EDMOND — Applause erupted in the sanctuary Sunday when members of a prominent metro-area church learned they soon would sever ties with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
With 870 members casting ballots, First Presbyterian Church of Edmond voted to leave the denomination and join with another Presbyterian group, the Evangelical Covenant Order.
The Rev. Mateen Elass, First Presbyterian-Edmond's senior pastor, said Sunday's vote was historic because it brought members together for the church's largest congregational meeting and its most significant.
“This is really a vindication for the church leaders and elders, as they were listening to God saying, ‘This is where I'm leading First Presbyterian Church of Edmond,'” Elass said.
“I had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Now we can have a new beginning.'”
Elass said the majority of the congregation sought to part from the denomination because of theological differences.
He said the main cause of disagreement is the congregation's perception that the church has moved away from the authority of Scripture, most notably with its 2011 decision to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and, more recently, a perception that the denomination is not holding accountable those clergy who have defied the church's ban on same-gender marriage.
Elass said 815 people voted to leave the denomination, while 55 people cast votes against severing ties. He said one member abstained from voting. Elass said the church has about 1,400 members.
Indian Nations Presbytery, a regional affiliate of the main church body, had said the church needed 685 “yes” votes to disengage from the denomination.
Sunday, Aaron Carland, the presbytery's general presbyter, said the presbytery will vote Monday to accept or reject the Edmond church's vote.
An administrative commission appointed by the presbytery will present a report about the congregational meeting and vote results at that time, Carland said.
Pay the presbytery
Elass said the congregation has agreed to pay the presbytery $510,000 in about three weeks if the presbytery accepts the vote results.
He said the church planned to take out a loan to pay the presbytery.
Sunday, church members greeting each other congenially as they filled the lobby area to register for the vote.
They later packed the 1,100-seat sanctuary, opened the meeting with prayer and sang several songs led by the church's worship team.
Elass said Tom Laubert, a member of the administrative commission that conducted the voting, cautioned members to be sensitive to anyone who voted differently when they reacted to the vote results. Elass said members who applauded and cheered the vote results meant no disrespect to anyone.
“It was a release for folks — a spontaneous eruption,” he said.
“We've been in this process thinking about leaving the denomination since 2005 so it's been seven years of task forces and reports to the congregation. People were eager to have an end — and a new beginning.”
Elass also said he thought many people were particularly happy that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of separating from the denomination.
He said he knew of one member who voted against the leave-taking who is actively seeking a new church home and a few others may follow suit. However, he said he thinks the majority of members who cast “no” votes on Sunday will remain with the church because they consider the church a “family.”
No ill will
He said he wanted to emphasize that the church does not have ill will against the denomination.
“For us, it's not a desire to bad mouth or demean the Presbyterian Church (USA). Rather it's our desire to follow this new path we believe God has called us on.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA), based in Louisville, Ky., is the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination.