PC(USA) Membership Numbers For 2016

A couple of days ago the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the summary of statistics for 2016 and the corresponding narrative. This does of course provide new data points for my growing data set and gives me an opportunity for some statistical analysis which is, for me, a “source of innocent merriment.”

On the one hand, it is tempting to just tell you that if you read my analyses from the last couple of years you can move on since there is really nothing new in this year’s numbers. The bottom line is just about the same as 2015 and 2014 – number of churches down 2.0% and membership down 5.7%. OK, you are welcome to move on now if you want.

On the other hand, the commentary – some might refer to it as the spin – from the OGA invokes their new slogan, motto, mantra, tag line, I am not sure what they are calling it, regarding the PC(USA) that “We are not dying, we are Reforming.” There is an interesting statistical facet on that so in the second part I will drill down into that a bit.

But first, let’s run the numbers. Here is what I have for the last 24 years:

Year Num Churches Num Change % Change Num Members Num Change % Change
1993 11,416 -40 -0.3% 2,742,192 -38,214 -1.4%
1994 11,399 -17 -0.1% 2,698,262 -43,930 -1.6%
1995 11,361 -38 -0.3% 2,665,276 -32,986 -1.2%
1996 11,328 -33 -0.3% 2,631,466 -33,810 -1.3%
1997 11,295 -33 -0.3% 2,609,191 -22,275 -0.8%
1998 11,260 -35 -0.3% 2,587,674 -21,517 -0.8%
1999 11,216 -44 -0.4% 2,560,201 -27,473 -1.1%
2000 11,178 -38 -0.3% 2,525,330 -34,871 -1.4%
2001 11,141 -37 -0.3% 2,493,781 -31,549 -1.2%
2002 11,097 -44 -0.4% 2,451,969 -41,812 -1.7%
2003 11,064 -33 -0.3% 2,405,311 -46,658 -1.9%
2004 11,019 -45 -0.4% 2,362,136 -43,175 -1.8%
2005 10,959 -60 -0.5% 2,313,662 -48,474 -2.1%
2006 10,903 -56 -0.5% 2,267,118 -46,544 -2.0%
2007 10,820 -83 -0.8% 2,209,546 -57,572 -2.5%
2008 10,751 -69 -0.6% 2,140,165 -69,381 -3.1%
2009 10,657 -94 -0.9% 2,077,138 -63,027 -2.9%
2010 10,560 -97 -0.9% 2,016,091 -61.047 -2.9%
2011 10,466 -94 -0.9% 1,952,287 -63,804 -3.2%
2012 10,262 -204 -1.9% 1,849,496 -102,791 -5.3%
2013 10,038 -224 -2.2% 1,760,200 -89,296 -4.8%
2014 9,829 -209 -2.1% 1,667,767 -92,433 -5.2%
2015 9,642 -187 -1.9% 1,572,660 -95,107 -5.7%
2016 9,451 -191 -2.0% 1,482,767 -89,893 -5.7%

So what have we got? Both the number of churches and the number of members had a somewhat consistent decline for the first part of this time period through about 2004. The membership decline was creeping up but still hung below 2%/year. The rate of decline in the number of congregations was much more stable hanging a bit below 0.2%/year. Both then show a bit of a acceleration up to 2011 with the rate of church decline rising to just below 1%/year and the membership decline rising to a bit over 3%/year. Then in 2012 there was a rapid increase to a plateau that continues in the 2016 data. The rate of decline of the number of congregations has been right around 2.0%/year, the number for 2016, and the decline in total membership has generally been above 5%/year, with the 2016 number at 5.7%, a tie with the previous year for highest rate in the time period.

It is a bit interesting to see the headline of the narrative from the OGA: “PC(USA) membership decline continues but slows.” The answer to this headline is a bit of yes, and no. They are correct that in terms of net numbers the membership loss in 2016 is the lowest that it has been in three years. Good news? Not really, because as noted above the decreasing total membership number means there are fewer members to lose so the net number is magnified and the rate of decline, as expressed in percentage loss, is actually among the highest it has been.

Moving on, let me make some comments based on the slogan “We are not dying. We are Reforming.”

One important aspect of this is that the annual statistical reports and these summary statistics are more and more missing a developing component of the denomination. These reports reflect traditional congregations, but the PC(USA) is developing New Worshiping Communities which are not in the reports. While not yet substantial enough to offset the significant losses in the traditional congregations they do reflect one of the ways the denomination is trying to reform itself.

The second aspect, and one of the reasons I have posted the long timeline above, is what is happening to the denomination with the membership changes. Going back to 2000 I have the reports on categories of membership gains and losses. Members are gained through transfer, affirmation of faith, and “other.” Similarly, losses are counted in transfers to other churches, transfer to the Church Triumphant (id est, deaths), and again, the ever popular “other.” In the case of losses this can generally be though of as people who walk out the door and don’t come back.

So, at the end of 2000 the PC(USA) counted 2,525,330 members. In the intervening 16 years they gained 328,519 members by affirmation of faith of those 17 and younger. There were gains of 638,308 from affirmation of faith of those 18 and older. From transfers in it was 444,527 members gained and from other it was 200,440. So the total new members received in those 16 years was 1,611,794.

Going the other way, 573,098 were transferred to churches in other denominations, 528,030 joined the Church Triumphant, and 1,553,301 are in the other category. The total losses were 2,654,429. It is interesting to note that this is just slightly higher than the total membership in 2000. There is not much that can be done to stop, or induce to come back to church, the members lost to death, so the losses from transfers and walking away are 2,126,399.

