RELIGION The Schism

ON A BALMY SUNDAY FIVE YEARS AGO THIS month, members of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church filed solemnly into Moody Coliseum on the SMU campus to take part in an extraordinary worship service. Husbands and wives, babes in arms; elderly folk in wheelchairs and with portable oxygen tanks; active church elders and Sunday-only worshipers; newcomers to the church and congregators whose memberships stretched back for three generations; and friends and relatives filled the cavernous sports arena literally to the rafters, some 7,000 strong. As they took their seats, they shared only a certain anxiety in the gut.

Officially, the business of the day was a vote on a bit of Presbyterian legal arcana known as Article 13, something to do with the church’s asking to be “dismissed” from its national denomination-the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA)-so that it could retain full and clear ownership of its substantial property. Though only a small percentage of the huge congregation truly understood the fine print of the legalisms involved, all of them knew that the ramifications of the vote could be profound. In a sense, they were voting on the very future of the church itself, and by extension, their own spiritual futures in it. It was more than a little amazing to many church members that things had gotten down to this-a bona fide schism that had fissured the church almost squarely down the middle, and had stirred such passion that friends and even families had diverged passionately on the issue. After all, Highland Park Presbyterian was an institution known for many things-its sheer size (the second largest Presbyterian church in the nation), its wealth (arguably the richest), and its prominence as a bastion of conservatism in the liberal-leaning national denomination. But it was mainly known for its civility and stability. The idea that the institution was now spilling its own blood so publicly seemed unthinkable. “It was just so rude!” commented one concerned church member years later.

That it was. As longtime member Craig Millis, 70, would later observe, “A church fight can sometimes be very unchristian,” and the battle over Article 13 in the Highland Park church had certainly turned out to be that-and more. As far as Millis was concerned, it was mostly a lot of hooey. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand how the matter of which body technically owned the church’s property-the church itself or the PCUSA-had led to this ugly congregational referendum on such controversial Scriptural issues as abortion and gays in the church, the role of the church in the world of secular politics and government policy, the character of the church’s longtime minister, B. Clayton Bell, St., and, it seemed, the meaning of Highland Park Presbyterian, past, present, and future. Millis understood the dissidents’ worries-his wife was one of them, after all-he just didn’t think that leaving solved anything. You abandon the denomination, he reasoned, and you leave it all the more to the liberals.

In another quarter of the coliseum that day, Harry Hargrave sat with his family and reflected that, bizarre as this scene and the events that led to it were, maybe it was all part of God’s plan. He could think of no other explanation for the spiritual boost that the Article 13 battle had provided him and other dissidents. There had been confusion and ambivalence at first. But once the opening volleys bad been fired, he’d known his heart was leading him in the right direction. The property issue raised by Article 13 was one thing, and a big one: When you talked about the property of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, you were talking about assets worth $40 million or so-quite a dowry to hand over once and for all to national headquarters.

But it was more what the divestiture symbolized. The way the dissidents had it figured, if the PCUSA bureaucracy had technical ownership of HPPC’s considerable property, that gave it all the leverage it needed if and when the social engineers who seemed to dominate the hierarchy wanted to nudge a particular church toward, say, bringing on a female pastor or an openly gay member. What was a congregation to do then? Threaten to leave? And go exactly where?

As far as he was concerned, HPPC had no choice but to avail itself of this last opportunity to withdraw-the deadline was June 1991. And if they lost? Well, he and the other dissidents-he couldn’t be sure how many-would quietly take their leave of HPPC and start a new church. The proposition sounded almost laughably ludicrous when he tried it out in his mind: What in the world did he know about starting a church?

But so far, he’d somehow known what to do; they all had. He’d even taken it upon himself to secure the Highland Park High School auditorium for worship services the very next Sunday, it necessary,

Throughout the packed gymnasium, HPPC congregators, to a greater or lesser extent, mulled these two points of view. They took it seriously, too, seriously enough that they had separated along the most sensitive of lines: husband vs. wife, father vs. daughter, lifelong friend vs. lifelong friend. Even the Hunt brothers, Nelson and Herbert, had split on the issue. Folks who’d been baptized and married in the HPPC now pondered bolting it; newcomers who’d joined the church, at least in part based on its reputation for steadiness in volatile and uneasy spiritual times, now faced the prospect of watching as much as half of the congregation just up and leave the place in the lurch. All over Highland Park, over coffee at Starbucks in the Village, on the stair-masters at the Park Cities YMCA, at the family dinner table, church faithful had hashed and rehashed the matter ad nauseam, and whatever else they disagreed on, all could concur that this bit of Presbyterian church “business” had turned into one of the more important matters of their adult lives.

No one in Moody Coliseum that day took it more seriously than HPPC’s minister of nearly 20 years, Clayton Bell. Bell, an avuncular, unflappable man of 58, had seen a lot come and go during his lifelong association with Presbyte danism. The son of Presbyterian missionaries to China, the brother-in-law of evangelist Billy Graham, and a noted church scholar as well as minister. Be!! knew that it was deep in the nature of the Presbyterian Church to accept, even encourage, differing points of view. But its democratic imperative had always been tempered by an equally strong belief in reconciliation, in “church as family.”

Bell knew the geography of this sort of dispute well. Twenty years before, his father, the esteemed Presbyterian missionary and theologian, L. Nelson Bell, had attempted to mediate an eerily similar conflict within the Southern Presbyterian denomination (PCUS), At the time, his father, though he was a staunch conservative, had sided with the established order, saying that leaving was never an answer.

In the same way, the younger Bell sympathized with the dissidents’ angst over the national denomination’s frequent forays into liberal policy-making and its increasingly slovenly interpretations of Scripture, but, like his dad, Clayton Bell was not only a conservative theologian. He was a church establishmentarian. He believed that the denomination had drifted wayward, but believed just as deeply that the institution had to be changed-“’renewed” was his word-from within, through the established, time-honored Presbyterian protocols.

His decision to take sides had caused a lot of accusing fingers to be pointed his way-and worse. Bell’s home had been vandalized during the Article 13 campaign. Tomatoes had been thrown at the facade of his house; garbage had been dumped on the lawn. Worse, rumors about a sexual liaison between Bell and a female employee had circulated, and questions about his handling of church funds had been raised. The dispute had hurt him deeply, and, at this point, the reverend simply wanted it to be over-one way or the other.

In all, a little more than 4,500 congregators cast ballots, which were tallied on a high-tech machine borrowed from the First Baptist Church and overseen by accountants from Arthur Andersen, L.L.P. As the throng sat on its hands awaiting the results, the vote-counting device broke down, forcing Bell to announce, “Blame the Baptists. They are counting them by hand and it will be another 15 minutes.”

As church members recall it, there were few gasps of disbelief or whoops of joy when the final, stunning reckoning was announced- 2,563 in favor of leaving the PCUSA, 2,001 against-meaning that though a majority of the church sympathized with the dissidents, HPPC would remain in the PCUSA because the required two-thirds threshold had not been reached. “Folks just kind of stayed there through the rest of the service,” recalls one member. “I think it took a while for it to sink in that a majority of the church actually didn’t want to be in the church, but they were anyway.”

It didn’t take much time for that ironic truth to sink in on Nelson Bell Somerville. The nephew of Rev. Bell, Somerville had found himself at odds with his uncle on the Article 13 issue from the outset, but because of his close relationship to the pastor, he was in the unique position to understand both sides of the matter. What had happened, he was firmly convinced, had not been the handiwork of men, but of God. And perhaps that was why he also felt that a lot of church members had just done something that they didn’t quite understand.



MUCH HAS HAPPENED DURING THE FIVE YEARS SINCE the schism in the Highland Park Presbyterian Church, an event that rocked the church world of Dallas and shook the very foundation of the national Presbyterian church. Upwards of 2,000 church members followed Harry Hargrave and other dissident leaders to the auditorium of Highland Park High School the next Sunday to begin the fledgling Park Cities Presbyterian Church. Fueled by religious fervor and what one dissident member called “a spirit of entrepreneur-ship,” the new church acquired worship quarters at the old Highland Park Baptist Church on Oak Lawn, hired an energetic, Harvard-educated pastor from Virginia, raised $10 million, and pushed its congregation rolls to 4,000.

For its part, HPPC struggled through the years immediately following the schism: Church rolls sank by as much as 25 percent, resulting in decreased tithing, budgetary belt-tightening, and downsizing at the sprawling church complex on University Boulevard. Morale among those who stayed underwent its own slump. The split in the church hadn’t just been about how many, but who. Many of the dissidents who bolted and formed the new Park Cities Presbyterian had been deacons, elders, and Sunday school teachers at HPPC. “It wasn’t just numbers,” says Vann Phillips, a member who stayed. “There was an experience drain too.”

Members of each church are now quick to preface any reference to the awful days of the schism by saying, “There’s been a lot of healing over the past five years. We now have two churches instead of just one. ” But on the matter of why, really, one of the most stalwart churches in mainstream Southern Protestantism split almost precisely down the middle during six tumultuous months in 1991, most of them remain perplexed, even bewildered by what happened. Nelson Somerville was right. A lot of Presbyterians hadn’t understood exactly what they had done that Sunday afternoon, And many of them still don’t.

Such is the nature of decisions made by the spiritual rather than the intellectual temperament. Most church members do agree that HPPC might still be one big happy church today had it not been for the point-of-no-return nature of Article 13. But beyond that, the dissenters at the church were less a unified band of revolutionaries than a collection of individuals with their own differing gripes. They rallied around the excuse provided by a congregation-wide vote on denominational affiliation.

Though many dissidents today deny it-indeed, they don’t even like to be called “dissidents”-there’s little question that a lot of the energy behind the schism came from a more general restlessness in the Protestant community nationwide. Since the ’80s, the once-calm waters of mainstream religion have been churning with radical dissent, which has fomented schisms in establishment churches, an exodus to more conservative, evangelical sects, and the rise of the pro-life and school prayer movements, the Christian Coalition, and the family values lobby.

The flash points for the insurgencies have varied: abortion, the role of women and gays in the church, Scriptural inerrancy. But the message of the dissenters has remained the same: a repudiation of liberal Scriptural interpretation and overt church meddling in “social causes”; a return to a stricter adherence to the words of the Bible; and a demand that the church, as one Highland Park dissident put it, “stop lobbying Congress and start lobbying for churchgoing.”



RICHARD FISHER HAD A PREMONITION SEVERAL YEARS before the schism erupted that a division of this magnitude could afflict the HPPC congregation. Fisher, the businessman best known for his unsuccessful 1994 bid as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat presently held by Kay Bailey Hutchison, had been a member of HPPC since the early 70s, when he and his wife, Nancy, a lifelong member, were married there. When his career took him and his family to New York, Fisher became well-acquainted with the intellectual ferment going on in the church while worshiping at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and absorbing the thought-provoking sermons of pastor David Read.

On returning to Dallas in 1980, Fisher and his family again took up worship at Highland Park Presbyterian. But as the ’80s wore on, he became troubled by a couple of trends at the church. One was that HPPC, like a lot of Dallas institutions during the boom years, seemed to be getting too big. By the mid- to late-’80s, its membership had swelled to more than 8,000; frequency, longtime worshipers found themselves literally unable to get a seat in the church proper for a Sunday service-and were forced to “worship” via closed-circuit television in an anteroom off the sanctuary. “The medium had become un-user-friendly,” recalls Fisher, now a member of Park Cities Presbyterian.

More importantly, Fisher sensed a “drift in the church toward relativism,” and an absence of ” absolute standards. ” When his former New York pastor, Read, visited Dallas during the late ’80s to deliver a sermon at HPPC, Fisher sensed for the first time that this troubling undercurrent in the church might lead to outright dissension within the ranks of the ordinarily untroubled church.

Read sermonized on the theme of “Saved from What?”, and among the many things he challenged his listeners to ponder was the matter of just what they wanted their church to be-a place of worship or a place of political activism and machination. Afterward, Fisher found that the message of the sermon had cleaved the congregation right down the middle-about half heartily sympathetic to it, half unen-thusiastic. “Right then,” he says today, “1 knew the potential for something major to happen was there.”

Few other church members shared Fisher’s prescience. To hear both dissidents and loyalists tell it today, the waters at HPPC seemed calm, even after the 1983 merger of the Southern and Northern denominations under the Northern church’s banner, PCUSA. Call it a massive case of denial, because, in truth, the “merger” was always a troubled marriage. Even after a century of negotiation, many Southerners were sufficiently suspicious of the Yankee Presbyterians that they had insisted on the Article 13 escape clause before signing off on the final merger agreement.

But for most of the seven years between 1983 and 1990, Southern distaste for the PCUSA in general, and concern about Article 13 in particular, remained comfortably out of sight, out of mind for HPPC. After all, the church was a booming, $6-million-a-year operation that shared -with the rest of Dallas the sense that the boom of the ’80s would never end. Under the circumstances, the irritating liberalism of the denomination was easily ignored.

It is not clear to this day how such a complacent, almost smug congregation became, virtually overnight, a church fiercely divided. As one member recalls, “it almost seemed to happen like spontaneous combustion. ” It is, however, clear who first brought up the subject of Article 13 to the church’s Session of Elders, suggesting rather strongly that the congregation ought to take a long hard look at it, and-if you wanted to know his considered opinion-take leave of the PCUSA.

His name was Robert Mighell, and though he’d only served as an elder since 1989, he’d spent a good deal of that time looking into the fine print of Article 13. As an insurance man, Mighell knew that his church was facing the last chance to assert complete ownership over church property.

He presented his thoughts in copious detail at a Session of Elders meeting in early 1990. Don’t let the church establishment fool you on Article 13, he warned his fellow elders. If it gets down to crunch time, the PCUSA denomination can assert right of ownership over our property. In the few cases in which a congregation had gone to litigation against the denomination on the issue, PCUSA had always won.

And what’s at stake is not just dirt and bricks and mortar, he said. Consider that the PCUSA is a denomination that since 1983 has held that “unrepentant, practicing homosexuals7’ can be members of the denomination, and whose task force on human sexuality recently had begun to treat marriage as “no more viable an option than homosexual relationships.” Consider its increasingly pro-choice position on abortion, its long-standing willingness to allow women in church office and to ordain ministers who don’t necessarily have to believe Christ was the son of God. Finally, he said, “How are we going to explain to our church that this denomination they don’t like has complete control of their property?”

Then Mighell uttered the words that would be the first shot fired in the “Schism of 1991.” He told his 60-odd fellow church elders that, all things considered, he thought HPPC ought to initiate Article 13 proceedings with an eye toward getting out of the national denomination and joining ranks with the smaller, largely Southern, more conservative consortium known as Presbyterians in America (PCA). In so many words, he told his friends, “If we can’t stand on principle here, where can we? Its fine to say we’re a conservative congregation, but look at what our denomination is saying and doing.”

As Mighell recalls it, most of the elders present were stunned by his recommendation. Some, however, did agree with him, which is why, even though the Session of Elders eventually voted to not take up Article 13 and secession from the national denomination, a petition drive to force a congregational vote on the matter was quickly instigated.

One thing about the Presbyterian church: If an insurrection has a mind to erupt, democratic church protocol and process will allow it to do so. The Presbyterian denomination calls itself a “constitutional church,” whose political infrastructure is a paragon of representative democracy, due process, open debate, and decision-by-committee not unlike the government of the nation. Under the circumstances, many HPPC members reflect today, any incipient schism was only encouraged by the church’s democratic ethos.

In short order, Harry Hargrave and others in the emergent dissident faction collected the necessary signatures for the petition to force a congregational vote on Article 13. By the early fall of 1990, battle lines had been drawn within the congregation. This being Highland Park, where dissidents and loyalists alike were men and women of education and means, the dispute quickly turned into something much more elaborate than a series of shouting matches.

The dissidents collected under the name of Presbyterians for Congregational Unity and began publishing a slick newsletter filled with anti-PCUSA propaganda on issues ranging from gays in the church to the war in Nicaragua. Hargrave, Mighell, and other initiators of the dissident taction were surprised at how large and willing a constituency they had just for the asking. Apparently, the discontent that Richard Fisher had sensed years before had truly been there.

The loyalists, slower on the uptake and less organized, nonetheless had the collective presence of mind to seek professional guidance from a political consultant. After interviewing several candidates, the Highland Park Presbyterians to Stay retained the services of consultant Carol Reed, a veteran of local political wars, (Her most prominent recent client has been Mayor Ron Kirk.)

