process of joining it.
ECO already has one big Texas notch on its belt. Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, the largest in the state, left PCUSA last fall. Another large congregation, Grace Presbyterian Church in south Houston, is going through the formal process that could end in defection. If ECO gets just those three, that would be more than 10,000 members.
"I am concerned, not for tomorrow or perhaps for two years from tomorrow, but for the future health and vitality of First Pres ... long after I am gone," Jim Birchfield, First Presbyterian's senior pastor, told the congregation in a meeting in late January. He mentioned "threats" he saw down the line, one of them being a "redefinition of marriage" that he said PCUSA's ruling group is likely to pass this summer, a blessing of same-sex unions that at the very least would prove a significant "distraction" for the church.
Joining ECO, Birchfield said, would place First Pres in a "Gospel-centered" denomination that is clear about its beliefs and values. And the proposed move might well be that simple. Most in the church agree that the First Pres membership has grown increasingly conservative as the denominational leadership has become more liberal. But there is little agreement about anything else.
Biblical vs. secular
To hear the members tell it, the fight is about the evils of relativism, inclusion and modernity itself - about the church's national leaders slowly walking away from long-held beliefs even if they are rooted in God's own word. Or it's about narrow-mindedness and being told what to think instead of a shared journey marked by thoughtful inquiry - about those with narrower views shutting out a different take on Scripture because of blind allegiance to orthodoxy.
PCUSA is a hindrance to the church's purpose of increasing the size of Christ's Kingdom, claim some members pushing for the breakaway who sent out a booklet to the congregation outlining the "drift" away from sound theology into secular concerns. Opponents say the people who started this rebellion were behind a similar effort more than 20 years ago and are interested in pushing FPC, perhaps unwittingly, into the realm of the Christian Right and causes that have little to do with the definition of marriage.
First Pres members who advocate leaving PCUSA speak of the importance of aligning with "like-minded" churches. "Like-minded" makes perfect sense to those who think that Scriptural interpretation has to be uniform one church to another, one worshipper to another. Otherwise, what is a denomination?
What drives reform
Plenty of veteran PCUSA ministers don't buy the notion that the body is anything but a mainstream Christian group, regardless of whether its politics have veered left. At another large First Pres - 250 miles up the road in Dallas - senior pastor Joe Clifford says down-the-line agreement on each passage of Scripture is not what makes Reformed theology. Traditionally, it has not been a part of all Presbyterian churches.
Rather than fault PCUSA for "watered-down theology" or "drifting" from time-honored tenets, Clifford believes the rise of ECO has to do with southern churches never having settled questions over Biblical "infallibility" years ago, as the northern churches did, when the literalists peeled off to form smaller denominations. This split may have been inevitable, he said, especially given America's current polarized political and cultural environment.
"I think this reflects modern society more than anything that PCUSA has done," Clifford said. "The attitude that we can only gather with people who think like we do reflects our media and our political conversation. And now that is just flowing through to the church."
And flow it did last week to a congregation that has weathered its share of upheavals since first coming together in a bare-bones, pine-clad white church in 1839. Only two weeks remained until the day of decision. This town-hall opinion swap was a final opportunity for members to have their say before the congregation. Finding common ground was not the point. Compromise had never been on the table, not since it was decided to put the issue to a vote.
'Don't take this church'
Camped on the no-go side of the floor, member Don Ahnberg moved straight to the point. Those offended by PCUSA had not sought out a non-PCUSA Presbyterian church. There are several in Houston.
"I may choose to go where my beliefs are shared and where my beliefs fit in, and so can anyone else," he said. "If those seeking dismissal want a church, then leave and start one. Don't take this church as a matter of convenience."
And then the mic switched sides. Tom O'Neil saw no insurgency to steal a church. The leaders of the congregation have surveyed the landscape under the Lord's guidance. This was their decision, their desire.
"Our shepherds are leading us to new pastures," he said. "We are called to follow them."
The process of deciding a path for the church had been ongoing for many months following a recommendation by the elders on the church's governing body, known as the Session, that departure from PCUSA was a subject worth studying. The move pleased the evangelical members. They knew that Birchfield, strongly evangelical and openly critical of PCUSA, would be willing to lead the break away. But it surprised some members, especially those who did not follow church politics.
The Session's vote started a formal period of "discernment," as it is known in Presbyterian vocabulary, that continued through 2013 with a lengthy series of meetings at which speakers for and against realignment discussed the history of ECO and PCUSA, offered differing notions on Scripture.
Last November, a pair of Presbyterian pastors, Jim Singleton and Mike Cole, provided the essential contrast between the two positions within the same hour.
"Mainline Christianity in this country is dying," said Singleton, one of seven pastors who helped create ECO. "We keep losing numbers. In the last 10 years, we have lost about 25 percent of our membership... Young adults are the missing components. The hole is created because we are not doing evangelism as we once did evangelism."
The time had come, he said, to "peaceably withdraw and be something different."
Cole, director of the South Texas presbytery that oversees 97 churches in the area, argued that appealing to uniformity of belief and concentrating solely on evangelism is exactly the wrong recipe for growing the church and appealing to younger generations. Cole said that traditional evangelism focusing on bringing people to Christ and social ministry aimed at righting social wrongs have always been an equal part of the Presbyterian church.
