Presbyterian leaders are responding to the guilty verdicts against a former interim pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, an influential congregation who left the PC(USA) for ECO: Covenant Order of Presbyterians in 2014. Rev. Joseph B. Rightmyer was found guilty of eight charges and stripped of his ordination in the PC(USA) by Grace Presbytery, the presbytery from which Highland Park departed.
In this post I simply try to make sense of the decision and what it means. My editorializing will be limited since it’s important first to note what actually happened and why before opining. You can read the Decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission of Grace Presbytery here.
One – Who filed the case?
The disciplinary case was filed by the Chair of Grace Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, Thomas Tickner (who is not an installed pastor, but serves as a chaplain at a retirement community).
Two – What the charges were:
The eight charges on which Mr. Rightmyer was convicted are grouped around three actions or series of actions:
- Advocating and facilitating the church’s departure from the PC(USA) in a manner not consisted with the presbytery’s dismissal policy.
- Moderating the session of the church at meeting(s) on which it voted to depart the PC(USA) in a manner not consisted with the presbytery’s dismissal policy.
- Moderating the congregation meeting at which the entire congregation voted to depart the PC(USA) in a manner not consisted with the presbytery’s dismissal policy.
These actions were found to violate the following two vows taken by Teaching Elders in the PC(USA):
- “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?” (W 4.4003e)
- “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” (W 4.4003g)
Mr. Rightmyer was also acquitted on three other charges related to procedural matters related to the Associate Pastors of the congregation.
Three – What the censure was:
Mr. Rightmyer was stripped of his ordination as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA):
Whereas, you, JOSEPH B. RIGHTMYER, have been found guilty of the following offenses, and by such offenses you have acted contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); now, therefore, Grace Presbytery acting in the name and under the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), does hereby set aside and remove you from the ordered ministry of teaching elder.
Four – Did the presbytery have a choice?
Any member in good standing of presbytery may file disciplinary charges against another member of the presbytery. In this instance there is nothing that required Mr. Tickner to file charges but, realistically, if he hadn’t then some one else would have. And, in all honesty, there was a case to be answered in this instance. Some of may not like it, but it appears that there were serious procedural violations in the way in which the church left the PC(USA).
Five – Can this be appealed? Was the Censure Commensurate with the Charges?
Yes, an appeal can be filed to the synod’s permanent judicial commission. In order to appeal, the appellant will have to show that there was some error in finding jurisdiction (unlikely) or in a matter of law (also unlikely).
The censure is the highest possible censure that the national church can enforce, which seems (granted, subjectively) to be more serious than the charges warranted when weighing Mr. Rightmyer’s 40 years of pastor service in the PC(USA).
You might also appreciate my post: “What type of Presbyterian are you?”
Presbytery Website with decision summary: <http://www.gracepresbytery.org/permanent-judicial-commission-decision/>
Opinion Piece by Viola Larson: <http://naminghisgrace.blogspot.com/2015/01/a-good-spark-our-feelings-about.html>