Reed, an elder in the downtown First Presbyterian Church, approached this particular project with kid gloves. “It’s one thing to be spinning for political candidates. Its another thing with a church,” she recalls. “The first task was to settle on an objective. Frankly, most people in the church didn’t have a clue and didn’t care.”

Reed’s analysis was that the loyalists needed to identify their natural constituency-so-called “stay at home” congregators-and turn them out to vote “no” on the proposition “without any bloodshed,” Those easily identifiable as dissidents, or even those firmly planted on the fence on the issue, weren’t worth trying to convert, The pitch tossed at the potential “to stay” constituency, Reed knew, bad to be somehow gentle, but firm. “The theme had to be, ’Our house is troubled, but it’s our house,’ ” Reed recalls. “And the message had to be delivered through some personal means-member to member.”

To that end, Reed helped the loyalist faction organize a massive, face-to-face, “retail” campaign, in which loyalist members were asked to contact and visit with a circle of friends within the church to discuss the Article 13 matter. These “casual” get-togethers-a barbecue or a drink at a loyalist’s home-were, in fact, fairly carefully scripted, with suggested opening and closing prayers, and detailed fact sheets on the various issues raised by the dissidents. After each such encounter, the campaigning couple was asked to fill out a detailed report on the meeting and pass it on to a team leader. The results gave Reed and the loyalist faction an ongoing feel for the level and solidarity of their support. Bob Dote should have been so well-organized.

At the same time, the loyalists loosed a multimedia barrage on members of the congregation, including a slick videotape and a four-color brochure titled, “A Time to Embrace.” The message was organized around a series of passages from Ecclesiastes and, in general, was more an appeal to congregators’ sentimentality about their church than a discussion of the specific issues raised by the dissenting faction.

On those counts, the Presbyterians to Stay argued not so much that the dissidents were wrong; only that they were overreacting and choosing too radical a remedy. They stressed that while the PCUSA had endorsed the Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion rights, for example, HPPC itself had passed its own pro-life resolution and had established a pro-life group within the church. On the property issue, the loyalists issued a somewhat confusing precis of opinion: Church members were assured that HPPC still had full title to its property. But in the next breath, they were told that the loyalist faction had been concerned enough about the issue to have checked with the local Presbytery (a church-governing “judicatory”), which had “assured” them that if the congregation wanted to bolt from PCUSA-even after the Article 13 deadline-it could do so and still keep its property.

Some dissidents got a big laugh out of that one. “They sent some real estate types in the congregation to the Presbytery,” recalls Mighell, “and got them to agree they would never take our property. Well, maybe so, maybe not. The court cases said they could. And we had it on good authority that the specific reason the denomination insisted on owning the property of its churches was that they would be bound to the rulings of higher church bodies,”

Il was those rulings that formed the heart of the dissident campaign. In one particularly scorching brochure entitled, “PCUSA and Article 13-The Facts Are on File,” dissidents took the denominational bureaucracy to task on everything from its stand on the U.S. invasion of Panama to its view of Jesus Christ. Of the former, the dissidents reminded HPPC members that the PCUSA had not only condemned America’s foray into Panama, but had publicly condemned the U.S. bombing of Libya, denounced American possession of nuclear weapons, advocated cutting oil aid to El Salvador, and protested Congressional support of the anti-Communist Contras in the war in Nicaragua.

Faced with such incendiary rhetoric, loyalists like Millis could only hope that the congregation would let discretion be the better part of valor. “The General Assembly hadn’t gone pro-gay,” he recalls. “But you still had people standing up and saying, ’I don’t want my children taught Scripture by homosexuals.’ Well, that wasn’t going to happen. This is Dallas, Texas.”

But such reassurances, and the loyalists’ more general appeal to “keep the family together,” couldn’t prevent things from eventually turning foul and nasty. Privately, some loyalists were calling the dissidents “right-wing Christian zealots” and whispering that the insurgent faction was taking a “holier than thou” pose. “They seemed to think they were purer Christians than us,” says one loyalist today. They also accused the dissidents of being driven by material preoccupations with church property and “personal power.”

