PCANZ GA Says Ministers May Only Solemnize Marriage Between A Man And A Woman

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand concluded yesterday and in their final day of business the Assembly approved wording to be added to the Book of Order clarifying that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

At the present time the only reference I have found with details of this action is from the GA14 News for October 7 which links to a PDF copy of the press release.

Currently there is a Book of Order requirement for ordained leaders for faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman. There were proposals presented to the Assembly to change this as well as a proposal for congregations to fall out (their technical terminology) of this requirement if 2/3 of the congregation approves. None of these changes were approved by the Assembly.

From a polity wonk perspective the release gives the bare outlines of what happened so let’s drill down into the polity documents a bit.

The press release does mention the PCANZ Book of Order section discussing the standards for ordained office which says

(1A) Sexual relations outside marriage
In accordance with the supreme and subordinate standards of the Church, sessions, parish councils, presbyteries and united district councils shall not accept for training, license, ordain or induct anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman. In relation to homosexuality, and the interests of natural justice, this ruling shall not prejudice anyone who, as at 29 September 2006, had been accepted for training, licensed, ordained or inducted.

Regarding the new rule pertaining to conducting marriage ceremonies It seems that this sections on personal standards would not be the place to include such a rule. Reading over the Book of Order a bit it would seem that the first half of Chapter 6 where it talks about the nature, functions and responsibility of a minister would be a more suitable place to put it. Alternately, in the context of Church Councils in Chapter 7 there is some discussion of providing for worship and maybe it could be placed there.

But in light of this wild speculation on my part, as of now the only section of the Book of Order that specifically mentions marriage is section 9.1(1A) that is quoted above. Adding it to another section would be adding a specific requirement or responsibility in a section that currently is more general.

Now, the PCANZ does have a Directory for Worship as well. In their documents the Book of Order is similar to what several other branches refer to as the Form of Government section and the Directory for Worship stands as its own document. Under the Book of Order the Directory is authoritative in its own right and does have a section on marriage (section 4.11) that reflects the traditional Reformed four-fold nature of marriage and that marriage is between one man and one woman. (For the PC(USA) types it is very close to the wording in G-4.9001 that is currently being considered for replacement.)

So, another possible explanation is that the new wording on conducting marriages will be added to the Directory for Worship and the wording in the press release was simplified wording since most people are not polity wonks.

I do have a request into the PCANZ for clarification and amplification and if I receive a response I will update it here.

UPDATE: With thanks to Mr. Martin Baker, the Assembly Executive Secretary, for responding to my questions, a couple of interesting and unique points were brought out. The primary one is that while the special legislation will probably be added to Chapter 6, the exact placement is not handled by the Assembly directly but will be determined at a future date by the Book of Order Advisory Committee.  He also confirmed that the act was passed ad interim so it goes into effect immediately, and that there will be no changes to 9.1(1A) from this Assembly. Thanks for the response and now we see about the concurrence from the wider church.

In addition, the changes to the Book of Order follow the opposite model from what American Presbyterians are used to as the rule goes into effect right away and is later removed if the presbyteries do not agree.

The press release also adds that the Assembly “decided against establishing a special commission on diversity to facilitate a programme of informed study on matters relating to sexuality in leadership and the conduct of marriage including liberty of conscience.”

It is worth noting in closing that one church, St. Andrew’s on the Terrace in Wellington very quickly issued a press release declaring that they would defy the ban. As the article says:

“This decision is deeply disturbing and we strongly dissent from it” says St Andrew’s Parish Convenor, Sonia Groes-Petrie. “The Presbyterian tradition is for ministers to have freedom to make decisions about whom they will marry. There is a range of opinions on same-sex marriage within the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and today’s decision does not reflect that diversity.”

This has a ways to go so we will see how it develops.

UPDATE: A great piece on the General Assembly in general by Bruce Hamill is now available. He does focus on the process around the issues related to sexuality and talks a bit about the 200 commissioners who left the floor for the balance of the debate at one point in the proceedings, something I did not include above.

New Free Church Of Scotland Moderator-Designate

A couple of days ago the Free Church of Scotland announced that at the Commission of Assembly meeting the Rev. David Robertson of Dundee was selected as the Moderator-designate for the 2015 General Assembly.

Rev. Robertson is the pastor of St. Peters Free Church in Dundee and director of the Solas Center for Public Christianity.

Rev. Robertson has been at St. Peters for almost 22 years and in that time the congregation has grown from eight people to over two hundred on Sundays now. In addition St. Peters has a sister church plant in St. Andrews and there are plans for one in City of Discovery. His previous, and first, call was to Brora Free Church in Sutherland.

His nomination as the Moderator-designate is made even more notable in light of his life-threatening medical problems in 2011 requiring surgery on his stomach and lungs and a five week stay in the intensive care unit.

