By Stephanie Butzer
For Powell Sykes, the pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, everything started with a simple question from a member of his church: “How did this happen?”
The member was referring to how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination that the church belonged to had voted to remove standards of fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness for its officers.
“This departure from what Westminster understood to be clear biblical teaching was unfathomable to its members,” Sykes said. “Now, two years later, the congregation is about to become the first church in Burlington belonging to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination.”
When this was first discussed, Mike Stewart, a member at the church, said he was not surprised.
“I knew some of the concerns I had with the PC U.S.A. and when Pastor Sykes brought it up, it wasn’t surprising that our church needed to consider making a move from a denomination that we had less in common with to a denomination that we have more in common with when it comes to our biblical beliefs,” Stewart said.
The Westminster Presbyterian Church on Webb Avenue will become the second church to make the change in Alamance County. The Mebane Presbyterian Church switched in February.
The congregation had the opportunity not to follow Sykes, but they agreed with his points and have been involved in the long process. Sykes had to explain the reasoning and background for this decision many times and decided to write a book about it.
Sykes wrote, “Out of Order: The Self-Destruction of a Mainline Denomination” out of inspiration from the member’s question. It was published Nov. 16, 2012 and explains how the old denomination has more problems than just sexual ethics in the modern day.
“Pastor Sykes’ book gave a good, clear understanding of his concerns that mirrored my concerns and several other people’s within the church,” Stewart said.
Sykes had been pastoring for 25 years and the decision to leave the denomination was not an easy one.
“I love being in this denomination, but as the years went by it became very obvious that when I said I believed certain things and other people said they believed the same thing, they meant something different from what I meant,” Sykes said.
For example, he said when he said the phrase, “We submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ,” he interpreted this to mean that Jesus lived, died and rose again, while other people believed the phrase meant a Christ concept would appear.
Sykes compared this struggle to a married couple and discovering one of them has been cheating on the other. While both people took the same vows, one is defined as a liar.
“That’s a lot of the feeling that I have had to deal with over the past few years,” he said.
Sykes said in a world where birds of a feather flock together, the church must be a bizarre flock filled with “hawks and doves, peacocks and penguins, mockingbirds and chickens, and yes, even a few turkeys like me,” Sykes said.
Most of the members of the congregation at Westminster are convinced that in order to be a truthful to their faith, the denomination needed to be committed to the essential beliefs it had held since it was founded in 1913.
The congregation voted in February to request dismissal from Presbyterian Church (USA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
“Because its old presbytery adopted a gracious dismissal policy for churches in 2009, Westminster has been able to negotiate to keep all of its property, with which it will be dismissed, it is expected, in May of 2013,” Sykes said.
As of now, Sykes has heard little criticism. He has received letters and calls from around the country from people who explained how they had felt the same for a long time, but didn’t know how to say it, Sykes said.
“So far, I think it’s been really good,” said Janet Cumby, a church member. “There have been ups and downs; we’ve had our struggle. Anytime you get with a group of people and make changes, there are going to be struggles.”
Even though most of the process has remained positive, Sykes said he feels no joy for leaving the denomination.
“That’s not what I wanted to do, but I feel like the denomination left me, that I remain faithful to what I said I believe,” he said.