Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism – A New Documentary

Union Presbyterian Seminary has produced and released a new documentary, Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism. It can be viewed online or a DVD ordered through that page.

The brief description on the page talks about the documentary like this:

We are pleased to present Division and Reunion: a Reflection on American Presbyterianism, a documentary narrated by lifelong Presbyterian Dr. Condoleezza Rice. We at Union Presbyterian Seminary hope this film will be a learning tool and a way to build faith, showing how God works through reconciliation. Special thanks to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and the Anne Carter Robins and Walter R. Robins, Jr. Foundation for their support.

There are a couple of points in this description that struck me as I watched the video. The first is the use of the term reflection in the title. This is not a comprehensive documentary on American Presbyterianism, far from it. But it is a reflection on history of division and reunion in the mainstream branch. And since that is the focus you can understand why another word in that description – reconciliation – is emphasized throughout the piece.

An additional important point to be aware of at the onset is that between filming and the final title and description a bit of the focus seems to have shifted. While the title refers to American Presbyterianism, In their concluding comments both Dr. Rice and Dr. Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, refer to this as a look at the Southern Presbyterian Church. Watching the documentary again, it clearly is that with an emphasis on events and groups related to the old southern church. For example, when the Second Great Awakening and the Restoration Movement is discussed the focus is on Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge movement in Kentucky but no mention is made of the Campbells of Pennsylvania. Similarly, of the groups that split off from the mainstream in the 20th Century only the split in the southern church forming the PCA is mentioned, and northern divisions forming the OPC, BPC and EPC are not mentioned and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy is only alluded to.

But with that context and recognizing the focus I will say that I very much enjoyed watching this almost 45 minute reflection. For much of the first half it struck me as an enlightening history lesson by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas with thoughtful commentary by a variety of informed and diverse voices adding their historical perspective to the narrative. But, as I said above, it was not a history lesson per se but a collection of reflections around a few important moments. The second half picks up with the formation of the PCUS, or more precisely the PCCSA which would become the PCUS, and that branch remains the primary focus for the rest of the video. In that half we see much less of Dr. Lucas and the story is told more through the collective individual remembrances and the commentary. It is a story that is cast in such a way that the arc of the narrative necessarily brings you to the PCUS/UPCUSA reunion in Atlanta in 1983.

Within the tight focus I have already mentioned, I will say that I appreciated how Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge Revival was included. The origins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Presbyterians is frequently overlooked in these historical pieces and charts. On the other hand, mention is also made of the split of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in that same era, it is held on the running branch diagram for a bit and then disappears. Since this is about division and reunion I am surprised that the reunion with the CPC in 1906 was not included. Was it because it was a reunion with the northern church or because there was a minority who still have a continuing Cumberland church? Maybe even more intriguing is the history of the Cumberland Church and the closely associated African American branch, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, with the two branches currently on track for their own reunion shortly.

Finally, if this is about Southern Presbyterianism, it is worth noting that the Covenanter and Secession branch is not mentioned at all in the video. While its American expression began in the northern states this branch now finds it’s main concentration in the southern states with the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church headquartered in South Carolina.

In conclusion, let me confirm what many of you probably suspect and that is the fact that throughout the video there are subtle, and some not so subtle, references to where the PC(USA) finds itself today. If anything, this is a piece that looks at where the church has been and the fact that in many ways the present does not look too different from the past.

If you are looking for a comprehensive history of American Presbyterianism, this is not the video you are looking for. If you are interested in a thoughtful, interesting and at some points very honest reflection on a few pivotal points in the history of southern Presbyterians, you will probably find this time well spent.

PC(USA) Amendment 14-F Voting At The Midway Point

With ten more presbyteries voting on Amendment 14-F this past weekend the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has effectively reached the half-way point in voting on the amendment to the Directory for Worship section of the Book of Order which will change the definition of marriage. Of the 171 presbyteries, 84 have now voted and the presbyteries are clearly concurring as the unofficial tally now sits at 61 yes and 23 no. You can follow the voting at both the Covenant Network web site and the Presbyterian Laymen web site. The official tally from the Office of the General Assembly is at 37 to 16, but it lags the voting a bit because of the time necessary for notification to reach them.