Reacting to the appointment, the Free Church article quotes Rev. Robertson as saying:

It is an honour and a privilege to be able to serve in this way, especially at such an exciting time for both the Free Church and Scotland.

We are a growing and developing church, reversing the trend in a society which is becoming increasingly secularised and in a nation which is seeing significant changes.

My hope is that the Free Church will continue to bring the Good News to all the people of Scotland and beyond and that the Lord will use us as salt and light to help his people, of whatever denomination, and to see Scotland return to its Christian foundations.

Typically, for a Moderator-designate article I would stop here giving my best wishes and prayers and be done. But those who are familiar with Rev. Robertson’s work know there is much more to the story. To the wider community in Scotland he may be the most recognized minister in the Free Church. As the press release says:

David is widely regarded as one of Scotland’s boldest Christian broadcasters, regularly taking on atheists at media and student union events, as well as an increasingly popular author on persuasive evangelism for Christians.

And maybe you recognize him from his blogging and tweeting as @theweeflea. And the paragraph above is being very diplomatic when it says “one of Scotland’s boldest.” He is not afraid to engage ANYONE for the cause of the Gospel and has developed a reputation for that which is viewed differently depending on your perspective.

There is a great insight into Rev. Robertson in an article in the Press and Journal where former Moderator Rev. David Meredith says of him:

David has the uncanny knack of speaking about the ‘elephant in the room’ and his recent illness, which brought him to the very gates of death, have made him impatient with cant and bluster.

He is a man who realises that life is brief and eternity is endless and I have no hesitation in saying that he is one of the most godly people I know.

In light of how he is viewed in various sectors of society I have been intrigued with how his nomination has been cast in the headlines. A few samples…

New Free Church of Scotland Moderator announced – Premier Christian Radio (Straight forward, no spin)

‘Visionary’ named as new moderator of Free Church – Press and Journal (But you have to read far into the article to realize those are probably not scare quotes but just requoting a description from the article?)

Outspoken Dundee minister named Free Church Moderator – Herald Scotland

Anti-gay minister named Free Church Moderator – KaleidoScot (Considering the Free Church’s ordination standards and position against same-sex marriage this news outlet could probably use this headline for any Free Church Moderator-designate. On the other hand, they consider Rev. Robertson’s outspoken nature particularly detrimental to the civility of the debate and sending a message to the Church of Scotland at this time.)

UPDATE: Regarding that last article, KaleidoScot has published a response from Rev. Robertson.

So as we look forward to the 2015 General Assembly we can probably say with some confidence that it will be an interesting year. Our prayers are with Rev. Robertson for the time of preparation, his work moderating the General Assembly and for his moderatorial year. Our congratulations and best wishes.

Presbyterian Church Of Aotearoa New Zealand 2014 Assembly Week

10398703_126651710107_3734627_nAs we find ourselves in October we have the opportunity for one last General Assembly this year as the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand gathers at Saint Kentigern College in Auckland.

But this gathering is different than years past as it puts more emphasis on community and less on business, having been rebranded as Assembly Week. (Actually, five days from 3 October to 7 October.)

F_6303_PRE_Assembly_Week_logo_Colour-01_MedThe Moderator-designate, Andrew Norton, describes the week on the web page:

This year for the first time the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is having an Assembly Week. One part of the Assembly Week will be what we have known as the General Assembly, this is where the discerning and decision making is done (by commissioners) – but that’s just the beginning!

Assembly Week will also have a full conference known as Inspiring Mission that is open to everyone within our Church family.

When General Assembly 2012 voted to have an Assembly Week and invited me to lead as moderator I started listening! I heard the cries of pain of how we have hurt one another through our debates, I heard expressions of hope that we could be a Church recaptured again by the mission of God and I heard the hunger for belonging and the thirst for inspiration and resourcing. It is my prayer that Assembly Week 2014 will touch and heal our hurts, will inspire us in God’s mission and nourish our souls in a community of prayer and belonging.

In addition to the usual business meetings of the Assembly there is another full program of Assembly week events, some of which run concurrently with the business. In addition, there are four speakers presenting keynote talks, headlined by the Rev. Dr. Steve Taylor, Principal of the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology in South Australia. The theme of his three studies, all drawn from the Gospel of Luke, will be “Hospitality – your place or mine?”

But wait, there is more… For the first time a National Youth Gathering will also be part of Assembly Week.

A lot going on, and in the midst of it all a General Assembly. Here is what you need to know:

  • Reports are for commissioners only and they can download them from the White Book page
  • Does not look like there will be live streaming or posted updates, but from one of the Assembly pages you can sign up for emailed updates. Keep an eye also on the News Archive page for meeting items that may be posted there. And there is a news feed on the Assembly Week site.
  • UPDATE: Daily news pages are being created like this one for Saturday (and did someone get mixed up on the date?)
  • However, if you want their polity documents the Statements of Faith and the Book of Order are available for download. The For Parishes page has a number of other resources that a GA Junkie might find interesting.

