EDMOND — One of the most prominent churches in the metro area will vote Sunday whether to sever ties with its denomination — a move that would cost more than half a million dollars.
The Rev. Mateen Elass, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, said his congregation has been waiting for many months to take the historic vote for “gracious dismissal” from the Presbyterian Church (USA) on the grounds of “serious theological differences.”
Elass said church leaders have gone to great lengths to make sure the membership of about 1,400 people is aware of Sunday's tally.
“It really is the most significant vote this congregation has taken since its inception back in 1891, so we need to have everyone here,” he said.
Elass, 57, said the church will pay about $510,000 to the Indian Nations Presbytery, the regional affiliate of the main church body, if the congregation votes to be dismissed from the denomination and presbytery leaders accept the church's vote.
Elass said the dollar figure was agreed upon by a group acting on behalf of the presbytery and a group of church members. He said the money transaction is required so that the congregation may keep its church building and about 10 acres of property at 1001 S Rankin in central Edmond.
Elass said that according to the church's insurance documents, the church property is valued around $12 million, but he has been told it would sell on the open market for much less, between $3 million and $4 million, because it is a single-use property.
The pastor said the vote for dismissal has been called because the majority of the congregation has serious theological differences with the Presbyterian Church (USA). He said for his church members, the deeper issue is the denomination's significant veering away from the authority of Scripture, most notably with its 2011 decision to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals.
Elass said more recently, the congregation has been disappointed that the denomination has not disciplined clergy who have flouted the church's ban on same-gender marriage.
“The denomination has shown itself unwilling to discipline people who are consciously going against the tenets of the church, people who break the rules and sort of dare you to do anything about it,” he said. “The (church) courts are looking for ways to skirt the issues rather than taking a strong stand on what the church proclaims to believe.”
Consequences of vote
Elass said if the congregation is released from the Presbyterian Church (USA), it plans to join with the Evangelical Covenant Order, a newly established fellowship of Presbyterian churches.
He said the church had hoped to vote on the matter in fall 2012, but the presbytery, led by Aaron A. Carland, delayed the vote to this Sunday in order for presbytery leaders to have time to discuss it further. The Oklahoman, seeking comment from the Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Church (USA), was directed to talk to Carland, however Carland could not be reached for comment.
Carland serves as general presbyter for the Indian Nations Presbytery, which includes 53 congregations in central and southwest Oklahoma.
Elass said the idea of separating from the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been discussed at the Edmond church since 2005.
He said the church created a task force at that time that eventually said there was no compelling reason to leave the denomination.
He said the congregation continued to be a part of evangelistic and renewal efforts within the denomination in the intervening years. However, the congregation eventually decided to request dismissal.
Elass said an administration commission set up by the presbytery has said the church needs 685 votes for dismissal. He said the presbytery must then accept the dismissal request. Elass said the congregation will have about three weeks to pay the presbytery the agreed-upon amount.
He said the church plans to take out a loan to pay the presbytery, something that does not please some congregation members, though they realize it is necessary.
“That's half a million dollars that we don't have on hand to give away, so we anticipate taking out a loan and then our people will dig deep to pay that,” Elass said.
Elass said he had hoped the presbytery would release the church “with no strings attached” and allow the church to give the presbytery a monetary gift of its own choosing.
“It would have been a Christian transaction of grace and grace,” he said. “Then it's not like buying your way out of the denomination or the denomination demanding some sort of ransom.”
He said the church is bound by the denomination's property trust clause, which states that church property remains in the possession of the presbytery if a congregation chooses to leave the denomination.
“Without the property trust clause, not only would we have left more rapidly, but a lot of churches would be knocking on the presbytery's door saying ‘we're on our way out,'” Elass said.
Meanwhile, Elass said he does not expect Sunday's vote to be unanimous.
“I'm going to be curious as to how many ‘no' votes there are,” he said, adding that he thinks about 60 people may cast “no” votes.
Elass said the church never conducted any kind of straw poll.
“I think a lot will depend on how many people we get here,” he said. “This will be the largest meeting that this church has ever had, so it's a big step for our congregation.”