General Assembly Season 2016

May 1st – The date on my calendar that marks the beginning of the General Assembly Season. This is our binge year, or we max out on GA’s, as we can include the two biennial assemblies and the triennial one.

So buckle up and here we go.

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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61st General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Taiwan
29 March-1 April 2016

 

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Synod
The Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
3-5 May 2016
Mt. Druitt, N.S.W.

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Tasmania
10 May 2016 (begins)

 

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General Assembly
Church of Scotland
21-27 May 2016
Edinburgh

 

 

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General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)
23-26 May, 2016
Edinburgh

 

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General Assembly
Free Church of Scotland
23-26 May 2016
Edinburgh

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of South Australia
22 May 2016 (anticipated)

 

Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada_(logo)142nd General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Canada
3-6 June 2016
York University
Toronto, Ontario

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Ireland
6-10 June 2016
Belfast

 

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212th Stated Meeting of the General Synod
Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
7-9 June 2016
Bonclarken
Flat Rock, North Carolina

 

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General Assembly
United Free Church of Scotland
8-10 June 2016
Perth

 

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83rd General Assembly
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
8-14 June 2016
Sandy Cove Conference Center
North East, Maryland

 

logo+pcusa222nd General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
18-25 June 2016
Portland, Oregon

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Queensland
19-23 June 2016
Brisbane Boys College
Brisbane

 

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141st General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America

19-22 June 2016
Nashville, Tennessee
Concurrent with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church

 

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186th General Assembly
Cumberland Presbyterian Church
20-24 June 2016
Nashville, Tennessee
Concurrent with Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America

 

01645A81-A5D8-4EB1-9E4C30D14028D30744th General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in America
20-24 June 2016
Mobile, Alabama

 

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36th General Assembly
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
21-25 June 2016
Ward Church
Northville, Michigan

 

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Synod
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America
27-29 June 2016
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

4 July 2016 (begins)
Croydon, N.S.W.

 

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80th General Synod
Bible Presbyterian Church
4-9 August 2016
Sharonville, Ohio

NYA_0National Youth Assembly
Church of Scotland
19-22 August 2016
Stirlingshire
(Technically not a governing
body, but still an Assembly I track)

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Australia
12 September 2016 (begins)

 

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Victoria
3 October 2016

 

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church in Western Australia
28 October 2016
Peppermint Grove, WA

 

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General Assembly
Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand
15-19 November
University of Otago
Dunedin

 

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 to use or modify for your particular polity. Please play responsibly. 😉

So, for all the GA Junkies out there I wish you the best of GA seasons. May you enjoy the next few months of watching us do things decently and in order!

A Milestone…

I would like to rise to a point of personal privilege…

If you will indulge me for a couple minutes I would like to take some time to reflect on this blog.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my starting to write this strange little piece of niche social media. And looking back I am both surprised and comforted to see that my very first post was a list of several General Assemblies and General Synods in 2006.

I had previously done a series of daily web updates as a commissioner to the 209th General Assembly in 1997. I have preserved that web site and on the archived page from the PC(USA) you can see that they were kind enough to include my coverage, although that link is now dead. And while we might consider it a blog in today’s terminology, that is a word that was not coined until two years later, at least according to the OED. But to my knowledge, I was the first GA commissioner to be posting daily updates on the web during the Assembly.

Nine years later I moved on to this crazy social media technology called blogging. In the last ten years I have posted almost 1100 articles on this blog and while it seems to me that there are almost as many unfinished drafts the stats tell me it is actually an order of magnitude less. And looking at the categories, about two fifths of what I have written somehow involve the PC(USA), about one third somehow relate to a general assembly, and the Church of Scotland comes in a clear second in the denominations with almost one fifth of the posts mentioning them. In all, I have discussed 35 different Presbyterian and Reformed branches from around the world and through history.

It should be no surprise that if I have kept it up for this long I have enjoyed doing it. I view it as one of my hobbies, not as a job, and it helps me process the news and polity developments by studying and writing about them. And being only a hobby, I can write about what I want, how I want and as my time permits.

But the real payoff has been getting to know a good number of you, my regular readers, whether it be in person or virtually. In both the scientific as well as the Presbyterian parts of my life review by others, be it peers or higher governing bodies, is not only appreciated but expected. A sense of accountability is part of our system and comment and critique are appreciated forms of feedback.

Looking to the future I have a lot of ideas and a lot of GA’s I would like to attend. However, I still have my day job as well so I will get to all of them as time and finances permit. I am hoping to make it to Portland for the 222nd General Assembly of the PC(USA) and leading up to that I have appreciated the opportunity to branch out a bit and write some polity articles for the Presbyterian Outlook, one of which was published online yesterday.