My point, related to the reforming aspect, is that with turnover of this magnitude the PC(USA) of 2016 is not the same PC(USA) of 2000. That is not to say that aren’t some of those members from 2000 still around. But it must be acknowledged that unless there are a lot of people who leave and return the number that flow through the denomination is fairly high. (And I would note that there are some of the leave and return, as evidenced in my own church when there is a pastoral transition.)

If you want a graphical deception of how this develops with time, here is one that I put together. It is a bit simplistic because all losses come out of the year 2000 total membership (the “Base Membership” in the figure). And at any given time the total membership of the PC(USA) would be the Base Membership plus the Members Added – the top edge of the orange indicated by the arrow on the right side of the figure.

It is a simple model but it helps to show the interplay of the gains and losses how the losses build up with time. There is significant membership flow and so membership turnover is one way the PC(USA) is reforming.

If I find some time I might play around a bit with modeling this with more parameters. Definitely would make losses proportional between the Base Membership and the Members Added. Maybe add a bit of reentry into membership from the Other and Transfer Losses. And if the demographics of the latest Presbyterian Panel are reported some estimate could be made of the retention time in the denomination. (Yes, there is a reason this is starting to sound like an aquifer model.)

I will note in closing that on a first look I see no changes in trends in this year’s numbers compared to the last few years. One interesting trend that continues is the increase in the number of candidates ( 2014 – 562; 2015 – 632; 2016 – 653) and the decrease in the number of ordinations ( 2014 – 292; 2015 – 249; 2016 – 215). Watching the Church of Scotland General Assembly this week they have a number of empty charges (id est, called positions) and mentioned this over-supply in the PC(USA) as a possible source of trained pastors.

And so we look forward to the release of the detailed comparative statistics in the fall to get a better breakdown on some of these summary numbers. But for now, at least as I read the reported numbers, it appears to be a bit of status quo in the PC(USA).

Stay tuned…

And now back to our regularly scheduled General Assembly tracking.

2017 General Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland

Church_of_Scotland_LogoThe GA season is about to get busy…

Tomorrow morning the 2017 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will convene in Edinburgh for their annual week-long meeting. This is the mother church for us Presbyterians and while we now have a number of branches – the good old “split-P’s” – the Kirk can trace their Assemblies back to the original one in 1560.

So if you are interested in keeping track of the business and activities this year, here are the starting points:

  • There will be live streaming of the proceedings and you can connect to the stream appropriate for your device from the media page.
  • Most of the Documents pertaining to the Assembly are linked from the General Assembly Publications page. This includes the Proceedings and Reports volumes, known as the Blue Book in several different electronic formats including the traditional PDF as well as MOBI and EPUB formats for your eReaders. There is also a separate Order of Proceedings. The Daily Papers will contain late-breaking changes and are available on the Papers, minutes, letters, and speeches page. There is an option to subscribe to notifications of new documents being posted. In addition, there is a General Assembly App with versions for Apple iOS and Android.
  • Reports are also available individually from the Reports and minutes page.
  • If you need to refer to the documents about how they do this decently and in order most of those are linked from the Church Law page. This web page also used to have the useful “An Introduction to Practice and Procedure of the Church of Scotland” but it was being revised and seems to have disappeared. While dated, I have a copy of the 2009 Third Edition available from my Resources Site.
  • A brief order of the docketed events and reports can be found on the General Assembly 2017 page.
  • And from the media page there will be regular daily updates in print, audio and video if history serves. And as always, hosted by the Rev. Douglas Aitken.
  • UPDATE: There is also an official photo gallery of the Assembly

What we all want to know of course is how to follow along on social media and there will be no lack of that. You can begin with the Church of Scotland’s official Facebook page as well as the Facebook page for the National Youth Assembly.

On Twitter the starting point is the Kirk’s main feed at @churchscotland and the official hashtag #ga2017. There is an official account for the Moderator of the General Assembly, @churchmoderator, but during the Assembly we will have to see how much opportunity there will be to tweet. And the incoming Moderator, the Rev. Derek Browning, can be followed at his personal account, @DerekBrowning2. Similarly, the Church of Scotland Youth will likely be tweeting at @cosy_nya and the official account for the NYA Moderator, currently Andrew MacPherson, is at @NYAModerator. The church’s official publication, Life and Work, is also a good source for information on the web, on Facebook and on their Twitter feed @cofslifeandwork. In addition, while it is a personal account, you can follow the editor, Lynne McNeil, at @LifeWorkEditor.

I add to this list a semi-official account: I would expect the curated account Church Scotland Voices with weekly rotating contributors at @churchscovoices to be active at GA. And worth mentioning the Kirk innovative ministry incubator, Go For It (@GoForItCofS)

In suggesting personal accounts to follow, let me start with three past Moderators of the General Assembly. The first is the Very Reverend Lorna Hood who is always an interesting read at @revlornascot and has been very active the past few years with projects related to Srebrenica justice and remembrance and this past year has served on the Commission on Parliamentary Reform (@ParlyReform). The second is the Very Reverend Albert Bogle at @italker who has been getting some recent traction with the Sanctuary First ministry (@sanctuaryfirst) and whose charge is now related to online church. Finally, the Very Reverend Angus Morrison (@angusmorrison6) is an interesting and entertaining read and frequently tweets in Gaelic.