If all you are here to find out is if 14-F will pass, my models have a 99%+ certainty it will (baring some very significant and unforeseen development). For the presbyteries that have voted so far eleven have switched their no vote from the last similar vote on 10-A to a yes on 14-F for a 32.3% conversion rate. In the opposite direction two have switched from yes to no giving a 4.0% conversion rate in that direction. Projecting that out it would give a final vote of 117 yes and 54 no.

But as regular readers know, the vote tally is only a small part of what I am really interested in. Let’s start drilling down and see what the numbers say about the PC(USA).

For my data I am using the numbers listed on the two unofficial web sites I linked to above. I am making one change from past years and now the totals will include reported abstentions where I disregarded them in the past.

Of the 84 presbyteries that have voted so far, 74 have recorded votes on 14-F but only 68 have recorded votes on both 14-F and 10-A.

In terms of summary statistics, the percentage yes vote on 14-F has both a median and mean of 59% while the percentage yes vote on 10-A has a median of 54% and a median of 56%.

For the vote totals to date, the ratio of 14-F votes to 10-A votes has a mean of 0.83 and a nearly identical median of 0.82. In other words the number of presbyters casting votes is down about 17%. Of the 68 presbyteries reporting both votes, eight of them had more votes on 14-F than 10-A, including Chicago by one. But using my rule of thumb of a 3% natural variation between meetings, seven presbyteries fell between 0.97 and 1.03 with Blackhawk just missing at 1.04. Three presbyteries were below unity and four above.

Considering the three presbyteries well outside this range, Holston’s ratio was 1.17, Philadelphia was 1.19 and San Diego was 1.13. Philadelphia voted yes while the other two voted no.

For the eleven presbyteries that switched from no to yes, ten had recorded votes and the median yes percentage went from 45% to 56%. But to argue that they lost a significant number of churches and that has swung the theological balance is a bit simplistic since the ratio of the total number of votes has an identical mean to the whole group (0.83) and in fact the median is higher at 0.86. As a group there is no disproportionate drop in numbers so if an exodus from the PC(USA) is invoked to explain a shift it must be accompanied by replacement of presbyters as well, at least across the group.

For comparison purposes, a ratio of 0.83 in the number of presbyters between 10-A and 14-F is identical to the decrease in the membership of the PC(USA) from 2010 to 2014 if the decrease in 2013 is also used to estimate the 2014 membership numbers. (The 2014 numbers are being collected now and will be released in a few months.)

OK, let me throw a couple of pretty pictures at you and then wrap this thing up.

Let’s begin with the frequency distribution of the Yes Vote Ratio for 10-A and 14-F. As a geek bonus, I have added to the plot the distribution for this year’s presbytery voting in the Church of Scotland on their act providing a way for ministers in same-sex relationships to be ordained and installed.

yesdistribution1

Distribution of yes vote ratios

For comparison, remember that the mean for 10-A was 0.54, for 14-F was 0.59 and the mean for the Church of Scotland vote was 0.53. Similarly, in the same order the medians are 0.56, 0.59 and 0.58.

It is striking that all three distributions show the very similar bimodal distribution with a low peak down around 0.35 to 0.40 and a high peak around 0.60. While shifts between 10-A and 14-F are apparent – such as the decrease in the 0.45 peak from 10-A to 14-F and the increase in 0.40 for 14-F, I am going to resist the temptation to analyze too much right at the moment.  I will leave that for another day.

For my second pretty picture here is the correlation between the yes ratios for the 10-A vote and the 14-F vote to date for 67 of the presbyteries.

yescorrelation1

Correlation of 10-A and 14-F yes voting.

For these data points there is a clear trend and a strong correlation. The R-squared is 0.78 and the cluster has a slope of 0.91 and a y-intercept of 0.09. This would argue that the difference between 10-A and 14-F voting is, taken as a whole, generally uniform with an increase in the number of yes votes by an average of 4.5%.

I do need to address one missing data point in this plot, which will provide a useful segue into asking if this plot is even relevant. I have dropped the data point for Stockton Presbytery from this plot because it was a very significant outlier with a 10-A yes value of 0.12 and a 14-F yes of 0.56 – the largest single vote swing so far. I do not know the specifics of presbyter representation in that presbytery although their ratio of 14-F to 10-A is 0.82 which is right on the mean for the group. The vote numbers themselves were 23/18 for 14-F and 6/44 for 10-A.