To follow along on social media probably the first place to start is the PCANZ Facebook Page. In addition, the new Moderator, Rev. Norton, has an official web site and blog that could make for interesting reading.

For Twitter, I am not aware of an official Twitter feed for the PCANZ and so far I have found little conversation about the meeting. I would point you to Jason Goroncy (@jasongoroncy) who is typically actively tweeting and who is using the hashtag #GA14 for the meeting. As usual, I will update if I see additional conversations of interest.

I look forward with interest to see how this larger gathering works out. It is an attractive idea and if the proper balance can be struck between the business meeting and the learning and inspirational workshops and events it will be a model worth repeating and exporting elsewhere.

Best wishes and our prayers are with you for the next few days.

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Second Half Of August 2014

Here are some of the items that caught my attention in the latter half of August…

This was a time of General Assemblies in African Presbyterian branches. Let me begin with a few headlines out of the 14th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana:

Handover establishment of 200 SHS to churches – Presby Moderator – from GhanaWeb; (SHS = Senior High Schools)

On Christian Education, “Yes” And “No,” Rt.-Rev. Martey – from GhanaWeb; (a comment on the above story by a Ghanian minister in the US)

In addition, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana held their General Assembly. Some interesting headlines from that:

New Moderator For E.P Church – from spyGhana; Reverend Dr Seth Senyo Agidi elected for a six year term

Elect Leaders Who Uphold Moral Values – Rt Rev Francis Amenu – from Ghana Broadcasting Corporation; comments by the outgoing Moderator

E.P Church to double membership in six years – from GhanaWeb; the growth goal for the church

EP Church to Adopt Witches’ Camps – from Ghana Broadcasting Corporation; this is an article with an overview of the GA and a later article from GhanaWeb focuses just on this issue and begins:  “The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana (EPCG) has adopted the Ngani Witches Camp, one of the witches’ camps in the Northern Region to support the inmates to liberate them from poverty. The people in the camps are mostly aged women who have been accused of witchcraft, and therefore, have been abandoned by their families and the society. Due to the neglect, they live in deplorable conditions as they lack basic amenities such as shelter and clothing, as well as food and water.”

Articles on the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria:

Presbyterian Church marks 168 years, urges unity – from Infos

Nigeria: Presbyterian Church Institutes Fund On Chibok Girls – from allAfrica; “The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria has announced that in keeping with the Church’s spirit of Christian charity and in support of President Goodluck Jonathan’s initiative in setting up a special Fund in aid of victims of Boko Haram insurgency and other social upheavals, the Church has set up a Fund toward the rehabilitation of the Chibok girls when they are eventually rescued.”

In other headlines:

Malawi: APM Hails Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP Church – from allAfrica; a positive meeting between church leaders and the country’s president looking for avenues of cooperation

Investors urged to be ethical - from GhanaWeb; Comments by the Moderator of the GA at the launch of a financial company

The Texas Historical Commission recognizes the First Presbyterian Church of Brazoria – from The Facts (subscription); the church gets a state historical marker

And finally, a high-profile change in Presbyterian media circles as Jack Haberer leaves his post as editor of the Presbyterian Outlook to return to parish ministry in Florida:

Breaking News Letters from The Presbyterian Outlook’s Editor Jack Haberer and Board of Directors President Christopher Edmonston – from The Presbyterian Outlook

Best wishes to Jack as he takes on this call.

Decision In Scotland

In just a few hours the citizens of Scotland will go to the polls to answer the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” According to the most recent polls “No” still leads, but by a statistically insignificant 4 percentage points while “Yes” has been rising rapidly in the last couple of weeks. So in a decision that is too close to call we will have to wait until 6 AM Friday in Scotland to know the results.

While at first glance this may seem like a political decision, the results carry consequences and uncertainty for the churches. The referendum is essentially asking whether to repeal the Treaty of Union of 1707 as adopted by the Acts of Union by Scotland and England. The Acts have 25 articles, some of which have been repealed individually. But Article 25, by far the longest, is the one that guarantees that Scotland will have their own religious identity and adopts the Presbyterian form of church government. The Article says in part:

And Her Majesty with advice and consent foresaid expressly Provides and Declares That the foresaid True Protestant Religion contained in the above-mentioned Confession of Faith with the form and purity of Worship presently in use within this Church and its Presbyterian Church Government and Discipline that is to say the Government of the Church by Kirk Sessions, Presbytries, Provincial Synods and Generall Assemblies all established by the forsaid Acts of Parliament pursuant to the Claim of Right shall Remain and Continue unalterable and that the said Presbyterian Government shall be the only Government of the Church within the Kingdom of Scotland.