In suggesting other personal accounts let me begin with the Rev. Peter Nimmo of Inverness who is a member of the Church and Society Council (@ChurchSociety01) and always a good source of information at @peternimmo1. Others I regularly follow from the Kirk include Darren Philip (@darphilip), Alistair May (@AlistairMay), and Andrew Harris (@aharris2729) . Another who will probably weigh in, whether or not he is in Edinburgh, is Glasgow theologian Douglas Gay (@DougGay). Earlier this spring, in his three-part Chalmers Lectures, he presented some interesting ideas regarding the future of the church and how it might consider restructuring. I will update with more as the Assembly gets under way. (Well worth watching, by the way.)

UPDATE: Found that Peter Nimmo is now able to make the Assembly this year but still worth keeping an eye on his remote observations. Yes, @ChurchScoVoices is being curated by an Assembly commissioner, Scott Paget (@smpaget). Another interesting follow is Marc Falconer (@marcfalconer81) who is also blogging the meeting. And two others there an providing good insight and substantive updates are Louis Kinsey (@louiskinsey) and Paul Middleton (@DrPaulMiddleton).

Once again the Assembly will have its annual Heart and Soul festival on the Sunday afternoon of the Assembly week that will again be happening in Princes Street Gardens near the Assembly Hall. The theme of both the Assembly and the Heart and Soul event this year is “Word of Life,” a theme that has extended to the Assembly as a whole. It is reflected on the cover of the Blue Book and in advance of the meeting groups are encouraged to post a picture to social media with the hashtag #wordoflife. And again this year there will be link-ups with concurrent local Heart and Soul events throughout Scotland. The hashtag for the event will be #heartandsoul but it is worth noting that neither it, nor #wordoflife, are exclusive to this use. There are other fringe events throughout the week, including a public Speak Out event on Wednesday night in advance of the upcoming general election in the UK.

Concerning the business before the Assembly there is a nice summary of each report on the Life and Work site. Two items have hit the news in the days leading up to the Assembly. The first is the report of the Theological Forum, An Approach to the Theology of Same-Sex Marriage. The report presents the opinion that a theological basis does not exist to prohibit pastors from conducting same-sex marriages and recommends that the issue be sent to the Legal Questions Committee for action at a future GA. It also has as part of its deliverance to “Invite the Church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise individually and corporately and seek to do better.” The second item is a Joint Report on the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration. The document encourages all parties to work for a just peace in the region and recommends engaging with the Kairos Palestine document. While the report seeks to be balanced and honest about the history of the area, as with other statements about seeking peace in the area not all observers are positive about this report. The Theological Forum report will be the last one on Thursday and the Balfour Centenary is in the middle of the order of reports on Monday.

Lots of other interesting items coming up this year so have a look at the summaries. One that caught my attention is that the Assembly Arrangements Committee is planning to not just live stream the Assembly but to post the recordings for later viewing. The GA Junkies who, like me, are on the other side of the world thank you. [ed. note: And as a preview of coming attractions, I am seriously considering covering GA week in Edinburgh next year in person.]

So here we go as the busy part of General Assembly Season gets underway. There are more coming up in a couple days so there will be no shortage of options.

As for the Church of Scotland and all my friends there, and especially to the (almost) Rt. Rev. Browning, know that you have my prayers for your deliberations and public witness in the coming week. I look forward to watching every minute, even if by “tape delay.”

General Assembly Season 2017

It is May 1st – Already? We have once again returned to the date on my calendar that marks the beginning of the General Assembly Season. Where has the time gone?

This is simply the list – further detail will be necessary on a number of important and interesting items of business that will come before the GA’s this year.

As always, this is the line-up as I know it – I will update as I clarify additional Assembly and Synod meetings.

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62nd General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Taiwan
18-21 April 2017

 

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Synod
The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
2-4 May 2017
Mt. Druitt, N.S.W.

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Tasmania
16 May 2017 (begins)

 

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General Assembly
Church of Scotland
20-26 May 2017
Edinburgh

 

 

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General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
22-25 May, 2017
Edinburgh

 

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General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland
22-25 May 2017
Edinburgh

 

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General Assembly
United Free Church of Scotland
31 May – 2 June 2017
Perth

 

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84th General Assembly
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
31 May – 6 June 2017
Trinity Christian College
Palos Heights, Illinois

 

Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada_(logo)143rd General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Canada
4-7 June 2017
Queen’s University
Kingston, Ontario

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Ireland
5-9 June 2017
Belfast

 

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213th Stated Meeting of the General Synod
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
6-8 June 2017
Bonclarken
Flat Rock, North Carolina

 


45th General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in America
12-16 June 2017
Greensboro, North Carolina

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Queensland
18-22 June 2017
Fairholme College Toowoomba
Toowoomba
Note: The Presbyterian Church of South Australia will not hold an Assembly again this year and operates as a presbytery of PCQ

 

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142nd General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America
18-21 June 2017
Innisbrook Resort
Tampa, Florida
Concurrent with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church

 

cplogosmallwithtext200x200187th General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
18-23 June 2017
Innisbrook Resort
Tampa, Florida
Concurrent with Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America


37th General Assembly
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
20-23 June 2017
Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church
Fair Oaks, California

 

Reformed_Presbyterian_Church_of_North_America_(banner)

186th Synod
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America
28-30 June 2017
Indiana Wesleyan University
Marion, Indiana

 

 

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N.S.W. State Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Australia
in the State of New South Wales

3 July 2017 (begins)
Croydon, N.S.W.

 

NYA_0National Youth Assembly
Church of Scotland
21-24 July 2017
Stirlingshire
(Technically not a governing
body, but still an Assembly I track)

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81st General Synod
Bible Presbyterian Church
3-7 August 2017
Edmonton BPC, Edmonton, Alberta

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Victoria
9 – 13 October 2017

 

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Western Australia
27 October 2017

 

These are the ones that I am tracking at the moment. I will update as appropriate. If I have missed one, or have information wrong or incomplete, please provide the appropriate information and I will update the list.