It is tempting to say that the drastic change in the vote is a product of drastic losses in the presbytery. But unlike other presbyteries in that position where yes voting stayed roughly the same and no votes decreased (e.g. Lake Erie which went from 36/44 to 35/26) the change for Stockton is a shift in votes, not a depletion of one side. One possibility is that there was a change in attitude since the last vote. Another is that the departures were more heavily weighted in loss of members and not churches so the shift represents those that stayed and took the place of departing presbyters. Or maybe, with the dismissal of churches the presbytery changed representation rules so the number of presbyters at meetings did not decrease by that much.

[UPDATE 2/25/15: After looking at some records and checking with a friend in Stockton Presbytery the answer is that to counteract the loss of eight of 21 churches the number of RE’s from each church were doubled. On the one hand, this explains the dramatic shift in the theological position. On the other hand much of this statistical analysis presumes no replacement of presbyters in this way.]

One final option is that the presbyters viewed 14-F as a different situation than 10-A, and that is the question that underlies any comparison of these two votes. Can they be compared in the manner I have been doing or should they stand as their own individual cases.

From a polity perspective it may be stretching it too far to consider the two comparable. 10-A dealt with ordination standards and was a change to the Form of Government section. On a basic level this is a question internal to the PC(USA) and is closely tied to our understanding of governance and call. In contrast, 14-F is a change to the Directory for Worship and while it has certain ties to polity it is as much an external discussion as same-sex marriage has quickly been accepted across our culture.

On the other hand, I would argue that they are comparable for one major reason: For both sides in the discussion when 10-A passed they made a point of highlighting marriage as the next step in equality and justice on one side or the erosion or orthodoxy and confessional standards on the other. For the last four years it seems that many people anticipated the vote on 14-F as the next logical step in the journey that the PC(USA) is on.

From the analysis above I would argue that 10-A and 14-F can be compared. Whether it be about the issues or about the overarching themes of equality or orthodoxy the similarity of distribution and strength of correlation suggest presbyters are generally approaching the two issues the same way.

So, as the data accumulates I will be continuing to crunch numbers and see what we can say about the PC(USA). There is no question that it is on a journey and it will be interesting to consider what these data are telling us about where that journey will be leading. We do know one piece of the journey is the reconfiguration of the Synods and maybe some presbyteries, so this may be the last amendment vote that we can do these incremental statistics. It will be interesting to see.

Stay tuned…

Moderator Designate For The Presbyterian Church In Ireland — Rev. Ian McNie

Today is the first Tuesday in February and that means it is the day that the nineteen presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland each gather and vote for their choice for the Moderator of the upcoming General Assembly.

This year, from a field of four candidates, they have nominated as the Moderator-designate for the 2015 General Assembly the Rev. Ian McNie. Rev. McNie received the endorsement of twelve of the presbyteries.

Rev. McNie is the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Ballymoney where he has led that parish for the last 23 years. From his brief bio we know that his previous position was at Kilkeel Presbyterian Church for 11 years. He has served the wider church as Moderator of the Synod of Armagh and Down and as convener of the Youth Centres Committee for seven years.

He was educated at Belfast Royal Academy and Queen’s University in Belfast, receiving his Bachelor of Divinity from the latter. He continued his ministerial training at Union Theological College. He and his wife Anne have two sons, one of whom is also a PCI minister.

In his comments following his election he spoke of his ministry:

“As a conservative evangelical, I recognise that we are living in the 21st Century and therefore seek to steer the congregation in such a way that we do not cling to the traditions of the past, but seek to be relevant today. At the same time, I also recognise that the truth of the Gospel has not changed and we should not allow society to pressure us into departing from the core values of the Scriptures.”

In talking about the year ahead he said

“During my year of office I would hope to be given the opportunity to present the Gospel in many different situations, both within the church and community, to learn from the experiences of others and to encourage congregations to be pro-active in their presentation of the Word of God. I would also look forward to the opportunity to encourage ministers and their families, particularly those who have just started their ministry.”

It is worth noting that in this election there was once again some anticipation of whether the church might get its first female Moderator. But while the Rev. Liz Hughes of Whitehouse did come in second in the voting, it was a distant second with four votes. She placed similarly last year peaking at six votes last year and in both rounds she tied with Rev. McNie. There were three presbyteries that voted for her again this year and while losing three to other candidates did pick up one new one. As the old sports cliché goes, maybe next year.

But for this year we congratulate Rev. McNie on his nomination and offer our prayers as he prepares for the Assembly and Moderates it. His installation will be on June 1 and we wish him the best for his moderatorial year.

