In an historic vote Sunday morning, the largest Presbyterian church in Colorado voted overwhelmingly to leave its governing body and join a new, more conservative denomination.

An estimated 95.5 percent of the 1,769 congregants who cast ballots at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Colorado Springs voted to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA in favor of the newly-created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.

The new denomination was created with the help of First Presbyterian’s senior pastor Jim Singleton.

The final vote tally was 1689 church members in favor of the split with 80 opposed, the church announced during an evening service.

The shift to the new denomination may cause some members to leave, acknowledged Alison Murray, staff leader, after the results were announced.

“We grieve that and don’t want that to happen,” she said.

The church now has to try to identify those members who voted against the split and help them find new local churches within the Presbyterian Church, USA, if they want to leave, she said.

Church leaders counted almost 2,000 people present for the 9:45 a.m. vote, though not all were voting members.

“This is a powerful day for our church. It’s an historic day,” Dick Schultz, a church leader, told a crowd so large that it spilled out of the main sanctuary and filled other rooms in the building that had a video feed of the proceedings. “Days like this don’t happen by happenstance.”

First Presbyterian Church was founded in 1872, just one year after William Palmer founded Colorado Springs. The church has membership rolls of 3,900 and an average weekly attendance of 2,300 according to the Hartford Institute of Religious Research – making it the largest Presbyterian church in the state.

Sunday’s vote was the culmination of almost a year’s worth of work by church leaders who wanted to distance themselves from the Presbyterian Church USA. That organization voted in 2011 to allow openly gay ministers to be ordained, but First Presbyterian leaders say the divide is greater than just that issue – going back to a basic way that scriptures are read and interpreted.

“God has called us to respond to his call, step into something new and hold firm to our understanding of scripture,” Cindy Sparks, chair of the church’s Board of Trustees said Sunday morning.

For the vote to be valid, 33 percent of the church’s membership had to take part and 80 percent of those votes had to favor the split. Sunday’s vote easily met that threshold. The split isn’t quite official, however. That won’t happen until the Pueblo Presbytery, the regional organization the church is in, votes to release the church at its June 16 meeting.

Singleton told church members that there’s no reason to assume that the split wouldn’t be approved — the two groups have been negotiating the split for months.

When it happens, First Presbyterian Church plans to pay the presbytery membership payments for five years, as much as $700,000. The presbytery would agrees to relinquish its ownership of the church’s buildings.

The church was in favor of the split well before Sunday. In January, the church’s leadership team voted unanimously for the split. In early March, the general membership voted overwhelmingly for it in a straw poll.

Still, it was not without controversy in the church. At the Sunday morning vote, members were given a chance to discuss the vote they were about to make. Jane Leighty Justis told the congregation that she understood why the move was happening. With a masters degree in Christian Leadership from Fuller Seminary, she also understood the scriptural reasons for wanting to leave.

“I also have a gay daughter and I have been a recipient of the gracious things this church has done and the not-so-gracious,” she said.

She said she worried that if the church did separate that it would not continue to work hard to be welcoming to everyone.

“My fear for the church is to say that problem has passed,” she said.

Most of the church members who spoke during the discussion favored the split, and said they felt they were staying firm to their beliefs.

“This church is deciding to stand on the rock,” said one member. “PCUSA is moving away from the word of God.”

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