And, to make the GA season complete here are two more items…

The first is the series of articles I wrote as an introduction to Presbyterian General Assemblies seven years ago. My GA 101 series consists of the following

GA101: Preface
GA101: Introduction – Why in the world would anybody want to do it this way?
GA101: Connectionalism – The Presbyterian Big Picture
GA101: The Cast of Characters – A score card to identify the players
GA101: The Moderator – All Things In Moderation
GA101: Where does the GA business come from? – Incoming!
GA101: Doing the business of GA — Decently and in Order

Yes, what started as a six part series expanded into seven completed articles with two more unfinished ones (still) in the queue.

And finally, on to the ridiculous. Lest we take ourselves too seriously, a couple years ago I had a little fun with the General Assembly and in the post passed along the GA drinking game and GA Bingo. In addition, Allan Edwards has posted an alternate Bingo card reflecting the polity of the Presbyterian Church in America and Neil MacLennan has created one that reflects the idiosyncrasies of the Church of Scotland. Please play responsibly. 😉

One other thing is that you may have noticed a new tab on the top navigation bar for a Calendar of Presbyterian and Reformed General Assemblies, Synods and Other Events. I have just begun to populate it but hope that within the week I will have most of the items in this post, plus a few more, entered into that calendar. It is an attempt to provide a resource for those times when someone asks about a GA date well before my May 1 date for publishing this list.

So GA Junkies, go for it. It is GA season so enjoy! May you have an exciting experience over the next few months of watching us do things decently and in order!

The Curious Case Of The Kuyper Prize

So apparently the tent is not that big…

But I am getting ahead of myself here.

First, in case you need the elevator pitch on what is happening, Princeton Theological Seminary announced that the Abraham Kuyper Lecture would be delivered by a Presbyterian pastor of some note, the Rev. Timothy Keller who is about to retire as the senior pastor of a church in New York City. A bit of a ruckus arose because TE Keller is apparently not the right type of Presbyterian pastor – it turns out that he is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. An initial attempt by the President of PTS, TE Craig Barnes, to explain the situation apparently did not help and so, with the gracious consent of both the Kuyper Committee and TE Keller the prize will not be awarded this year but in the interest of academic freedom and hearing a variety of voices Mr. Keller will still give the lecture.

When I initially heard about the prize I must admit that I was a bit surprised at the choice of Tim Keller. On the one hand, considering the description of the prize is:

The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society. A condition of the Prize is that the recipient deliver a lecture on a topic appropriate to the aims of the Center. This lecture normally opens the annual spring conference, which is usually on a related theme.

Tim Keller – with his pastoral and missiology work – has easily done this. He founded, developed and put a program of expansion in place for church planting in an urban setting. If you want a statistic here, his multi-site congregation is roughly half the size of the combined total of the 101 PC(USA) congregations around him in New York City Presbytery. He has left a mark on Manhattan of “social, political and cultural significance.” On the other hand, my jaw dropped a bit at the chutzpah of a unit of PTS inviting a Presbyterian of another flavor to give the lecture knowing that he did not share some of what are becoming essential tenets of the modern PC(USA). It was no surprise to me that the controversy broke out.

Several strong voices of opposition appeared on the internet regarding the decision and how TE Keller was a part of a religious tradition that, while Presbyterian in governance, did not model the inclusiveness now expected in the PC(USA) and at its seminaries. Exempli gratia: Carol Howard Merritt, Traci Smith, and a faculty, staff and alumni online petition.

On the other hand, I was appreciative of the Kuyper Center reaching out to TE Keller and although I understand the motivation behind the criticism I was saddened to see such a strong reaction. I will not deny his overall theological views and their incompatibility with the modern mainline, but I want to take a few steps back and consider all this in a wider temporal and spacial context. A few points came to mind.

First, the topic of the lecture is not about what we as American Presbyterians disagree on but on something which we share regarding the social impact of the church. I believe that the walls that American Presbyterians have put up in the name of orthodoxy do a disservice to the proclamation of the Gospel and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. (I sometimes wonder if we are a bit too much like an award winning heretic joke.)

Second, Tim Keller seems like a reasonable leader for those in the PC(USA) to reach out to if the point is to develop this dialog. Within each denomination the membership is spread across a range of opinions on any given issue and it is helpful to remember that within the PCA there are some who became a part of it when the Reformed Presbyterian Evangelical Synod merged with the PCA in 1982 and those from the RPES gave up their ordination of women. While TE Keller did not come in through that branch, his church has been the target of criticism for having deaconesses serving along side deacons in the church leadership. As the PC(USA) knows very well, church beliefs evolve and maybe an evolution will be seen in the PCA’s stance with time. And I dare say, we acknowledge there are those within the PC(USA) who do not affirm the latest moves towards inclusiveness and might there actually be a few individuals who are still not fully in favor of the ordination of women?

Finally, what does this controversy say to PC(USA) ecumenical partners, many in Latin America and Africa who still do not ordain women? Is this saying, there are certain non-negotiables in what we say presbyterianism means and you don’t fit it? Or is this broadcasting a double standard for what it means to be an American Presbyterian versus a global Presbyterian?