It was the place of the Kirk in the national legislation that initially seemed to hold the attention of the Church of Scotland and at their 2013 General Assembly three committees reported on various aspects of independence and possible implications for the Kirk. Maybe the recommendation, or interpretation, that got the most traction was the idea that future monarchs should have a second coronation in Scotland. But also coming out of that Assembly was the idea that the Kirk would be involved in fostering respectful debate on the topic without taking a position on independence itself.

It was in this spirit that the Church of Scotland General Assembly this year set aside an afternoon for a public discussion in the Assembly Chamber. In the debate the Rev. Dr. Doug Gay of the University of Glasgow spoke for the yes position, Douglas Alexander MP spoke for the no side, and former Moderator of the General Assembly Alison Elliot OBE represented undecided voters and asked some probing questions on their behalf. A fourth speaker, John Sturrock QC, had the unenviable task of summarizing at the end.

The afternoon was lauded as a model of civil and respectful discussion on the topic and the video of the event has been preserved on the Kirk web site.

From watching the event I was struck by how it dealt with topics and issues of concern to the whole of Scotland in both the civil and secular realms. Yes, issues of social justice and themes of church and society were certainly present, but this was a discussion about the national implications.

[As an aside, it is clear from the polling numbers that the vast majority of those in Scotland do not view this decision as one of nationalism but of finding the better system.]

That evening there was a similar debate held at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Former Moderator of the General Assembly the Rev. Dr. John Ross presented the unionist side (no) while solicitor Mr. Neil D.M. MacLeod presented the nationalist (yes) side.

This debate formed a nice counter-point to the afternoon event as it focused on the religious implications of the vote. Among the points of discussion was Article 25 which I mentioned above and what would happen to churches and religious protections if a newly independent Scotland were writing a constitution from scratch. Here are a few of the arguments are presented in the article (here edited for length):

Setting out his position, Rev Dr John Ross said that in September “we run the risk of altering Scotland’s Christian landscape beyond recognition”.

The Glenurquhart and Fort Augustus minister explained: “Since the Reformation of 1560, Presbyterian Christianity’s place has been close to the centre of political and public life.

“For 450 years, through a formal compact between Church and state, Presbyterianism has helped shape our national destiny.

“Now in the name of inclusion and equality this ancient prerogative is to be repudiated.

“The fact of the matter is, that despite a majority of Scottish people considering themselves to be Christian, in a future independent Scotland, as a matter of public policy, and for the first time since the Reformation, Christianity is likely to be officially marginalised, deprived of its status as the national religion.”

On the other side…

Mr Neil DM Macleod responded: “Britain has promoted secularism, moral relativism and the cheapening of life.

“Abortion, Sunday Trading, the destruction of family life have led to a broken Britain.

“You have the choice of change for an uncertain future where a ‘no’ vote means the Church has no voice, where a growing pace of change will push the church to the fringe, and our influence is no better that a bowling club.

“Or you have the choice to vote ‘yes’ for positive change, where the church articulates a clear vision of the place it should have in the nation state; what other rights would we want to see, for example whether the church should advocate for protections for freedom of religion or freedom of worship.”

He concluded by saying change is coming to Scotland, and “the question is whether Church is willing to play its part in that process of change”.

As a follow-up the next morning the Assembly of the Free Church heard from Communities Minister Roseanna Cunningham who spoke positively of the place of religion  in a post-referendum Scotland. She expressed her assurance that the government wanted to work with Christian groups and that “the Scottish Government recognised the important role of the Church and the wider Christian community, even if they took a different position on legislative matters.”

In the time since the General Assemblies there have been a couple of notable developments. The first was in late August when a group of Church of Scotland ministers signed an open letter endorsing independence. While completely within their right to do as individuals the Moderator of the General Assembly did issue a statement to clarify that they were taking a personal position and the official position of the Kirk was neutrality on the issue.

The second development was another evening of respectful dialogue sponsored by the Church of Scotland. This time it was in Glasgow and carried live on stv. Again, the video is available through the Kirk web site.

From here the Church of Scotland is focusing on reconciliation following the referendum. This includes the Moderator giving a prayer for unity and message of reconciliation last Sunday that was broadcast on BBC radio, An appeal today to use a “ONE” logo as a sign of unity (although its resemblance to the yes logo is hard to overlook). And a message from the Moderator discussing his vision for reconciliation and how others can help, including his plans for a major service of reconciliation at St. Giles this coming Sunday with the anticipation that many of the major figures in the debate would participate. With the vote likely to be close and 97% of the electorate – which has been modified to include those down to age 16 – registered to participate, there are likely to be strong emotions afterwards. [UPDATE: As the day gets under way there are also many signs of understanding whatever the position of the neighbour or the outcome of the vote.]

