Newton Church Protest

I became the Interim Pastor and Head of Staff at Newton Presbyterian Church at the beginning of April, 2014 and left at the end of April, 2015. The congregation was generally about two-thirds evangelical and one-third progressive, but in the Mission Study survey in June, 2014 93% of the respondents said that they would prefer to stay together as a church family with folks they disagreed with. I planned a time of discernment after Christmas, 2014, with listening meetings to allow members to hear each others’ perspectives.

Before Christmas, on December 14, 2014, the Moderator of the presbytery and his wife (a member of the church) entertained a group of church members at a dinner party at their home. In the conversation that evening, one attendee who took notes said that the Moderator explained to the guests “how those evangelicals were all wrong.” As a result, a significant group of members came to the listening meetings unable to hear and empathize with the others in the meetings.

When I left the church in the spring of 2015, the church began the process of gracious dismissal provided by the presbytery. The process involved working with a response team to determine the future direction and then with an administrative commission to work out the details of the dismissal.

At the November, 2016, meeting of the Presbytery of Boston I heard the creation of the Administrative Commission to work with the Newton Church. I offered several times to meet with the Commission to answer questions and provide background information, but the offers were declined.

I attended the January, 2017, meeting of the presbytery where the Administrative Commission reported that they had assumed original jurisdiction and taken over the management of the church. One person asked the commission chair if they were sure that they had gotten the polity right, which means having done things according to the official procedures, and the chair and the stated clerk of the presbytery assured the meeting that they had.

At this point I became curious about what had happened between the meeting where the Commission was formed and the time they assumed jurisdiction over the church. I was able to reconstruct, from documents provided by the various participants, the events that led to my judicial complaint against the presbytery. In essence, the Commission lied to the elders of the church at their first meeting on December 13, 2016 by saying that “Under no circumstances will the NPC be dismissed to the ECC because it is not a Reformed Church.” Only the presbytery as a whole and not the Commission has the authority to make this determination.

I filed the following remedial complaint with the Synod of the Northeast against the Presbytery of Boston on February 1, 2017. The Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Northeast declined to consider my complaint on the grounds that a remedial complaint must include a remedy, but the time that the situation could have been corrected was past. The synod response is available on the Presbytery of Boston website under “Newton AC” without the corresponding complaint, so the full complaint is included here:

Remedial Complaint
To: Rev. Nancy Talbot
Stated Clerk, Synod of the Northeast
5811 Heritage Landing Drive, 2nd Floor
East Syracuse, NY 13057-9360
CC: Rev. T. J. DeMarco
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of Boston
125 Holden Street
Worcester, MA 01606
Date: February 1, 2017

Complaint of an irregularity in an action of the Presbytery of Boston through its Administrative Commission for the Newton Presbyterian Church under D-6.0000

(a. The name of the complainant and the name of the respondent.)
Complainant: Rev. Dr. Jean Risley Respondent: Presbytery of Boston
The complainant is a teaching elder enrolled as a member of the Presbytery of Boston concerning an irregularity during that period of enrollment, against the presbytery, with the synod.

(b. The particular irregularity including the date, place, and circumstances thereof; or the particular delinquency including the dates of the written request to cure the delinquency and of the next meeting at which the respondent failed to do so.)
On December 13, 2016, the Administrative Commission formed by the Presbytery on November 14, 2016 held its first meeting with the session of the Newton Presbyterian Church. At that meeting, the Commission stated that “Under no circumstances will the NPC be dismissed to the ECC because it is not a Reformed Church” and that it would not discuss with the session any related matters. Members of the Commission indicated that their purpose was instead to respond to “a letter from members of the NPC congregation about the Session and request for the Presbytery to Assume Original Jurisdiction of the Church.” This action incorporated several critical errors.

First, only a vote of the presbytery can make a determination of whether a particular organization can be considered a Reformed body, and no such vote had taken place. Other presbyteries within PCUSA, including Tampa Bay Presbytery in Florida, South Louisiana Presbytery, Sierra Blanca Presbytery in New Mexico, Central Washington Presbytery and Olympia Presbytery in Washington, and Cascades Presbytery in Oregon have dismissed churches to the ECC.

Second, on January 5, 2017, the Administrative Commission sent a letter to the session stating that they had voted unanimously that the church could not be dismissed to the ECC. The Commission had no authority to do this, since only a vote of the Presbytery itself can make this determination.

Third, members of the NPC session sent a letter to chair of the Commission and the Stated Clerk of the presbytery on January 10, 2017 explaining that based on the Authoritative Interpretation 07-13, only the Presbytery has the power to decide whether the ECC is a Reformed body. The request in this letter, “Please let us know if we can put this question on the docket for a future Presbytery of Boston meeting.” never received a response from either the Commission or the Stated Clerk.

Fourth, the first element in the charge to the Commission was “1. The Administrative Commission has the power to enter a time of discernment with the session and congregation and recommend next steps to the Presbytery.” The Commission did not at any time express any interest in interacting with the session in a discernment process, and instead said that they were not there to negotiate with the session or the congregation.