UPDATE (4 Feb 15): Well this got interesting really fast…

Rev. McNie started making the media rounds this morning and speaking on a BBC NI broadcast he said:

“Those who are not all that in favour, if you want to put it like that, of women’s ordination don’t hold that point of view from the position of personal preference,” he told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster.

“They hold that position from the point of view that as they interpret the scriptures, the leadership role within the church is not necessarily the leadership role within society – that men and women complement each other, and consequently, possibly that’s why many people have taken the view that they take and that’s why the church has not embraced the election of a woman moderator.

“I would have a conviction that, like many other people within all major denominations, that there are some concerns about that issue, and yes, I would share that conviction as well.”

Needless to say, that generated headlines really fast. At the traditional news conference later on he did qualify his remarks saying “that if the church was to vote in a women moderator in the next few years, the church would have his ‘full and complete and utter support'”.

On Twitter, Alan in Belfast lets us know that at the press conference the Principal Clerk Trevor Gribbon expressed his considered judgement that the PCI will have a female moderator before there is a woman as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The other headline grabber was the Moderator-designate’s comment that well know atheist Stephen Fry is “spiritually blind” responding to comments Fry made in a TV interview last week. I won’t rehash it here but you can get the full context from an article in the Independent.

And finally, in another tweet Alan in Belfast gives us some critical information about Rev. McNie

The important Q has finally been asked at the close of the press conference – Rev Ian McNie supports Man Utd

There is follow up to the press conference from Alan in Belfast with the audio of a 12 minute interview with Rev. McNie and his piece on his blog.

Football At Its Purest

As we reach that high holy day of American civil religion and the country stops to watch a game of catch and some hyped commercials in very expensive air time, I once again pause to reflect on this game of American Football in a wider context. One article I would point you to is a great piece by Carl Trueman, “The (Non) Religion Of Sports,” that was published on the First Things blog two days ago. Another story that caught my attention this week was a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about “Football as a Tool in the Hands of a Master Craftsman” looking at a high school coach who focused on the athletes. But no, I have been saving a piece that is more local, and more Presbyterian, for this day.

Back in September one of the finest wordsmiths at the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke, wrote a column titled “Getting a taste of football at its purest.” The premise was to consider a typical Saturday at a Division III university where the players were not on scholarship, the stadiums are small and the fans are there for the friends, family and pure fun of the game. Near the beginning of the story he writes:

The search [for good news in sports] ends at a college football game with no glitz, no glamour, no Heisman hopefuls, no first-round draft picks, nothing but bouncing players and beaming parents and lessons rooted far too deep to be beamed on television by some giant balloon. [i.e. a blimp]

“USC and UCLA aren’t playing today, so you came here, right?” says [Jan] Pfennings with a grin. “Welcome to the real thing.”

The game he visited was a match between my local institution of higher learning – the University of La Verne – against a similar, and Presbyterian opponent – Whitworth University. But fair warning for the Presbyterians, his focus throughout is on the local school.

He describes the ULV side:

The team has 111 players because nobody gets cut. None of them are on scholarship. Most of them will be playing football for the last time in their lives. They are small and fast and play with a relentless passion that results in giant hits, giant misses and constant leaping chest bumps.

“This is exciting, it’s not perfect, it’s got all the attributes professional football and big-time college football doesn’t have,” says [English Professor David] Werner. “This is what sports is supposed to be.”

Plaschke continues –

It’s football that isn’t judged by the final score, but the student journey, the lessons that lead these small-school graduates to making big impacts in society…

It’s football that isn’t surrounded by shallow hype, but safely ensconced in the warmth of neighborhoods, a truth evident in every corner of [ULV’s] Ortmayer Stadium.

One detail that is not in the story is that both schools in the game have religious heritage and affiliation – Whitworth with the Presbyterians and La Verne with the Church of the Brethren.

After the game he gets a quote from a player:

“You make the big time where you’re at,” says La Verne receiver Jon Lilly after catching six touchdown passes. “No matter what happens, this is a blast.”

and the coach:

“Our guys are learning how to be successful men,” said [Chris] Krich of his 1-1 team. “How you handle adversity is what sets you up as a man, and we handled it during the game, and we’re handling it now.”

Oh, the final score – if it matters:

Few loved Saturday’s ending, a late Whitworth touchdown followed by a desperation pass that was not answered, the Leopards losing, 50-48, despite racking up 672 yards.