The Free Church is also officially neutral but they have issued a piece on “How should Christians vote in the independence referendum?” that does not take sides but presents some Biblical principles to keep in mind. They also issued a second piece today on “Praying for Scotland.”

Finally, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland has taken the stand, laid out in a position paper, that both alternatives are flawed and their recommendation is to abstain from the vote.

So truly our prayers are with Scotland for the referendum vote tomorrow (actually it is already the 18th in Scotland as I publish this). May God guide the citizenry to discern wisely in what will be a historic and unique moment in their history.

But to close with something a bit lighter, the Herald ran a political cartoon today that probably sums up the feelings of much of the population, one way or another, on this day before the vote.

A Property Settlement In Texas

My most recent post was on “A Matter of Perspective.” Well, as I read the news from Texas yesterday there were certainly multiple perspectives, some might go as far as to call it spin, in the different accounts of a recent property settlement.

The news was that Highland Park Presbyterian Church and Grace Presbytery had reached a mediated settlement in a civil suit brought by the church that allows Highland Park to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians with its property. The headline in the press is that the monetary portion of the agreement has Highland Park paying the Presbytery $7.8 million in the settlement.

What initially caught my attention were the statements from each side with each one having a favorable spin. The church’s statement begins:

After much deliberation and prayer, last night HPPC’s elders, trustees and pastors unanimously approved the settlement agreement previously approved by Grace Presbytery over the ongoing property litigation. This resolves once and for all that the congregation of Highland Park Presbyterian Church owns and controls the assets of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, free and clear of any claims by the PC(USA). This result achieves HPPC’s goal in the litigation of clarifying its exclusive ownership and control of its property.

The Presbytery statement (which is reproduced on the PC(USA) news page) lede is:

Highland Park Presbyterian Church will pay $7.8 million to Grace Presbytery in order to obtain both a release of its obligations under the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s trust clause and ecclesiastical dismissal from the denomination.

And as you might expect you will not find the term “trust clause” in the church’s statement although it is mentioned by the pastor in his video on that page.

The other wording that caught my attention was how the monetary settlement was presented, or spun if you will. There is no question that it is $7.8 million and we are not told whether there is a breakdown for real estate, other assets and past or future per capita or mission giving. But the Presbytery describes the amount as “The $7.8 million settlement figure represents 26% of Highland Park’s “approximately thirty million dollars” of property, as alleged in Paragraph 18 of Highland Park’s amended petition filed in the lawsuit.” By contrast the church statement says “In the settlement, HPPC has agreed to pay Grace Presbytery $7.8 million, or 11% of the fair market value of the approximately $70 million of assets that were at issue in the litigation.”

And both sides cite their experts about the strength of their claims. In an April update the church says “Based on a review of HPPC records from 1925 through the most recent Texas Supreme Court rulings, Prof. Johanson states without a doubt that HPPC holds title to all of its church property and that none of it is subject to any trust agreement with the PC(USA) or Grace Presbytery.” Similarly, the presbytery settlement announcement has the line “Ultimately, three experts in Texas trust law retained by Grace Presbytery agreed that Highland Park’s agreement to hold its property in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination was enforceable under neutral principles of Texas law. ”

Since Highland Park initiated the lawsuit it is interesting to consider their reasons for settling at this time. The stated purpose of the lawsuit was to clarify the nature of the trust clause and ownership of their property under Texas law – something that is not clear at this time as I will discuss in a minute. A follow-up letter from the session provides some additional reasons including that the legal filing will provide a shield and time for the church to look at its options.

In the video statement from the Pastor and Head of Staff TE Bryan Dunagan regarding the settlement he does talk about the witness of the legal proceedings saying:

“We believe that it would not be a good witness to the community of Dallas to allow this litigation to run its course in the court system. Moving forward with a prolonged court battle would jeopardize our mission, our outreach efforts and our ongoing ministry for years to come.”

While I accept and respect that statement, for those of us that have been through this we know there are also plenty of practical reasons to settle. In particular it allows the church to put the case behind them and move on. It is also a matter of counting the cost: What are the chances of prevailing in the courts a couple of years from now versus what can we settle for now.

In the end each side seems to have gotten an important result. The church has gotten their dismissal with property from the PC(USA) and in the $7.8 million payment the presbytery – and by extension the denomination – has gotten a tacit acknowledgement of the trust clause.

Which brings us to the future of the trust clause in Texas…

The most advanced case regarding the trust clause and the application of Texas’ neutral principles test is a case in The Episcopal Church – Masterson and others v. Diocese of Northwest Texas and others. In the trial court the Diocese, representing The Episcopal Church, was granted summary judgement and on appeal it was affirmed. However, the Texas Supreme Court in their decision considered the issue in light of neutral principles, overturned the summary judgement and sent it back down to the trial court for a full hearing.