I should probably finish by saying there has been a lot of criticism of PTS for the flip-flop and to a wider audience I suspect the perception is turning out more negative than positive. Again, Exempli gratia: Owen Strachan, Denny Burk, and Rod Dreher. In the mainstream media there are stories from the Washington Times and the Deseret News picked up the RNS story. And it appears in Abrahan Kuyper’s homeland a Dutch news site has picked it up as well.

And so with that, we will see how this all goes. One commentator has even noted that Abraham Kuyper would not qualify for the prize named for him under these new unwritten expectations.

So how large is the tent? Hang on to your hats as we try to find out.

Brief Comment On The Central (now Alps Road) Presbyterian Church Decision, Athens, Georgia – The Exception That Proves The Rule

I began my previous property post on the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church court arguments with the reference to the cliché “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” This is a very apt phrase to keep in mind when dealing with church property cases because the law varies significantly between states and each case has its own particular circumstances. Earlier this month we got a very good example of this in a court decision from Athens, Georgia.

Being in Georgia the hierarchical church gets strong support as laid out in the 2011 state supreme court decision of Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Inc. v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, Inc. (Timberridge decision). The court wrote in the conclusion:

Like the trial court, we conclude that neutral principles of law demonstrate that an implied trust in favor of the PCUSA exists on the local church’s property to which TPC Inc. holds legal title. See Barber, 274 Ga. at 359; Crumbley, 243 Ga. at 345. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding to the contrary.

The critical word in that block is “implied,” sort of like “if you are a PC(USA) church than the trust clause applies to you – end of story.” Very few states have given this level of deference to hierarchical churches. But the latest decision shows that it is not necessarily that simple and it is probably best to wait on analysis until you have the data.

In the case of Central Presbyterian Church, now Alps Road Presbyterian Church, a decision was handed down earlier this month that made a preliminary award of the property to the congregation. [And our thanks to The Layman for posting a copy of the decision.] The difference in this case is the strong documentary evidence that from the highest levels of the PCUS and then PC(USA) the understanding was that the trust clause was a theological understanding. The section begins with this:

Testimony showed that CPC believed that its property rights were not going to be affected by the reunion (or by any amendments to the PCUS constitution pre-dating the 1983 merger containing similar trust language). This belief was informed by a 1981 letter written by Rev. James Andrews, the Stated Clerk of the PCUS at that time, regarding a similar trust clause proposed by PCUS. The letter stated that the new trust clause in the PCUS constitution would not change the Presbyterian Church’s historical position on property. He writes, “These amendments do not in any way change the fact that the congregation, in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., owns its own property.” (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. I). In 1982, Rev. Andrews affirmed the denomination’s position in a report to all of the PCUS commissioners. The report reads, “The language dealing with trust does not in any way establish any kind of an encumbrance on church property as that term is understood in connection with real estate.” (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. K)

These communications, while not speaking directly to the PCUSA trust clause but
rather to the PCUS trust clause, are very important because in the Articles of Agreement
between PCUS and UPCUSA, PCUSA stated its intention to be bound by the representations
of its predecessor denominations. (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. G)

And that is just the start of that section.

The court clearly needed to address the Timberridge decision and how it relates to this one. The flavor of that finding is evident in the opening lines and since you know the bottom line of the case you can probably figure where the section goes from here:

In this case, there is a sharp conflict in the evidence as to the PCUSA mode of government (unlike in Timberridge where the parties agreed that the PCUSA was hierarchical). Petitioners presented evidence suggesting that the PCUSA structure of government is a hybrid congregational-hierarchical structure. Respondent’s witness testified that the PCUSA is hierarchical with a representational form of government.

Bottom line – take these property cases one at a time based on their own merits. Corollary – who knows what interesting material from American Presbyterian history may come to light in doing so. It will be interesting if we see more of those James Andrews quotes in the future.

I will leave it at that for today. From what I have been tracking there is a lot more property stuff in the pipeline and we will see where all this leads.

Stay tuned…

Musings On The News Report Of The First Presbyterian Church Of Bethlehem Property Arguments Yesterday

Once again, in the “where angels fear to tread” territory, I wanted to muse a bit and post some brief comments on the arguments in the Northampton County Court (PA) yesterday between the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Lehigh Presbytery, and the minority “stay” group.

The article from The Morning Call of Allentown is titled “Court arguments reveal deep divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.”

I am going to cast this in the light of the most recent case law for Presbyterian disputes over property in Pennsylvania right now, the 2014 Peters Creek decision.

And with those two inputs, maybe there is something appropriate to Mark Twain’s quip “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Now, it is worth noting that these were oral arguments to decide if this case needs to go to a full trial. The article quotes Judge Baratta as saying:

“I really would hate to render a decision at some point that’s going to hurt members of the community in matters of faith,” Baratta said. “If you’re getting close to a resolution I will do whatever I can to work with you, to push you over that line. But please, consider, 10 years from now when you look back on this, it may not be as difficult an issue as it is today.”

The argument from the majority of FPC Bethlehem is that the deeds do not mention the denomination and the church never explicitly accepted the PC(USA) Trust Clause. The judge responded “So you’re saying they didn’t really mean all of the Book of Order … only the parts they liked?” The majority’s lawyer responded that was an ecclesiastical question and not the scope of the civil courts. The judge replied that it could be looked at under neutral principles.