Fifth, the charge to the Commission does not mention investigation of any “letter or letters about the session.” The actions taken based on these unverified allegations are not within its charter.

Sixth, although the session repeatedly asked to see this letter, both in person and by email, the Commission did not provide any letter or any indication of its content to the session. Thus the accused were never told of what they were accused and were not given any opportunity to respond to the specific allegations made.

Seventh, The Stated Clerk of the Presbytery failed in his responsibility to refer these unknown allegations to the investigative processes provided in the Book of Order. The appropriate response of the Presbytery to such allegations is through the disciplinary process:

  • Judicial process (D-2.0101) is the means by which church discipline is implemented within the context of pastoral care and oversight. It is the exercise of authority by the councils of the church for a. the prevention and correction of irregularities and delinquencies by councils (Remedial Cases, D-6.0000).
  • When a letter including a complaint against a session comes to the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, the appropriate action is to initiate a process under the Rules of Discipline which is designed to provide fairness to accused and accuser:
  • A remedial case is initiated by the filing of a complaint with the stated clerk of the council having jurisdiction. (D-6.0102)
  • A complaint is a written statement alleging an irregularity in a particular decision or action, or alleging a delinquency. (D-2.0202)

Allowing the Administrative Commission to take an undisclosed role to respond to a complaint from members of a congregation is a violation of the processes provided in the Book of Order.

Eighth, The Administrative Commission failed to follow appropriate procedures in assuming original jurisdiction. According to the Book of Order (G-3.0303e), a presbytery can

e. assume original jurisdiction in any situation in which it determines that a session cannot exercise its authority. After a thorough investigation, and after full opportunity to be heard has been accorded to the session, the presbytery may conclude that the session of a congregation is unable or unwilling to manage wisely its affairs, and may appoint an administrative commission with the full power of session. This commission shall assume original jurisdiction of the existing session, if any, which shall cease to act until such time as the presbytery shall otherwise direct.

The session did not have a “full opportunity to be heard as session” and the Commission made their decision before they had completed their investigation, even before they had received and reviewed all the documents they requested from the session.

Ninth, the information provided by the Commission to the meeting of the presbytery on January 28, 2017 about these events contained significant information that was not correct. One example is that when the chair of the Commission was asked whether the Commission was in communication with the former session of the church, she replied that communication with them was “extremely difficult.” In fact, the session had repeatedly asked to communicate with the Commission, for example in the letter of January 23, 2017 which included:

7. Please acknowledge our multiple written letters to you to discuss these next steps.
8. In the interest of being efficient with time and money, please honor our prior request to identify somebody in the Presbytery of Boston with whom we should discuss next steps.
Please let us know with whom we can discuss these important matters.

In response to this letter, the Commission letter of January 26, 2017 said that they would only work with the minority “true church” group they had identified and also included:

Any written or verbal communications concerning the Newton Presbyterian Church should be sent to this Administrative Commission; mailed written communications should be sent to the AC at the office of the Presbytery of Boston at 169A Chestnut Street, Clinton, MA 01510. We will not engage in the confidential individual conversations concerning the Newton Presbyterian Church you have requested.

The former session has repeatedly tried to communicate with the Commission without success, despite the charge to the Commission to work together.

Tenth, the Commission violated their responsibility to preserve the unity of the church (F-1.0302a) by dividing the church and creating a portion of the congregation as a separate church without a sincere effort to discern the underlying unity within the congregation as a whole.

(c. The reasons for complaint of the irregularity or delinquency.)
This action on the part of the Presbytery’s Commission caused the session of the Newton Presbyterian Church to believe that there was no possibility of using ecclesiastical procedures to be dismissed to the Evangelical Covenant Church. As a result they began civil procedures to disaffiliate and transfer, which then led to the Commission assuming original jurisdiction, declaring schism, and defining a minority group to be the new true Newton Presbyterian Church.

(d. The interest or relationship of the complainant, showing why that party has a right to file the complaint.)
As interim pastor of Newton Presbyterian church from April 1, 2014 to April 30, 2015, Rev. Risley tried to lead a discernment process that would enable the church to stay together despite their many kinds of diversity (F-1.0403), an outcome that was desired by 93% of the respondents to the mission study survey in May, 2014. By refusing to consider the majority (75% to 80%) concerns or desire for dismissal to the ECC, the Commission precipitated the events that led to the division of the church, a violation of the commitment to the peace and unity in the body of Christ.

(e. The relief requested.)
That the Presbytery of Boston dismiss the Administrative Commission, return jurisdiction to the former session of the Newton Presbyterian Church, and consider dismissal of the Newton Presbyterian Church to the Evangelical Covenant Church.

(f. That a copy of the complaint has been delivered to the respondent by certified delivery or personal service.)

Complainant: Rev. Dr. Jean F. Risley __________________________________
Date: February 1, 2017