Another Game, Another Venue

You have to admit there is a certain synergy to The Big Game in the U.S. falling during Carnival. I will leave the liturgical and cultural significance of that as an exercise for the reader and instead turn my attention to another game and another venue here in Southern California.

A couple weeks ago I was delighted to read a column by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times – “Girl Scout’s project provides hope through hoops.” It was about a recreational basketball court built by Claire Dundee as the community service project for her Girl Scout Gold Award. She had taken a small piece of yard at a transient apartment complex and oversaw the construction project that turned it into a small but usable basketball court for the kids in the complex. Mr. Plaschke describes her accomplishment like this:

With her wits and will, during a six-month period that occasionally seemed like forever, Claire Dundee arranged and supervised the construction of a simple court that has been the answer to endless prayers. She initially did it to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, that organization’s highest honor, but eventually reaped far greater riches, restoring faith in adults skeptical of a teen’s determination and hope in kids who didn’t have a place to play.

She raised the money, convinced the contractor, dealt with the architect, eventually even pushed the wheelbarrow. In the beginning, she was so scared to phone strangers that she would write down a script before every call. But by the end, she was overseeing the pouring of the concrete.

Clair talked about the challenge saying:

“A lot of people said I was crazy,” she recalled. “But I knew something like that would last forever.”

The head of the construction company she worked with, Mansour Jahanbin of Oxford Construction, had this to say about the project and the boss:

“She was my boss,” Jahanbin said. “It was one of those projects that you start at a certain level, and it keeps getting bigger, but it was such a good thing, and she was so impressive, you can’t stop, you’ve got to finish it.”

And a mother at the project told of the importance of the play area and the impact it has had on her son:

“I can see a smile on his face, a change in him, he can come downstairs and just play and be a kid,” she said. “Who knew a court could be so important?”

So yes, Claire did it for the Gold Award, but the court itself is its own testimony in that place:

Yet the Girl Scout has stayed in the background, no initials carved in the concrete, no plaque anywhere, Dundee leaving no personal mark on the court other than her sweat. In fact, she says she’s not even finished, as she insists on painting the court green and adding official lines once it dries from the recent rains.

Read the whole story, I assure you it is worth it. And the LA Times thought enough of this story to put it on the front page of the Sunday sports section, above the fold.

And a personal note to conclude this post: I will acknowledge that this is the first time my post for The Big Game has strayed from American Football. But I did want to include a bit of back-story and why this story grabbed me on a whole lot of different levels. First, I have worked with the ministry that runs the housing complex while in grad school when my small group cooked a monthly meal for their homeless shelter. Second, my daughter also did her Gold Award project using sports, what the rest of the world calls football in her case, as she collected equipment and worked with kids at a community center operating out of a local church. Finally, I work with other projects like this all the time with the Boy Scouts. When I review a project for approval I always ask the young man “Why do you want to do this particular project?” Often that is an amazing insight into the life of that scout and what their passion is. There are a lot of amazing young people out there doing some great stuff for the community.

And so, if you are so inclined, enjoy The Big Game tomorrow. But remember that some of the other match ups out there may ultimately be more important.

Moderator Designate For The 2016 General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Ireland

In their own unique approach to choosing the Moderator of the next General Assembly, all the the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland meet simultaneously on the first Tuesday Rev-Frank-Sellarof February and chose their candidate from those on the official ballot. And so, having waited for the report from Church House in Belfast, we now know that The Rev. Frank Sellar will be the 177th Moderator of the General Assembly. And unlike the last few years, this vote was not even close with 18 of the 19 presbyteries endorsing Rev. Sellar.

In a post-election quote he says:

“It has been a huge privilege to have been involved in a lifetime of leadership in local congregations, south and north. I’m humbled that the wider church has trusted me with this responsibility, granting fresh opportunities of mission, which this year as Moderator of the General Assembly will bring, not only serving the wider church, but society throughout the whole of Ireland and further afield.”

Rev. Sellar is currently the pastor at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in East Belfast. A Belfast News Letter article last week described his theological leanings saying he is “an evangelical conservative.”

At this time I will note that one of his distinctions is that he has ministered in both the Republic of Ireland (“the south”) and in Northern Ireland – twenty years in the former and eleven years in the latter. And on a personal note I found it encouraging that his wife is an occupational therapist as I seem to accumulate physical and occupational therapists in my family.

I will write more tomorrow after the traditional statement and press conference as well as the local press reaction.

But, we do extend to Rev. Sellar our congratulations and prayers as he prepares to moderate the upcoming General Assembly as well as for his whole moderatorial year.

Ballot For The Moderator Designate Of The Presbyterian Church In Ireland General Assembly

About 24 hours from now the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will vote on who will be the Moderator Designate for the 2016 General Assembly. The ballot was announced last week and there are three nominees for the position. They are, in alphabetical order:

It is worth noting that Revs. Bell and Sellar were also on the ballot last year.

The nominees were covered in the Belfast Newsletter and the brief bios there include a notation of their theological leanings.

The lack of any women being nominated has been noted and was called out by The Rev. Dr. Ruth Patterson in a Belfast Telegraph column by Alf McCreary. Dr. Patterson was the first woman in any denomination to be ordained as a minister in Ireland and was twice on the Moderator ballot herself. No female nominee has yet to be elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCI. Mr. McCreary developed this theme a bit further in his column three days later where he talked about “How Presbyterians have lost ground over gender equality.”

So there is the prologue. We will be waiting tomorrow to hear the results of the presbytery voting and look forward to Wednesday morning’s traditional news conference.

Stay tuned…

A Great Way To Start Off The New Year

I wish to rise to a Point of Personal Privilege.

7389_10153855943714108_956908591976056144_nIt is a pleasure to congratulate my son Philip (yes he is a ruling elder so there is some connection to my usual theme) and his new wife Rachel on their marriage this past Saturday.

The ceremony was a witness to God and made even more so as it was officiated by Pastor Paul, a good friend of our family and one of the best preachers I know. From the “Dearly Beloved” on it was a witness to God’s faithfulness, power and grace.

It is a joy to have our family expand and our best wishes as Rachel and Philip’s long relationship enters a new phase and they are joined together in the covenant of marriage before God.

Thank you for this brief digression. We now return to our regular programming.

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.

 

Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.

 

Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.

 

Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.

 

Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.

 

Property

With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.

 

Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.

 

Refugees

In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.

 

Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.

 

Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.

 

So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

Sola Scriptura And A War On Christmas?

On this Fourth Day of Christmastide in the “Fools rush in” department, you might want to play along with me in a simple thought exercise.

Our starting presumption is Sola Scriptura – the good old Scripture Alone admonition of the Reformation.

Now given that let me ask “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

From the four Gospels we have four accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Yes, Mark is minimalist with the call of Isaiah to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And the account in John is more symbolic with “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us.” The accounts in Matthew and Luke, while more detailed, each have very different emphases.

So, based on Scripture, what are we celebrating?

Looking a little further, we can raise the question of when was Jesus born? I won’t go into the year as that is well worn territory and there are historical landmarks for that in the texts. The date of December 25 is a bit more problematic as there are really no solid clues as to the date of birth and even the date of December 25th has multiple possible origins.

So, based on Scripture, when should we be celebrating?

Finally, if we are to be guided by Scripture in our worship, what is the pattern we find of the early church for celebrating the nativity? The New Testament gives us no mention that it was a point of worship and it is not until the late second century that the church fathers make mention of trying to put a date on it. (Hint: the date is not certain and it certainly is not in December.) And then it is not until the early fourth century that a date becomes standardized and celebrations develop around it.

So, based on Scripture, how are we to be celebrating?

Therefore, based on Scripture alone, do we have enough evidence or direction to even be celebrating it?

Now, moving on from this thought exercise, is it any wonder that our predecessors in the Reformed branch in the Reformation, who were trying to recapture the basic core of the Christian faith and throw off all the human innovations of the intervening 1500 years, decided that the Feast of the Nativity could be dispensed with? There is no question that our modern celebration of it has issues, such as the good old question about whether the three gifts from the magi mean there were three magi or why we add the magi to all the characters in the stable scene when Matthew clearly states they found Jesus in a house.

But taking the long view – a trend I seem to be on at the moment – why do we take it as seriously we do? The Scottish Reformation led to Christmas not being celebrated until 1956 in Scotland and in the U.S. it was not a formal national civic holiday until 1870 although introduced in many states before then.

The churches that have the Second Helvetic Confession as a confessional standard, such as the PC(USA), are probably covered since Chapter 24 does provide for certain special days:

The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

But if your confessional standards include the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship of God you have an appendix in there that begins:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

This year the specter of the War On Christmas has been raised again. Personally, I have to chuckle a bit because my doctrinal heritage has been a long-standing war on the holy-day from the other perspective. Rather than being an attempt to remove the religion from the holiday it has been an effort to remove the holy-day from the religion. It is the view that Scripture is so important that if the event is not clearly defined in it then there is no warrant to celebrate it.

Let me take this moment to confess that I personally live in a tension about this holy-day. While I acknowledge all the difficulties and perspectives mentioned above I also recognize the importance of the fact the event did indeed occur and if we are to remember the conclusion and significance of Jesus’ earthly ministry it is also important to recognize the beginning of his earthly presence. It is not just a celebration of certain stories but a time to recognize the beginning of the Incarnation, the coming of Emmanuel – God With Us.

So, in whatever manner you celebrate this holiday, best wishes to you and yours as we remember the coming of him whose work was foretold throughout the Old Testament. And whether you celebrate this season or not, may we always remember that at one point in history God was present in this fallen world and would ultimately give up his human life as a sacrifice for us.

Postscript

First, let me acknowledge at this point that in most cases the five solas of the Reformation are considered mostly in matters of essential doctrine and are cited primarily in the matter of the doctrine of justification. As the Second Helvetic Confession passage above mentions the celebration of events from Scripture are, in the view of most, a matter of Christian liberty and not an essential. Further sola scriptura says that Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of doctrine and practice but again, as implied above, our understanding can be further informed by the subordinate standards of the creeds and confessions.

If you want other commentaries on this topic you might be interested in a through article titled The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism or a perspective published by the OPC titled Is Christmas Scriptural? which answers the question in the negative. And yesterday it turns out that Church Norris weighed in on aspects of this topic arguing that the lack of public observance of Christmas did not mean that Colonial and early American religious and civic leaders were not religious.

The Columba Declaration: A Statement Of Recognition and Cooperation Between The Church Of Scotland And The Church Of England

Late yesterday a joint announcement was made by the Church of Scotland and the Church of England that a Joint Study Group had refined an agreement, named the Columba Declaration, for mutual recognition and cooperation. This morning we have additional details and the full text of the document as the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have released a common statement.

A couple of background items for context. First, in case you wondered the declaration is named for Saint Columba, a 6th century monk from Ireland who founded the Iona monastery and did much to evangelize Scotland. The other item that people have joked about is that the British Monarch is way ahead of the churches in that while she or he is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England they are also an adherent of the Church of Scotland when they are up north.

The press release from the Church of Scotland says that the joint study group has been meeting for 15 years and the statement has been a working document for five. It also points out that the two churches have already been working on common projects such as the Church Mutual Credit Union as well as having a common interest in Fresh Expressions.

The importance of the report is highlighted in this excerpt

“Our hope is that joint affirmation by our two churches of The Columba Declaration would:

  • Affirm and strengthen our relationship at a time when it is likely to be particularly critical in the life of the United Kingdom;
  • Provide an effective framework for coordinating present partnership activities and for fostering new initiatives;
  • Enable us to speak and act together more effectively in the face of the missionary challenges of our generation.”

This was today’s front-page news in Scotland with stories by the BBC News, Herald Scotland, The Daily Mail, and The Telegraph. The story from the Telegraph contains some historical background including this paragraph:

Although virtually unimaginable now in a more secular age, the divide between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism was once one of the most deadly fault-lines in British history. The two groups emerged from the same tensions, around the interpretation of the Bible and issues of church and state, which ultimately fuelled the civil war across the British Isles in the 1640s.

It also has this quote from a former Moderator of the General Assembly that does a good job of providing context:

The Very Rev Dr Sheilagh Kesting, the Church of Scotland’s ecumenical officer, and a former Moderator, said: “This isn’t about union but about working across borders.

“This is putting a marker down saying our relationships are good; these are the things that are happening; this is why it is happening and why it should continue.

“We are accepting each other as we are in our diversity … there is still a wish on both sides that we could find a way, given that diversity, to recognise each other’s ministry fully.”

This agreement was also praised on the editorial page of the Herald with a piece that begins:

News that the Church of Scotland and Church of England have made a formal agreement to become ecumenical partners and to work jointly together on a variety of initiatives in future is little short of a religious revolution, the sort Calvin and Knox would have recognised as seismic. As befits our times, however, this historic step, outlined in a document called the Columba Declaration, has been taken not with great fanfare, but with quiet determination. The result of decades of deliberation and consultation, it has been distinguished by the thoughtfulness and lack of stridency for which the ecumenical movement is renowned.

For American Presbyterians, I would note that this agreement has some similarities to the various Full Communion agreements that the PC(USA) has but is is only a beginning and is not as extensive or complete of cooperation. In particular, ministers may serve in churches in the other branch recognizing each branches’ discipline, but that does not include stream-lined transfer of membership.

The Declaration will need the concurrence of the highest governing body of each denomination – the General Synod of the Church of England in February and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May. Each meeting will include an address by the presiding officer of the other church. We await the release of the full four-chapter report that will go to the councils.

The Columba Declaration is relatively short so here it is in its entirety:

THE COLUMBA DECLARATION

In the light of our common mission and context (chapter 1), our agreement in faith (chapter 2) and our significant opportunities for growing in partnership in mission (chapter 3), we recommend that our churches make the following Declaration.

We, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, make the following acknowledgements and commitments, which are interrelated.

a) Acknowledgements

(i) We acknowledge one another’s churches as churches belonging to the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ and truly participating in the apostolic ministry and mission of the whole people of God.

(ii) We acknowledge that in both our churches the word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion are rightly administered.

(iii) We acknowledge that both our churches share in the common confession of the apostolic faith.

(iv) We acknowledge that one another’s ordained ministries of word and sacraments are given by God as instruments of grace and we look forward to a time when growth in communion can be expressed in fuller unity that makes possible the interchangeability of ministers.

(v) We acknowledge that personal, collegial and communal oversight (episkope) is embodied and exercised in our churches in a variety of forms, as a visible sign expressing and serving the Church’s unity and continuity in apostolic life, mission and ministry.

b) Commitments

We commit ourselves to grow together in communion and to strengthen our partnership in mission. Through this commitment, we hope to enrich our continuing relationships with other churches in the United Kingdom and around the world. We will welcome opportunities to draw other churches into the activities and initiatives that we share.

As part of that commitment, we will continue to:

(i) pray for and with one another;

(ii) welcome one another’s members to each other’s worship as guests and receive one another’s members into the congregational life of each other’s churches where that is their desire;

(iii) explore opportunities for congregational partnership, formal as well as informal, in those cases where there are churches in close geographical proximity;

(iv) enable ordained ministers from one of our churches to exercise ministry in the other church, in accordance with the discipline of each church;

(vi) identify theological issues that arise from growth towards fuller communion and be prepared to allocate resources to addressing them;

(vii) work together on social, political and ethical issues that arise from our participation in public life and be prepared to allocate resources to joint initiatives for addressing them.

