Five things you need to know about the de-frocking Highland Park’s interim pastor

church

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:

  1. Advocating and facilitating the church’s departure from the PC(USA) in a manner not consisted with the presbytery’s dismissal policy.
  2. 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.
  3. 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):

  1. “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)
  2. “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?”

Other resources:

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>

Layman article: <http://www.layman.org/pcusa-defrocks-nationally-recognized-renewal-leader/>

10 thoughts on “Five things you need to know about the de-frocking Highland Park’s interim pastor

  1. I don’t think it can correctly be said that there were “serious procedural violations” in the way in which Highland Park left the PCUSA unless one accepts the PCUSA’s dubious premise that the only way a church can leave the PCUSA is if the Presbytery says it can.

    The text of the Book of Order is somewhat schizophrenic on this subject. On the one hand the BOO says that the relationship between a member church and the denomination may only be severed by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery. On the other hand, there are many BOO provisions that support the bedrock principle of Presbyterian polity that ecclesiatsical authority is only by the consent of the governed — a princilple that in turn is rooted in the inherently voluntary nature of denominational membership by a local church.

    The interpretaion of the Book of Order adopted by the PJC for Grace Presbytery in the Rightmyer case favored an all-authoritative presbytery to the neglect of meaningful congregational liberty. In essence, Grace Presbytery seeks to impose on congregations a religious form of indentured servitude. It has ignored the USA in the PCUSA.

    One should also not lose sight of the fact that Grace Presbytery had in the first instance prevented Highland Park from going though the Presbytery’s preferred dismissal process, leaving Highland Park no practical choice other than to exercise its legal rights to vote on its own to disaffiliate. The Presbytery had previously adopted a severe dismissal policy that had unreasonable quota and voting demands and which gave no assurance of dismissal at any price regardless of the size of a voting majority.

    In addition, a few Grace Presbytery leaders had previously appointed an administrative commision over a nearby church in Longview,Texas (in violation of the Presbytery’s own standing rules) which replaced the Longview session and forced removal of its pastor just because the session had noticed a congregational meeting at which the church’s relationship with the PCUSA would be discussed.

    Can Highland Park be faulted under these extraordinary circumstances for following a different path to the exit door– a path that is both protected under the civil law and supported by a resonable interpretation of the Book of Order?

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    1. Lloyd – thanks for commenting. I take your point. I should have clarified that in my giving account I may have erred in the presbytery’s favor. I do think that the facts (at least as I have them) suggest that he did violate the policy. The questions of whether or not such a violation is warranted or whether the policy itself is problematic (or even unconstitutional) are worthy questions I hope to address in subsequent posts.

      My hope here was to give an account that would be recognized as accurate by a liberal/progressive in that presbytery.

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  2. This is ironic when the presbytery involved has a segment in their policy “Commitment and Dialogue without threat of Punishment.” Grace Presbytery has a horrific reputation in their treatment of congregations, teaching elders and ministry candidates and they allegedly have a ‘black list’ of teaching elders who will never be allowed to serve within their bounds. This action is a warning shot across the bow of any who would dare to event hint discussion of dismissal.

    Another obvious irony is that the ‘purity’ issue is usually set aside when flagrant immoral and unbiblical behavior is involved and the subsequent ignoring of polity. The number of Sessions guilty of ‘exercising’ their conscience in regard to ordination standards prior to BOO changes is numerous. The number of teaching elders who knowingly ignored Biblical, Confessional and polity standards resulting in promoting heresy is great. Jack Haberer, when asked about heretics and the lack of cases against them by a member of Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston during a gathering around the issue of dismissal, responded: “we don’t bring charges against them because they are nice people and the financial cost is too high.”

    This action is a scorched earth reaction and in very poor taste and I would say evil in its intent. One more for the devil!! Joe was faithfully serving the Lord as he believed called to do so.

    New Covenant Presbytery has a Gracious process but due to recent congregational departures there are many seeking to harshen the policy amending it with less gracious language and repercussions. The COM has twice now sought to adopt policy effecting Teaching Elders and their ability to engage even in conversation with church members about dismissal issues. The first attempt was to stop temporary teaching elders such as interims. This was fought and eventually recanted. The second and more recent was to have the same effect upon all teaching elders. That action has been postponed until the next meeting in March. A case such as this will further give ammunition to the fear mongering individuals who promote the idea that such policies are necessary and legitimized under polity. It will be a sad day if they succeed.

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