I must presume the judge has done his homework on this one. Part of the Peters Creek decision was laying out the boundaries of the neutral principles and the trust law related to the church trust clause. Under that decision it seems clear to me (reference Twain quote above) this court can deal with the property issue. Also under the Peters Creek decision a formal acceptance of the trust is not necessary but actions that would acknowledge PC(USA) ties and thus by inclusion the trust – like saying you are a PC(USA) church in your bylaws and charter and accepting the current Book of Order – are enough to demonstrate implicit acceptance of the trust clause. The decision quotes an earlier Presbyterian property decision that says (p. 19)

“In order for a court to find that a trust has been created, there must exist in the record clear and unambiguous language or conduct evidencing the intent to create a trust. No particular form of words or conduct is required to manifest the intention to create a trust. Such manifestation of intention may be written or spoken words or conduct indicating that settlor intended to create a trust.”

While a final decision in this matter would involve the close examination and history of the church’s bylaws, charter and property documents, the exchange between the judge and the lawyer is telling and may suggest that FPCB has a bit of an uphill battle on this.

But the initial questioning of the Presbytery’s lawyer was no less problematic. That revolved around the precedent that had been set and why three other churches were dismissed with property but FPCB has not yet been dismissed. The response was that a mutual agreement was reached in the other cases but was unable to be reached here. As noted above, the judge clearly hopes that something can be negotiated in this case and that it will not go to trial.

The lawyer for the minority was apparently there, according to the information in the article, to report back to the judge that while his initial order from November required the two groups to share the space the minority group had been running into problems with some of its activities.

My thanks to The Morning Call and their correspondent Sarah Wojcik for a good article. It is objective, balanced and tells the story with direct quotes while providing a reasonable national context for what is happening within Lehigh Presbytery.

But this was a preliminary hearing and to apply the situation in this case against the standard laid out in Peters Creek will require more documentation and that will come as admitted evidence if this does go to trial. From the little that was reported on from yesterday’s court appearances I would think the advantage goes to the presbytery but it is far to early to say that with any high degree of confidence.

So a decision, should one be necessary, should come within 90 days. The judge hopes this can be settled before then. As with much of what I discuss…

Stay tuned.

Moderator Designate For The Presbyterian Church In Ireland 2017 General Assembly

It is the first Tuesday in February and as I begin writing this the 19 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are meeting to independently vote on the nomination of the Moderator for this year’s General Assembly. There are four individuals who have qualified for the ballot:

  • Rev. Brian Boyd B.Sc., B.D., who has served as the pastor at Kells and Eskylane for the last 25 years. Ordained in 1986 he has served larger church including as convener of the Alcohol and Drug Education Committee.
  • Rev. Tony Davidson B.A. (Q.U.B.), B.D. (Aber.) became the pastor of First Armagh Presbyterian Church in 1994. He has extensive experience with the larger church having been the convener of the Irish Church Relations Committee, Inter-Church Relations Board, Church Relations Committee, and the Nomination Committee most recently.
  • Rev. Charles McMullen, M.A., M. Litt., B.D. currently serves at West Church, Bangor, where he has been since 1999. His service to the larger church includes serving as convener of the Magee Fund Scheme Committee, National and International Problems Committee, and Global Concerns Committee.
  • Rev. Noble McNeely,  B.Ed., B.D. is the pastor of First Holywood Presbyterian Church, a position he has held since 1997. He has been extensively involved in local and church-wide panels and has served as the the convener of the Youth Education and Mission Committee, City Area Committee, Ministerial Studies and Development Committee, Board of Christian Training, and the Council for Training in Ministry.

As a side note, it is a good reminder that the Presbyterian Church of Ireland does span the whole of the isle and while the headquarters is in Belfast in Norther Ireland, Rev. Boyd’s parish of Kells and a previous parish of Rev. Davidson in Limerick are both in the Republic of Ireland.

So the presbyteries have voted and we can say…

Congratulations to the Rev. Noble McNeely, pastor of First Holywood Presbyterian Church who has been endorsed by 10 of the 19 presbyteries. (Picture from his church web site.)

Rev. McNeely was ordained at Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast in 1982 and before being installed at Holywood also served at First Ballymoney.

He grew up in Crossgar and holds an Education degree from Stranmillis College, with a specialisation in jewellery and silversmithing. From college he taught Craft and Design at Deramore High School (now Balmoral High) in Belfast for two years. He then continued on and earned his B.D. from Union Theological College in 1981.

An interesting note on his wife, Florence, who is a physiotherapist. This is a similar line of work in the caring professions to Claire Sellar, the wife of the current Moderator, who is an occupational therapist. (Probably jumped out at me since my wife is also a physiotherapist.) Noble and Florence have three adult children.

Concerning his nomination, the official announcement quotes him as saying:

I am sincerely humbled. I have served the wider church in a number of roles and I see my nomination as Moderator as another opportunity to serve Christ and His church.

At the same time, I recognise the responsibility that has been entrusted to me and I pray that with God’s help and the prayers of the Church, I will be able to fulfil expectations.

While we expect Rev. McNeely to take over the @pcimoderator Twitter feed, he does have his own @mcneelynoble which is not heavily used. In addition, I could not find one for First Holywood, but the Young Life group there does have a slightly used one at @YLHolywood.

I would note that Rev. McNeely was the strong favorite in the voting with the other thee individuals fairly evenly splitting the remaining nine votes. (Boyd – 3, Davidson – 2, McMullen – 4)

We look forward to hearing more from the traditional press conference tomorrow morning and I will add links here following that event.