In order to assist our churches in living out the acknowledgements and commitments of the Columba Declaration, we will appoint Co-Chairs and members of a Church of Scotland – Church of England Contact Group, whose purpose will be to coordinate the different activities that make up our rich relationship and develop new initiatives where these may be needed. The Contact Group will meet at least annually and will report annually to the Council for Christian Unity in the Church of England and the Committee on Ecumenical Relations in the Church of Scotland.

Ballot For The Moderator Of The 142nd General Assembly (2016) Of The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Back at the beginning of the month the Principal Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in Canada announced the ballot for nominating the Moderator of the 142nd General Assembly. There are two names are on the ballot, a noticeably smaller number than the six on the ballot last year. Both gentlemen are pastors in parish ministry in the eastern part of the country. The information below is primarily drawn from the biographical sketches provided by the Principal Clerk’s office. The Presbyterian Record magazine will publish profiles of each in their January issue and I will update here as appropriate.

The Rev. J. Wesley Denyer is the pastor of the Rosedale Presbyterian Church in central Toronto. He has been there four and a half years and served previously in Brampton, Ont., Unionville, Ont., and Kirkland Lake, Ont. The Unionville position was a new church development and he helped grow the church and guide the construction of their first building.

His education includes a B.A. from the University of Toronto in psychology and an M.Div. from Knox College.

He has provided significant service to higher governing bodies including serving as a presbytery clerk and moderator and as convener of the Ministry Committee. At the national level he has served on a number of teams and committees including the New Church Development Committee and Assembly Council. He has also served as a member of the Knox College Board of Governors.

The bio also mentions that he considers his ministry style to be collaborative with congregational participation and transparency in decision making.

He and his wife, the Rev. Canon Dr. Judy Rois – who serves as Executive Director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada – have two adult children and two grandchildren.

The Rev. Douglas H. Rollwage has served as the pastor of Zion Presbyterian Church in Charlottetown, P.E.I., for almost 11 years. He holds a B.Th. from Queen’s Theological College (now Queen’s School of Religion) and an M.Div. from Knox College. (The bio is not specific about at which of the schools he earned an M.T.S.) He began his pastoral service at Strathcona Park Presbyterian Church in Kingston, Ont. Between there and Charlottetown he was the pastor at Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church in Scarborough in the Toronto Metro Area.

He has served the church locally as a presbytery moderator and nationally as a member of multiple committees including his current service on the Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee. He also serves as a resource person for the Assembly Office. He and his church are active with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank that provides food to those in need around the globe.

His bio talks about his leading pilgrimages to Israel, Turkey and Greece, an activity that has parallels in his current national committee service and which is highlighted on his Facebook page.

He and his wife Dana, a public school teacher, have two children, one a recent college graduate and the other still in college.

So our congratulations to Rev. Denyer and Rev. Rollwage for this recognition of their ecclesiastical skills and service and we look forward to revisiting this topic as additional events and information warrant.

The Long View Of Presbyterianism

ContinuingChurchSo this book was officially released yesterday. Through the efficiency of a shipper I received my copy a few days early and so far I have only had time to skim through it. It looks good, from what I have seen, and I hope to carve out a bit of time later in the month to more carefully read it.

But what I have found interesting in the lead up to this has been a certain amount of push-back I have gotten from several different quarters as I have unapologetically indicated my interest in, and anticipation of the book before its release. My overall interest in Presbyterianism and Presbyterian history is enough to justify my anticipation of this book. But it was further heightened earlier in the year when the author, Sean Michael Lucas, was featured in a documentary produced by Union Presbyterian Seminary called Division and Reunion.

The push-back I have received, both in general over my years of blogging and specifically regarding this book, usually can be boiled down to the statement of either “But they ordain (fill in the blank)” or “But they do not ordain (fill in the blank).”

So here is a response and why this book matters in either case.

First, it is easy to just view this as an academic exercise. I am interested in global Presbyterianism, history and polity. That alone is enough for me to be interested in this book.