So in conclusion, a big THANK YOU for joining me on this weird journey through the polity and news of global Presbyterianism. Thank you for not just reading this blog, but your interaction and encouragement. That has made it what it is.

And now I will return to my seat and thank you for allowing me the privilege of the floor for a few minutes.

Back to our usual presby-geek agenda.

Nominee For The Moderator Of The 142nd General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Canada

It is the first day of April and one of the more serious items we can look forward to on this day each year is the counting of the votes for the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Well the votes are in and this morning the Principal Clerk announced that the sole nominee to be placed before the 142nd General Assembly to serve as Moderator will be the Rev. Douglas H. Rollwage.

Douglas-Rollwage-300x349Rev. Rollwage currently serves as the pastor of Zion Presbyterian Church in Charlottetown, P.E.I., where he as been for 11 years. His ministry began at Strathcona Park Presbyterian Church in Kingston, Ont,. where he had grown up. Between there and Charlottetown he was the pastor at Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church in Scarborough in the Toronto Metro Area.

He holds a B.Th. from Queen’s Theological College (now Queen’s School of Religion) and an M.Div. from Knox College.

In his interview in the Presbyterian Record he shares some interesting glimpses into his faith journey. While coming to faith in a Pentecostal church and beginning his pastoral training in that direction he says “it soon became evident that the Pentecostals and I were not a great match for each other and to our mutual relief we parted ways.”

He goes on to talk about why:

“I’d say what brought me out [of the Pentecostal Church and into the Presbyterian Church] was as much a matter of my growing interest and awareness of church history, which within the Pentecostal church kinda ends with the end of the book of Acts and begins again in 1910. But for me the history of the church and our place within that history is deeply important in our identification as Christians. And so a tradition which was rooted in that history and respected that history was for me very important and that ultimately lead me to the Reformed faith, both in the teachings of Luther and the writings of Calvin.”

Since then Church History has been one of his passions and it is one he shares with others, particularly as he leads trips to Greece, Israel and Turkey, which is highlighted on his Facebook page.

These study tours have a significant synergy with another of his passions – Bible study. In the interview he talks about the importance of scripture and studying it.

“Presbyterians used to be famous for being rooted in the scriptures.” But, he says, “I think that we have moved away from what we once took for granted.”

“How many people in churches go to Bible study anymore?” he asks. “For me Bible study is more important than Sunday morning. Because on Sunday morning we’ve got, what, 20 minutes to give a sermon, to try and inspire and teach and comfort and lead and direct. In Bible study you’ve got an hour and half. You’ve got so much more time to do that plus you’ve got a level of interaction that you just can’t have on a Sunday morning.

“When I look at the leadership of my congregation, session members, board members, committee leaders—these are all people who have had their faith energized and strengthened through their participation in Bible study. That’s where the leadership is drawn from.”

And in what looks like foreshadowing his work as Moderator he continues:

“For us to move forward with credibility and with true spiritual relevance, I think we need to recapture our love for the Bible. It sounds very old fashioned. But I also think that the Bible is more relevant now than it was a generation ago.”

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.

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

He will be formally elected and installed on June 3 as the Assembly convenes at York University in Toronto.

So our congratulations and prayers for Rev. Rollwage for the work ahead. May you have the time to prepare for the Assembly, wisdom and discernment at you lead it and blessings and strength so that your moderatorial year may be a true extension of your ministry.

Church Of England General Synod Discusses The Columba Declaration Tomorrow

The General Synod of the Church of England began meeting today. While that fact alone may be of interest to polity wonks, for the GA Junkies this Synod meeting holds particular interest as they take up the matter of the Columba Declaration, a joint agreement with the Church of Scotland.

According to the agenda for the Synod the Report of the Church of England-Church of Scotland Joint Study Group will begin at 2:30 PM BST tomorrow, 16 February 2016. If you wish to follow along there is a livestream and there are Twitter accounts @c_of_e for the church and @synod for the Synod meeting itself. There is a #Synod hashtag to follow as well.

Of particular note is the address to the Synod by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Angus Morrison early on in the report. According to the Church of Scotland news article it is believed this is the first time a currently serving moderator has ever been given this privilege. In addition, Rt. Rev. and Mrs. Morrison will be the guests of Archbishop and Mrs. Welby at Lambeth Palace during their stay in London.

The action before the Synod has three parts: To welcome the report as a significant development between the two churches; To approve the Columba Declaration; And to request the Council for Christian Unity to oversee the implementation.

We will see how this goes tomorrow in London and we can expect to see reciprocal action at the Church of Scotland General Assembly in Edinburgh in May.

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.