UPDATE: The press conference got good media coverage and reports can be read in the Belfast Telegraph – including a post with video clip – as well as the News Letter. Topics reflected in the coverage include a call for politicians to build bridges between the sides and his view, consistent with the current position of the church, that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Our congratulations to Rev. McNeely on his nomination and prayers and best wishes as he prepares for the Assembly and for his whole moderatorial year.

The World Is A Messy Place

As we settle down after Christmas dinner on this Lord’s Day I share with you a few thoughts from the last 24 hours. It was a period filled with worship at three different churches with three different styles and about as many theological perspectives. (Full disclosure: the pictures of the three churches below were all taken well before the service began.) Needless to say – considering the season – I heard the second chapter of Luke read three times.

One of the things that has always struck me about Luke’s writing is the historical details. His mention of specific figures outside of Israel lends an authenticity that was certainly intended by the author to give his audience some context for the events he narrates. In this part of the story he gives us the references to Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius.

But with the repeated readings I got a bit distracted and a couple of the Greek words in Luke 2:1 caught my attention so I got sidetracked into word studies. The first is the word for enrolled or registered – apographo. A technical term related to the census that conveys the official nature of it. As an interesting side-light, that word is used in only one place out side of Luke’s narrative and that is in Hebrews 12:23 where it speaks of the firstborn being registered with the assembly/church in Zion.

The second Greek word is oikoumene which is translated something like “the inhabited world.” The simple lexicon I had with me conveys the reference to the earlier Greek-speaking world and then the Roman world. The sense certainly seems to be to those considered civilized as opposed to the barbarians or to put it another way – us versus them.

Now I should be clear that I am working off my small lexicon and I look forward to exploring these words more with my more extensive ones. But for the moment I think this is enough to convey what struck me this weekend.

The idea is that Jesus was born into a messy world, in a small province of a big empire ruled from a city far away, with a governor to represent the rulers and a local king (admittedly Herod is mentioned mostly in Matthew and not Luke) who only retains power by the permission of the occupying rulers but has enough latitude to wield that power in horrific ways among the local population. The terms discussed above suggest official control, taxation and a sense of who is controlled, maybe even welcome, and who are the outsiders and not being controlled. Furthermore, we know from archaeology and hints later in the Gospels that there are multiple factions within the region that cooperate with the occupying forces to various extents to keep hold of power. And factions who want to get rid of the foreign powers by various levels of violence and terrorism. Yes, into this messy world God became incarnate in the form of a new born baby.

Why at that time we can not be certain – that is a matter for God’s sovereignty. But at this time, in this world we still have a lot of messy situations. Some of these situations are in places mentioned in the second chapter of Luke. Some of them are where others of us live. Some are messy in the sense of physical violence, some political turmoil, some racial discord, some due to corrupt institutions… the list goes on. The world is still a messy place, and we would be hard pressed to say if it is any more or less messy than the one Jesus was born into.

And yet, into our mess the Word is still with us. Born once in human form and subject to the social, economic and political forces of his time he overcame them not by force or political power as the world expected but by his spiritual and divine power exercised in the context of a messy world.

And so we find ourselves in a similar situation this Christmas: Much pain and hurt, much political uncertainty and frustration, much economic unevenness, and much social tension. And yet, the message of Christmas is that God was and is with us, gave his life for us and will come again.

Even so, Come, Lord Jesus

 

Presbyterian Presidents

While it was very tempting today to riff on Chesterton (“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”) or Psalm 20 (“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”) I decided on a different path. Instead, we have the potential for another self-identified Presbyterian to be elected the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government so I thought I would take a brief look at other Presbyterians in that position.

There are a number of lists of the religious affiliations of Presidents, including Wikipedia, Pew Research Center, and Adherents.com. From these lists, it is clear that the largest single group is the presidents who were Episcopalian with about eleven total. This is closely followed by the ten-ish Presbyterians. And coming to a fixed number is a bit challenging because of switching in their lifetimes.

But some presidents were life-long Presbyterians and easily identifiable with that denomination. These include:

  • Andrew Jackson, raised and self-identified as one his whole life, although he technically did not join a church until after he was president.
  • James Buchanan, raised and educated (Dickinson College) in a reflection of his Scots-Irish Presbyterian roots, but like Jackson did not officially join until later in life.
  • Grover Cleveland, a son of the manse but with age is reported to have become less devout
  • Benjamin Harrison, a lifelong and active Presbyterian. More on him a but further below.
  • Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse often held up as a model of Presbyterian presidents. However, being politically and academically active during the fundamentalist/modernist debates, he came down on the modernist side at a time when the PCUSA was still dominated by the conservatives.

Two presidents became notable Presbyterians later in life:

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose upbringing and earlier life included family participation with the River Brethren sect of the Mennonites and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his presidential years and especially in retirement at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church he was an active member.
  • Ronald Reagan, was raised in his mother’s Disciples of Christ church but after moving to southern California was associated with Bel-Air Presbyterian Church much of his adult life.

And three presidents drifted towards the Methodists:

  • James Knox Polk, whose middle name Knox reflects his mother’s Scottish roots and descent from John Knox’s brother. While raised Presbyterian, later in life he would identify with the Methodist church, although he would regularly attend Presbyterian services with his wife.
  • Ulysses S Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, I am lumping together as, at least according to Adherents.com, their paths are about the same. While accounts are not entirely consistent they both may have had Presbyterian connections early in their lives but they were not the most religiously active later and generally were more visible with their wives’ Methodist traditions.

It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln, while not an adherent to a religious institution, did regularly attend Presbyterian services with his more devout wife Mary.