At the same time, the dissidents accused the Presbyterians to Stay of trying to unfairly manipulate church governing procedure to gain advantage for their side. Specifically, the dissidents alleged that the loyalist-leaning church Session and the local Presbytery had conspired to delay election of new elders in the fall of 1990 “…because some officer candidates might be sympathetic to HPPC withdrawing from the present denomination…” Like Craig Millis said, a church fight can certainly get unchristian-not to mention a bit sophomoric.

It wasn’t long before members of both factions began to turn their frustration on Rev. Bell. No one professes any knowledge of the source of the vandalism of his home or the ugly rumor-mongering about his personal life. (“That church is big enough to have its own lunatic fringe,” says one member. I But there was still plenty of less venomous criticism of the revered pastor. Some accused Bell of unfairly playing on congregators’ emotions by threatening that ail the church staff would leave if the church voted to bolt the PCUSA, More generally, one observer of the schism says dissidents had come to view Bell “the way some Republicans came to view George Bush”-meaning that the reverend’s prodigious Presbyterian resume and his impeccable church connections came to be seen as part of the problem. In their eyes, he was so devoted to the institution of the Presbyterian church that he’d lost sight of the extent of its waywardness.

The analogy to Bush seems apt, since what the HPPC underwent during the Schism of 1991 recalls the trials and travails of the Republican Party in this decade. The “Republican Revolution” in the 199-4 congressional elections, the Pat Buchanan-inspired cat fight in this spring’s presidential primaries–both are examples of the philosophical rift between so-called “Big-C Conservatism” vs. “small-c conservatism.” The former owes its allegiance to tradition, principle, and the preservation of the historical foundations of institutions; the latter to convention, custom, and the preservation of the edifice of the institution. Big-C Conservatives are more likely to be truly radical and revolutionary; small-c conservatives are conformists, defenders of the status quo. Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan arc Big-C Conservatives; George Bush and Bob Dole arc small-c conservatives.

In the same way, the dissidents who fought to extract the HPPC from its national denomination were listening to the radical muse of Big-C Conservatism, a fervor to devolve the church buck to the strict teachings of the Bible and to bring it closer to the individual worshiper, Clayton Bell, like George Bush, could hear and understand that muse, but he had a second master: the institution that is the Presbyterian Church.

“I have been accused of having a higher loyalty to the denomination than to the flock of Highland Park Presbyterian,” Bell sermonized at a special church gathering of the loyalists at the Grand Kempinski Hotel in late November 1990. “…your call to me included my involvement in denominational affairs. You see, this under-shepherd of Christ does not feel free before God to turn my back on that prior commitment in order to follow the sheep.”

“If he’d just said, ’Okay, let’s leave’ to the congregation, the vote would have run nine to one with him,” observes Mighell today. But it clearly wasn’t in Clayton Bell’s establish mentarian disposition to do that. For him, as for any who follow the small-c conservative muse, abandoning the institution is tantamount to abandoning family.



IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE VOTE AT MOODY COLISEUM that day, Harry Hargrave drove home and prepared for the first gathering of the brand new Park Cities Presbyterian Church. Harry had expected that about 20 or so dissidents would join him; about twice that many did, and he was struck by the energy and fervor with which they got down to the business of starting a whole new house of worship. After several more meetings that same week, an executive committee was elected, and on May 26-only a week after the fateful vote-the first service of the church was held at the Highland Park High School auditorium. Dr. Luder Whitlock, president of the Reformed Theological Seminary, presided over a congregation of 1,500 once and former dissidents. An offering of a whopping $32,000 was taken that first Sunday.

With in the week, Hargrave was contacted by a representative of the Highland Park Baptist Church on Oak Lawn, who offered to share the Baptises’ large sanctuary with the fledgling church, By June 9, the congregation had moved to the church at Oak Lawn and Wycliff, and volunteers were busying themselves with tasks ranging from scrubbing the floors to lining up guest ministers tor upcoming services. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” recalls Marsha Williamson, formerly an employee as well as a member at HPPC and now director of ministries for the new church. “There’s lots more lay involvement here because there has had to be. We’d just get together and do the best we could-you know, what color are the Advent candles anyway?- that sort of thing. It taught us all a lot about our church though.”