While Highland Park mentions this decision as a favorable sign for them in their early communication, I don’t think a particular church in a hierarchical denomination in Texas should jump to conclusions too quickly.

Let me begin by saying that I found the court decision, written by Justice Johnson, an interesting read and actually a great primer on the legal theories of church property law and their development.

When the decision gets to its final summary of Texas law, it says this (pg. 18-19, emphasis added):

The method by which this Court addressed the issues in [ a previous Texas case Brown v. Clark, 1909, ] remains the appropriate method for Texas courts to address such issues. Courts do not have jurisdiction to decide questions of an ecclesiastical or inherently religious nature, so as to those questions they must defer to decisions of appropriate ecclesiastical decision makers. But Texas courts are bound to exercise jurisdiction vested in them by the Texas Constitution and cannot delegate their judicial prerogative where jurisdiction exists. Properly exercising jurisdiction requires courts to apply neutral principles of law to non-ecclesiastical issues involving religious entities in the same manner as they apply those principles to other entities and issues. Thus, courts are to apply neutral principles of law to issues such as land titles, trusts, and corporate formation, governance, and dissolution, even when religious entities are involved.

We recognize that differences between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical issues will not always be distinct, and that many disputes of the type before us will require courts to analyze church documents and organizational structures to some degree. Further, deferring to decisions of ecclesiastical bodies in matters reserved to them by the First Amendment may, in some instances, effectively determine the property rights in question. See Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 709-10; Brown,116 S.W. at 364-65. Nevertheless, in our view the neutral principles methodology simply requires courts to conform to fundamental principles: they fulfill their constitutional obligation to exercise jurisdiction where it exists, yet refrain from exercising jurisdiction where it does not exist. The neutral principles methodology also respects and enforces the manner in which religious entities and their adherents choose to structure their organizations and their property rights in the same manner as those structures and rights are respected and enforced for other persons and entities.

As I read this decision, and particularly the highlighted section of the second paragraph, the high court seems to be leaving open the possibility that in a hierarchical denomination the ecclesiastical structure could be considered off limits to the courts and as such may  “…effectively determine the property rights in question.” This will of course have to go to trial in the Masterson case and then most likely be tested and interpreted on multiple rounds of appeal. But the hole the Texas Supreme Court decision seems to leave for ecclesiastical independence might be large enough that this decision is not a simple win for neutral principles but could be much more complicated.

So with Highland Park out of the legal mix that won’t be a Presbyterian test case for Texas, but it will be interesting to see how the Masterson case ends up as it winds its way back through the courts over the next couple of years.

So as each party in this dispute finds something positive in the settlement and the case is ultimately kept from going to trial, we wish them all well and we will see how the legal landscape in Texas develops.

UPDATE: After publishing this two other items were published that relate to this:

An article in the Christian Post has quotes from the church’s communications director and says that the $7.8 million figure was arrived at by taking the $70 million fair market value of the assets and taking 11% of that based on the percentage of members who voted “no”.

On the Layman website Carmen Fowler Laberge asks “Why did Highland Park settle?” and has an analysis much like mine above, although she reaches slightly different conclusions.

A Matter Of Perspective

Long-time readers of my blog probably understand that this was an exciting weekend for me. Between the increasing seismic activity beneath the glacier in Iceland the the possible volcanic eruption yesterday and then the northern California earthquake today there was a lot of active geologic activity. Yes, that is my actual profession – playing with Presbyterianism as I do on this blog is a side line.

Now, both of these are significant geologic events and the earthquake this morning in the Napa area is directly related to my research on California seismic hazard. But when these events occur I have to scratch my head a little bit about the perspective from here in the States (I can’t speak for readers in other parts of the world). As a specialist I see a bigger picture that is not present in the media accounts around me.

For example, where was the largest earthquake in the world this weekend? It was not Napa, but rather a 6.4 yesterday near Hacienda La Calera, Chile. Interestingly the reports so far indicate there were more injuries and more severe ones from the Napa quake than the Chile quake. Why so? If I had to make an educated judgement it would be that the population in Chile has been through enough large earthquakes over the years that building strength and population preparedness is better than for California. [Ed. Note - as I was editing this an M7.0 (preliminary) earthquake happened in Peru. See how much coverage that gets.]