"What's happening in our denomination is the recognition … that our diversity is far wider than anyone ever suspected," Cole said. "Those who are uncomfortable with that degree of diversity want to limit it from one side. I'm not comfortable with that.''
As 2014 arrived, the discernment period was reaching an end. With the vote looming, the town hall gathering was the last chance to appear before fellow members and make a declaration.
Butler, the moderator, patiently handed the microphone from one to another, back and forth, amplifying voices consistent not in message, only in earnestness and pain. An usher looked down when one of the elderly members spoke of working so hard to build the church only to see it reach the brink of splitting apart.
"This is so sad," he said quietly, under his breath.
The truth about First Pres, or any church, is that for some it is a place and others a space in the heart.
For the young woman whose family had been at First Pres for five generations, who planned to have her wedding there in July, as the women in her family had before her, the consequences of the vote were no abstract thing. She tried to get the words out, her reasons for making no change in hopes of keeping the church intact, but it was hard through choked-back tears.
Some claimed to know what God wanted because of what was written in Scripture. Some said using one interpretation of the Bible to promote division was clearly the work of man. Several pondered the significance of a unanimous recommendation by church leadership.
"I believe that God has spoken to our divinely appointed leaders," said Michael Knight, speaking also for his wife, both members for nine years. "ECO gives us a better opportunity to grow spiritually."
So what's next?
Another nine-year member, Heidi Wilkinson, shook her head.
"I still don't understand why we are doing this," she said. "What is it that ECO allows us to do that PCUSA does not? We don't understand why our leaders are wanting us to go. We are supposed to disagree and debate and argue."
As one hour became two, it became clear that the points in favor and those opposed were being repeated to a fault. The tension of the early moments ebbed away, and slowly the background chatter began to rise. It had been a long year. People were tired.
When no one else wished to speak, Pastor Birchfield stepped forward, thanked parishioners for their civility, then led them in prayer. Then they slowly filed out with as much uncertainty as before.
For the split to take place, two-thirds of those present must vote in favor, and about 1,000 members - a third of the congregation - have to be present and voting. Few are willing to predict the outcome. As with many elections, outcome could depend on which side gets their vote out.
The question of what comes next hangs in the air along with the vote. The side that wins is supposed to "graciously reconcile" with the losers. Plans are already in place to that effect, with teams appointed.
But with stakes high and perhaps more division than anticipated, no one is certain whether this is possible. Cole hopes it is.
"They have a responsibility to present a Christian presence to the community," he said.
As with so many congregations since the earliest days of the faith, when it was little more than a movement meeting in secret, that will be tested.
Founded: 1983 with the unification of the largest northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian Church.
Size: 10,262 churches and approximately 1.85 million members (as of 2012).
Clergy: Allows men and women to be ordained as pastors, subject to review of the larger organization. Additionally, the 173 smaller regional governing bodies known as presbyteries are permitted to decide whether to allow the ordination of homosexuals for their churches.
Theological argument for remaining: Theological Diversity is a positive quality of the denomination. It honors God and his church. The PCUSA continues to adhere to Reformed theology, though allowing for both evangelical and progressive expressions of it. Theological diversity's boundary is what the Book of Order calls "freedom of conscience," which provides the latitude of beliefs according to one's interpretation of Scripture and the Confessions. Book I of the PCUSA constitution is the Book of Confessions. It includes 11 creeds, confessions, catechisms, declarations, and statements. These confessions are "authoritative, not authoritarian."
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
Size: 112 churches, with scores of additional churches in the process of joining.
Clergy: Allows men and women - but not homosexuals - to be ordained as pastors. Individual churches hire their own pastors, subject to review of the larger organization.
Theological argument for joining: Broad and undefined theological diversity is not healthy for the church and is not biblical. There need to be boundaries that offer freedom to disagree in appropriate areas. The ordination vows for teaching elders and ruling elders require them to "sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. " However, the PC(USA) has chosen not to name the essentials, fearing to be called exclusive and narrow-minded, and not to hold leaders accountable to the standards expressed in the Confessions. ECO has chosen to adopt the same Book of Confessions as the PCUSA, as well as constitutionally define a set of Essential Tenets that provide a "witness to the confessions' common core."
Other key similarities and differences: Though outwardly similar, ECO stresses evangelism more than PCUSA's governing body and requires adherence to a set of basic tenets. ECO places emphasis on traditional Christian mission work, with the goal to bring more people to Christ. PCUSA places equal or perhaps greater emphasis on social ministry aimed at bettering the lives of people, especially in troubled or developing countries. Politically speaking, ECO would fall well inside the conservative spectrum while PCUSA is typically characterized as liberal, siding with gun-control efforts, gay rights measures and pro-choice activists. ECO emphasizes the individual church and its pastor, and by design eliminates or reduces much of standard Presbyterian governing architecture. In ECO, the church property is owned by the members. In PCUSA, the property is owned by the presbytery in trust for the congregation, meaning that approval would be needed to sell it.