As spiritually revivifying as starting a new church was, it wasn’t always easy for the dissidents. Williamson, who diverged with her parents on the Article 13 issue, says “sometimes it almost tore me apart. But this was just too important.” Paul Flowers, a dissident who’d been an elder at the church, kept attending HPPC for two months after the vote and creation of the new church. “My mind was saying one thing, but my body was doing another,” he says. Indeed, many dissidents suffered from the same sort of cognitive dissonance as the reality of what they’d done finally sunk in. To this day, there is a tinge of regret in the voices of some dissenters when they discuss the schism, as if it was something that acquired a life of its own and played itself out to a conclusion that they’d never fully faced.

As the new church’s first year wore on, its founders’ frequent assertion that it was all “God’s will” began to acquire some resonance. Hargrave and other leaders eventually raised $10 million to buy the church outright from the Baptists and to endow the church’s future. By year’s end, the church’s elders had selected a minister, Joseph “Skip” Ryan, 48, a conservative, Harvard-educated minister from Charlotte, Va. Not long after, the new church joined the small, conservative Presbyterians in America (PCA) denomination.

Ryan’s combination of Southern conservatism and a youthful exuberance seemed a perfect fit for the new congregation, which turned out to be a curious amalgam of the elderly and baby boomers. The older members, those in their 70s and 80s, Williamson says, were drawn to the new church by “perhaps a single Scriptural issue,” or “because they feel more needed here.” The boomers in their 30s and 40s “were drawn to this like an entrepreneurial venture. You know boomers–they like to own what’s theirs, doit their way.”

Many or the Presbyterians to Stay, Williamson continues, were members of the “GI generation” between these two groups, “people whose security always depended on institutions through the Depression and the War. To them, big institutions are to be respected to the point that you don’t argue with them-and you don’t leave.”

The new church has jumped aggressively into “church planting,” helping to sponsor new Presbyterian churches from McKinney to Austin to Moscow, and its members seem content with the more conservative PCA denomination-even its strict prohibition of women holding church office. “Those of us (women) who left knew and agreed with PCA’s more conservative stances on women in church offices,” says Williamson. “We even have a woman who moved over who had been an elder at HPPC. “

Not that all has been, or will be entirely placid at the new PCPC. Ryan readily admits that there is “ambivalence about certain cultural assumptions” within the new church. On the matter of gays in the church-which the new church must grapple with, if”only because of its geographic location near die city’s largest gay community-“Some members are cautious about it,” Ryan says. “Some say we’ve been placed here to minister in that direction. But it’s not really about ministering to the gay community, per se. It’s about ministering to those in this entire eclectic community who need to hear die Gospel.”

And Ryan rejects the suggestion by some loyalists that, historically speaking, dissident churches have a habit of undergoing further schisms simply because of the nature of the dissident temperament. “There’s a spiritual common denominator that holds us together,” he says. “And that is that we are here to extend the church and its teachings.”

Meanwhile, over at HPPC, things have finally settled down after a shell-shocked and somewhat depressing period following the Article 13 vote. “The first thing we said was, how are we going to run this church with these numbers?” recalls HPPC elder Bob Blakeney. “But maybe in the long run, it was good for the old church. It’s not good for a church to get complacent. We were kind of fat, dumb, and happy.” After three years of austerity, the HPPC finally hired a professional consultant to aid in fund-raising. The coffers are now back in the comfort zone.

Congregators’ feelings are another matter. The schism at Highland Park Presbyterian left many legacies in its wake. There are now, dissidents and loyalists alike are fond of pointing out, two healthy Presbyterian churches where once there was only one. A lot of so-called “country club Protestants” were forced to examine their spiritual consciences as they never had before. But mainly, members say, the mettle of relationships, familial ties, and friendships was severely tried.

Like many families, Richard Fisher’s divides itself on Sunday mornings to worship: Richard and his daughter attend the new PCPC; his wife and son still attend HPPC. “We don’t talk about it much,” he says. “I think she had been a member all her life, and it was just too much a part of her to excise it from her being. I understand that.”

” It’s a shame my wife and I had to disagree on this, ” says Craig Millis. “But we’re working on it,”

Rev. Bell, for his part, speaks uncomfortably of the schism over the “heart and soul” of his church. He says he’s put it all behind him. “It hurt,” he reflects. “We had many good friends who opposed us. To someone who likes to be liked, some of the negative things said about me hurt, yes. But now we have two fine churches. If that was God’s will, then so be it.”

Comments