But what about volcanoes, what’s up with them? Well, the most recent weekly bulletin from the Smithsonian/USGS Volcanic Activity Report lists 20 volcanoes in various stages of eruption. Some are ongoing like Kilauea which just keeps on erupting, doesn’t really explode and after a couple decades has pretty much cleared out all the structures that were in the area. But did you hear about Fuego in Guatemala? While it has rumbled for a while it had a particularly active phase earlier this month and the description in the Latin American Herald Tribune included these paragraphs:

GUATEMALA – Guatemala’s Fire volcano was spewing huge columns of ash and smoke in hourly eruptions as it came back to life after a period of moderate activity, officials reported.

and

The Insivumeh said the volcano was “belching out huge columns of grey ash” up to a height of 4,300 meters above sea level and at a distance of 12 kilometers (7½ miles).

The nearby villages of Morelia, Santa Sofia and Yepocapa were covered with ash from the eruptions.

Yes, there are people around the world that live in the shadow of perpetually active volcanoes.

And my point is…?

When I got into geology I had a professor who spoke of the “magic eyes of a geologist” and how we would never look at the scenery the same way again. He was absolutely correct – when I look at the landscape as a trained geologist I see things others don’t see and we may see the same things but I my training has me see them differently. And my family members in other disciplines are the same way as they see things through their lenses and filters.

Similarly with the news. I don’t watch a single news feed but actively seek out a variety sources of information about active geologic activity around the world. And right next to it I have my multiple sources of information regarding Presbyterians around the world for my hobby of writing this blog.

But the narrow focus of the mainstream media coverage around me this weekend reminded me of a number of things about perspective.

First, we must sometimes be deliberate in seeking out a broad range of sources to get the big picture.

Second, even with multiple sources our background, experiences and training impose on us lenses or filters that may help us see some or all of the situation more clearly or in a bigger context. In addition, at the same time we may see one part more clearly our increased focus in that area may distract us from other areas. [As a side note, this is the major strength of Presbyterianism as we bring the community together to listen to each other as we bring our own strengths to the table and then discern and decide as a group using all our collective talents and stories.]

Finally, even with deliberate effort we must recognize that we can not know everything, that we have limitations and blind spots, and graciously confess that and then look for opportunities to try to fill in those gaps.

When I originally outlined this reflection I was going to put in a case study here at the end but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader. As you have probably figured out this reflection is not really about earthquakes and volcanoes. It is about how we as the Body of Christ respond to the situations around us. There is so much going on in the world right now, so many situations where there are multiple points of view, some of which our filters and lenses let us understand and some where they get in the way. This is a challenge, maybe even a charge, to the reader to try to find a way to set filters and lenses aside, or redirect them, see another perspective in a situation, no matter how much you may not agree with it. The point is not agreement but rather understanding.

Update: Shortly after publishing this I came across a quote from Aristotle that may sum it up better – “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

May God bless your efforts at seeing things with a different perspective.

Presbyterian News Headlines For The First Half Of August 2014

With the GA Season winding down and my summer vacation behind me it seems time to resume the headlines posts. While I have delusions that I might get caught up back to when I dropped the posts for GA season, that will probably not happen. There were a couple of interesting items in that time period and I might do one major highlights piece, but we will see if that actually happens.

But for now, let’s turn to the first half of this month and what caught my attention.

A significant news thread in Europe was the centenary of the start of World War One and the involvement of the UK in that conflict. For a number of reasons I won’t go into several significant national commemorations were held in Scotland with the major involvement of the Church of Scotland.

Scotland commemorates World War One centenary (from BBC News Scotland)

Church of Scotland Moderator urges world leaders to learn from WW1 (from Ekklesia)

Across the Presbyterian branches there were calls for peace in Gaza

Gaza: Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland in plea for peace (from Belfast Telegraph)

Largest Presbyterian Denomination in US Demands Obama Push for Israeli-Hamas Ceasefire (from The Christian Post)

Head of Church of Scotland in plea for peace in Gaza (from Herald Scotland)

And in an interesting side note, that last headline brought some comments about how for Presbyterians that headline should have referred to the Moderator of the church since, as this letter to the editor points out, Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church:

The true head of the Kirk (letter to the editor in Herald Scotland)

An Irish minister who died in a tragic scuba accident is remembered

Deeply committed and straight-talking Presbyterian minister (from the Irish Times)

In Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, the historic Greyfriars Church of Scotland building was sold to a local businessman leading to some concern over the fate of the building. The new owner is having the building inspected to determine what it would take to preserve the building and possible uses while others are looking at possible paths to ensure preservation.

Greyfriars church sold (from Trinidad Express Newspapers)
‘I felt compelled to buy Greyfriars’ (from Trinidad Express Newspapers)
National Trust moves to protect historic Greyfriars Church (from Trinidad Express Newspapers)
I can’t make guarantees (from the Guardian)

Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, a church which was a leader in the sanctuary movement 30 years ago, is once again offering sanctuary to undocumented individuals.