Another interesting note is that Jame Madison, while never identifying as a Presbyterian, was a student of that great colonial-era Presbyterian scholar and theologian, John Witherspoon, at the College of New Jersey.

And speaking of the College of New Jersey, it is probably worth mentioning that the son and namesake of clergyman and second president of that institution, Aaron Burr, Sr., was a vice-president of the U.S., but these days is better known for a particular incident.

Let me return to Benjamin Harrison and his Presbyterian faith. While Wilson is held up as the Presbyterian scholar and academic, I enjoyed finding out more about Harrison and in the humble, day-to-day faith associated with the Calvinists he may be a better representative for what it means to be an active member of the church. For an interesting read on his faith there is an article by William C. Ringenberg, “Benjamin Harrison: The Religious Thought and Practice of a Presbyterian President.” While his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, is typically counted as a nominal Episcopalian, it was his grandmother, a strong Presbyterian, who helped raise him and left her mark. Upon graduation from college he considered a career in the ministry and while widely acknowledged as having the gift of oratory, his innate interpersonal skills were lacking and pastoral work would have been more challenging. He chose law, and politics, instead.

Throughout his life he was active in the local church, serving as a ruling elder, Sunday school instructor and other positions. Maybe the most telling statement in that article about his church activity is this:

A long-time usher, Ben passed the collection plate on both the last Sunday before going to Washington for his inauguaration [sic] and the first Sunday after he left office

Need I say more?

So as the first polls are about to close, will we have another self-identified Presbyterian become president? The experts say no, but it ain’t over until the voters have their say. We shall see.

Stay tuned
Postscript:

Reading through some of this stuff, it seemed to me that another interesting path to chase down could be Presbyterians who served as U.S. Secretary of State including such interesting political and Presbyterian names as William Jennings Bryan, John Foster Dulles and Condoleezza Rice. But I will leave that for another day.

Moderator Designate For The 2017 Church Of Scotland General Assembly

Rev Dr Derek BrowningTwo weeks ago the Presbyterian Mother Church – that would be the Church of Scotlandannounced that the Rev. Dr. Derek Browning had been selected as the Moderator Designate for their 2017 General Assembly in May.

Rev. Dr. Browning is no stranger to many in the Church of Scotland, especially those familiar with the Assembly, as he has had a regular presence on the platform as the Business Convener for several years now. (You can consult the picture at the end of this article.)

His primary call is as the minister at Morningside Parish Church in Edinburgh, having served there for the last 15 years. He began in pastoral ministry at Cupar Old and St Michael of Tarvit Parish Church in Fife in 1987.

He studied at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from which he ultimately completed a MA Honors History degree.  He did his ministerial training at St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews, and later completed a D.Min. at Princeton Theological Seminary.

His extended list of service to the church is too long to recite here, but it is worth noting that besides his service as convener of the Assembly Business Committee, he has served as a presbytery moderator and on the national Prayer and Devotion Committee as well as the Stewardship and Finance Committee. He has also served as the chair of the Board of Directors at the Eric Liddell Centre.

It is noted in the announcement that in his work with the Assembly Arrangements Committee and the Business Committee, he has had significant responsibility for organizing the Heart And Soul event  that is held on the Sunday afternoon of Assembly Week. In the press release he is quoted as saying, “The theme for Heart and Soul 2017 is ‘Word of Life’ and this rich and layered theme speaks to me about many things but ‘inclusion’ is one of those words of life. The issue of social inclusion is a key one in society and the church.” He continues, “People find themselves excluded for all sorts of reasons and the Church must play a role in bridging the gaps between individuals, communities and nations. The Church has much to offer, and has much to learn. Jesus was often found not only at the heart and centre of things but also on the fringes and the margins and that is where the Church must be.”

The articles says “he believes social inclusion is clearly a “gospel issue” and hopes to use his time as Moderator to highlight ongoing work carried out by churches that support people on the margins of society.”

The article also speaks briefly of his faith journey and how as he was feeling pulled in multiple directions upon completing college, including working for the BBC in London or for Shell Oil. But, he knew he had to address his spiritual pull first. The article says:

“I was in my early 20s when I felt a call not only to be a Christian, but to become a minister,” he said.

“For some people this is a gradual realisation, but for me it was a sudden awakening that I couldn’t put off until I had dealt with the questions it posed, and explored the possibility.

“My ministry afterwards has stuck with those two themes: dealing with questions and exploring possibilities.”

The announcement was widely covered in Scotland with articles by the BBC Scotland, The Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra, Herald Scotland, The East Lothian Courier, The Edinburgh Reporter, and The Courier.

I will conclude with my personal congratulations to him. I had the pleasure of spending a week in June sitting in from of him (and he has posted a picture on Twitter which clearly demonstrates that I do not improve the view). It was a pleasure to get to know him at the PC(USA) General Assembly that week and trade snarky insightful remarks. Commissioners to the Kirk General Assembly, be aware that he has a sharp and dry wit. I look forward to following the proceedings.

So best wishes to Dr. Browning as he takes on this new role. I have every confidence he will bring as much honor to the office as it will bring to him. And prayers for this time as he prepares for his moderatorial year.

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[Editorial notes: Pictures from Dr. Browning’s Twitter feed (@DerekBrowning2) or from the week he spent curating the Church Scotland Voices Twitter feed (@churchscovoices).

In addition, my apologies for the delay getting this posted as well as an overall lack of posting. I have taken on a major responsibility that has dominated my time and I am afraid blogging will be a lower priority for the next 10 months. I will try to do what I can.]