But let me dig in a little deeper. Please note the subtitle of the book, “The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.” (emphasis added) What are those roots? It is predominantly the PCUS, one of the predecessor denominations of the current PC(USA). Hate to break it to some of the mainline folks but this is a book that is mostly about your roots too. The book has 12 chapters and is about 328 pages of narrative text. Of those, only two chapters and about 48 pages deal specifically with the actual formation and subsequent development of the PCA. Yes, most of the book deals with our shared heritage.

I am aware that a few objections can be raised about considering our shared heritage through this one book, one that it is written from a PCA perspective. Fair enough, and if I find it too heavily biased I will report that back to you when I write my final review. But based on the contributions by Professor Lucas to the documentary mentioned above I expect an academically honest and nuanced, if not neutral approach.

Another objection is that the PCUS was only part of the reunion and the PC(USA) has a lot of history from the northern side as well. (The PCUSA + UPCNA => UPCUSA line.) Again, a valid argument and again, I will find out more when I read it. But some of the more complex characters in the PC(USA) family tree, such as Robert Lewis Dabney and James Henry Thornwell, were part of the southern branch and it can be argued that their influence continues to the present day in both current branches. But to be fair, the book appears to start near the beginning of the twentieth century and neither Dabney’s nor Thornwell’s name appears in the index.

Finally, there is that doctrine and polity question about ordinations and a number of other differences. On this count let me remind you that the PCUSA began ordaining women as teaching elders in 1956, making that not quite six decades out of a history that spans over three centuries. Furthermore, ordination is evolving in other branches as well with women’s ordination becoming much more widely accepted in the EPC and questions being raised about deaconesses in the PCA. In the long view of American Presbyterianism there are a number of issues like this which have changed over the years with varying speed in different branches.

It will also be interesting to see what parallels and differences there might be between the PCA exodus from the PCUS and the current ECO exodus from the PC(USA). The Forward talks about the interest of the founders of the PCA to have a mainline denomination that was “characterized by biblical authority, doctrinal orthodoxy, experiential piety, and missionary zeal.” That sounds a lot like some of the core values of ECO.

I will acknowledge that there is another reason for some of the push-back. There is still concern and skepticism on the part of a few people I have spoken with about the way that the PCA/PCUS split played out that was very hurtful to them. In a few cases this is not just a continuing sore point but is still an open wound. I am curious to see how the book deals with that aspect of the formation of the PCA.

There is a final reason for taking an interest in this book and it gets down to something that is being talked about a lot in the PC(USA) right at the moment – Presbyterian Identity. The Epilogue to this book is titled Presbyterian Identity and the Presbyterian Church in America: 1973-2013. Again, the PCA identity and the PC(USA) identity developed out of some shared roots if not exactly the same roots. In his Forward, Ligon Duncan talks about the vision and legacy of the PCA concluding “Unwittingly, [the founders of the PCA] forged a body that has played a significant role in the resurgence of Calvinism at the end of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty-first.” But his next line is “Yes from the onset of its history, the PCA has struggled with its identity.”

In some regards the PC(USA) and the PCA may be more alike than they want to admit. One of the manifestations of their shared roots is the fact that both are currently struggling to come to terms with their past regarding racial ethnic ministries and social justice work and figure out how to move beyond that to become a more inclusive and diverse churches for the future.

I found it interesting in the Twitter chat on PC(USA) Identity a couple days ago that one person commented “while history is important we need to forget ‘the way things used to be.'” If I correctly understand what he had in mind I might rather say that we need to move beyond the “seven last words of the church” – we’ve never done it that way before – but we need to realize how much of our present identity is shaped by our roots and how much we need to understand those to move beyond them in the future.

That is to say, I think we really do need the long view of American Presbyterianism because if we focus only on the last couple decades we miss a lot of the struggles, the high points and low points that shape our identity as American Presbyterians today. Looking forward to seeing if this book will help inform our knowledge of that history.

Note: Thanks to the reader who pointed out that I was not as precise as I had intended. The PCUSA began ordaining women at teaching elders in 1956 but it was a progressive move with ordination as deacons and ruling elders in the 1930’s. The above text has been modified to be more precise.