Presbyterian church in Arizona offers sanctuary to undocumented migrant (from Reuters)

Also, from the PC(USA), a lawsuit that includes the denomination as a defendant

Minister’s lawsuit targets his own denomination over sexual abuse allegations (AP story in The Kansas City Star); “The Rev. Kris Schondelmeyer, a youth minister in Toledo, Ohio, is seeking unspecified damages in a lawsuit he filed against the Louisville, Ky.-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); First Presbyterian Church of Fulton, Mo.; the Missouri Union Presbytery in Jefferson City; and his alleged abuser, Jack Wayne Rogers.”

Finally, a profile of Doran, Minn., population 55, caught my attention because of the emphasis on the Presbyterian church and how it is the last remaining house of worship in town as well as a community gathering spot.

Doran, Minn.: Little town on the prairie (from the Daily News of Wahpeton, ND and Breckenridge, MN)

So until next time…

2014 National Youth Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland

NYA 14

National Youth Assembly 2014

It is once again the time of year for the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This annual meeting takes the deliberative process seriously and gathers the younger members of the church, those in the 17 to 25 age range, for a weekend of discussion and deliberation as well as connecting through some fun and fellowship.

And this is a milestone year for the Assembly as it meets for the 20th time. This year’s Moderator, Rachel Hutcheson, commented on the anniversary in the Kirk news article: “This forum, over 20 years, has become the best way for young people within the Church to have their voice heard.”

This year’s overall theme is “My Father’s House” and under that there will be four topics of discussion and debate that will form the recommendations that participants will take back to their churches and presbyteries and that will make up the NYA deliverance to the 2015 General Assembly. Those discussion topics are: How do we worship? How should the church spend it’s money? How can we do ministry intergenerationally? How will we support Christians in the Middle East? The workshop streams are titled Pray, Train, Do, Bible, Church.

The Assembly gets under way this evening, Friday 15 August, at Gartmore House in Stirlingshire, and will continue until Monday morning 18 August.

Some years live streaming is available but considering the meeting facilities and that I have seen no mention of streaming I don’t think it looks promising.

As for social media, it looks like Twitter will be the primary vehicle. There is the NYA account at @cosy_nya to watch as well as the official Church of Scotland feed (@churchscotland) and the official publication Life and Work (@cofslifeandwork). The hashtag is announced as #nya14. although I am seeing #nya2014 in use as well. As for individuals, the Moderator of this year’s Assembly is Rachel Hutcheson (@rach_hutcheson) and the Clerk is John Haston (@johndhaston). It is also worth following past Moderator Lynsey Martin (@lynsey1889). We will see who else might provide some interest insights.

UPDATE: One day in I would add the Rev. Liz Crumlish who is writing about NYA on her blog Journalling and tweets at @eacbug. And the #NYA2014 hashtag seems to be getting more use.

Advance coverage and information about this year’s Assembly includes the Church of Scotland article, another from their publication Life and Work, Information from the Resourcing Mission page, and the NYA 2014 flyer.

While there has been some live updates in the past on the COSY Blog, that was not active last year, but maybe it will be revived. Otherwise, we follow along on Twitter and wait for press releases, articles and next year’s Blue Book.

So our best wishes and prayers for a fun, enlightening, meaningful and productive experience for all the participants this year. And prayers for Rachel and John as they lead the body.

[Personal update: I am back from my summer vacation and getting back into the routine of writing so the blog will come alive again. I am also adjusting to the new blogging platform so if things are not as neat and orderly right away sorry about that and please bear with me.]

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Two Letters From The Third Of July

I have developed a significant respect for John Adams, the colonial lawyer who would serve the colonies and the new nation in many capacities including as its second president. He was not the charismatic leader like Washington or the Renaissance Man of Jefferson, but he was a hard-working, practical and principled individual and politician.

One example of his character was his agreeing to lead the defense of the the British soldiers who were tried for the Boston Massacre in 1770 because he felt that they deserved a fair trail.

Another place where his personality and qualities come through is in his very extensive correspondence with his wife Abagail during his many positions of public service which kept him away from home. I have come to value the extensive discussions and heartfelt emotions he shared with his partner in marriage.

To that point, on the Third of July, 1776, he wrote two letters to Abigail discussing the events of the previous day and expressing his views of them, the place of Divine Providence in them and what they would mean for the future.

Two paragraphs from the first letter:

Philadelphia, July 3, 1776

Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days.

When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been fill’d with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my judgment. — Time must determine. It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us. — The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great. I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter.– But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable [ as] the Faith may be, I firmly believe.

[Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Your Favour of June 17…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/]

The second letter of that date reflects more deeply on what the actions mean. While he begins by reflecting on the timing – the advantages of an earlier declaration and the benefits of the current timing – he concludes with this:

Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

[Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/]

And so to my American readers a Happy Second of July yesterday and a Happy Fourth of July tomorrow. May we indeed, as Adams suggests and foresees, celebrate it with “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty” as well as “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other…”