Thank You Alice

I spent this past weekend with my family back east and when I arrived Friday night I found out that the schedule included a memorial service that my dad was planning to attend at church the next day. Initially I thought that I would probably not go but when I spoke with my dad the next morning and found out the service was for Alice Gabriels there was nothing to decide. I had to be at the service for Alice.

Alice was a friend of mine from growing up in the church. She was always around and involved with the children and youth programs and was a chaperon on our Junior High youth group trip. As I went back and visited each year with my own family Alice was there to greet us and take an interest in my kids. And I looked forward to seeing her and made it a point seek her out. She was a ruling elder, having served on session multiple times as well as many committees and groups within the church.

Professionally, she had been a social worker and upon retirement had actively volunteered in various classrooms around the city as well as for organizations of interest to her. In her spare time, when she was not volunteering one place or another, she enjoyed folk dancing.

At the service the gathered community spent a significant amount of time remembering her as there were many stories to tell. I will tell you one of mine in a minute. But as one of the speakers said, “God made each one of us unique. And then there was Alice.”

You also need to know that Alice grew up in an observant Jewish family in Holland. During the German occupation of the country the family split up and went into hiding. After the war when they reunited Alice found her two siblings had survived but their parents had been betrayed and died in Auschwitz. Alice chose not to remain in Holland but to immigrate to the States sponsored by her uncle who was already living there. While the siblings scattered geographically they remained in close touch through the years and the service included readings from letters written by her sister and nieces.

Needless to say, Alice’s personal experience made her a powerful voice when social justice and human rights issues like immigration, oppression and racism arose. She was not shy about her life story and was glad to tell you if you asked. In those classrooms she volunteered in it was said “she would tell the young children about St. Nicholas and the older children about the Holocaust.”

One of my stories about her begins with the church sponsoring an Indonesian family that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The mother of the family spoke at the service about arriving at the airport knowing nobody and not knowing the language. But they did know Dutch, as Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, and Alice was there to greet them and provide one small piece of familiarity in what was otherwise a very confusing situation. Their oldest son was my age and was a friend of mine growing up.

Fast-forward to a few years back at the memorial service for the father of that family. I have a vivid memory of Alice getting up at the service and singing a hymn in Dutch to honor their heritage. I don’t know what she sang but I know the tune was Beecher so it could have been a Dutch version of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” While Alice had no problem speaking in front of groups, singing was a different matter. Talking with her after the service and thanking her for doing that, as she was clearly uncomfortable doing it, she acknowledged that but also expressed her respect for the gentleman being honored and felt that some tie to home should be offered.

Which brings me to the final question for today: What was the journey of an observant Jew to become a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church? From knowing Alice I was aware of two important pieces of this. The first was that when the family went into hiding they were hidden by fellow Dutch Christians and this dangerous act of sacrifice had a profound impression on her. The second was that when she found herself in Rochester, while she did have natural family in the area that had sponsored her, over the years the church became her family and in the community of faith she found support, identity and a sense of belonging. (And as a symbol of that, after the service there was no receiving line as we were all her family and we just gathered around cookies and some of her mementos to share stories.)

But during the service I found out about a third influence. As a young adult she had begun reading the New Testament and the stories of Jesus she found there also raised her interest and started to draw her in.

So on a side note, as we discuss the relative importance of the Proclamation of the Gospel, Nurture and Fellowship of the Children of God and Promotion of Social Righteousness, for Alice it was all three that combined to draw her into the Body of Christ.

Alice will be missed. I have lost a friend and a sister in Christ and look forward to being reunited before the throne of God. And in this week when Americans give thanks for what we have it is only appropriate to say “Thank you Alice” and thanks to God for her life and witness and the opportunity we had to know her.

As an acknowledgement of her heritage and history, a tie to her journey, the service concluded with a reading in Hebrew and then a unison reading in English of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.)
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
..

Amen.

[Ed. note: The title of this piece unapologetically borrowed from the title of Rev. Pat’s meditation at the service.]