But the bottom line is this:

After a couple of weeks of watching the sports world sink in violence, arrogance and callousness, Krich offers three other words.

“Our motto is simple — faith, courage and class,” Krich says.

Good news, indeed.

Something to keep that in mind today as well as the recent statistics that there were 310,465 high school football players, 15,588 college seniors in football and 254 that were drafted by the NFL. It makes the ULV football motto look a bit more relevant. So have a great Lord’s Day, however you spend it and remember…

Faith, Courage and Class

Presbyterian News Headlines For The First Half Of November 2014

OK, I’m falling behind again – but trying to catch up. So here are a few of the things that caught my attention back in November…

In the ongoing news story in Trinidad, initial demolition work on Greyfriars Church in Port-of-Spain was begun and after three hours halted. The contractor was reported as saying the work was only to open parts of the building so the engineers could inspect the structure. The owner said it was to remove a toxic roof. And to bring you up to date as of this writing nothing further has happened with the building as the community continues to discuss the future.

Greyfriars demolition stopped – from Guardian – Trinidad and Tobago

Contractor: No bid to demolish Greyfriars – from Trinidad Express

Owner of Greyfriars: Toxic roof removed from church hall – from Guardian – Trinidad and Tobago

In Scotland following the Independence Referendum, the British Government established a group to look at devolution of powers and home rule. This group, the Smith Commission, had a lot of input but comments from the Church of Scotland focused on what could be done locally to improve conditions for those in the lowest economic groups, as typified by this headline:

Group seeks powers over benefits – from The Courier

The Commission included a former Moderator of the General Assembly, Dr. Alison Elliot. More on the Commission and the Kirk’s input:

Cross-party Scottish home rule campaign launched – from BBC News

Church leaders want more power for Holyrood to help the needy – from Aberdeen Press & Journal

And along those same lines but in a different sphere:

Kirk poverty campaigner reflects on Vatican visit – Church of Scotland press release; “Martin Johnstone, the Church of Scotland’s Priority Areas Secretary, recently attended the first Global Meeting of Popular Movements hosted by the Vatican in Rome.”

It was interesting to see that the Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, preached at the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan, Connecticut.

Governor of Massachusetts to Preach at First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan – from New Canaan’s HamletHub

Two stories about saving historic churches. The first, the renovation of a building that has been vacant for 35 years that will soon house community and presbytery services and offices:

Collaborative $10M redevelopment will save historic KC church – from Kansas City Business Journal

The second, a church that saved its original structure from demolition and is renovating it to become a community space:

Presbyterians want to restore historic church for community gatherings – from press of Atlantic City

And a follow-up on that major archaeological discovery on Church of Scotland land:

Viking treasure finders reflect as first secrets are revealed – from Church of Scotland press release

A peek inside a Viking piggybank: CT scans of treasure chest reveal hidden brooches, gold ingots and ivory beads – from Daily Mail

That’s it for the news for now. On to other topics

Disciplinary PJC Decision — Grace Presbytery v. TE Rightmyer

On 7 January the Permanent Judicial Commission of Grace Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced its decision in Disciplinary Case 2015-1: Grace Presbytery v. TE Joseph Rightmyer finding him guilty on eight of the eleven counts he had been charged with. This case comes out of the departure of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

According to the history in the PJC decision, an accusation was made against TE Rightmyer in the Fall of 2013 and an investigating committee of five members was appointed on 2 December 2013 which then returned the charges on 16 October the following year. There was a pre-trial hearing on 14 November and the trial conducted on 6 January.

The eleven charges filed with the PJC relate to TE Rightmyer’s service at Highland Park as an interim pastor from June 2013 to August 2014 when TE Bryan Dunegan was called and took over as head of staff. Parallel with the pastoral search Highland Park filed suit in September 2013 in the Texas courts to gain control of its property. That case was to go to trial in October 2014 but Highland Park and Grace Presbytery settled for $7.8 million almost exactly a year after the suit was filed.

Instrumental in this case is the fact that Grace Presbytery has a “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination“, but in all the reading I have done I have seen no reference indicating that Highland Park initiated discussions with the presbytery under this policy but rather they carried out a unilateral process to leave the PC(USA).

With that background, let us look at the charges against TE Rightmyer. There are four root charges:

  1. On or about September 23, 2013, and following, you… did commit the offense of advocating and facilitating a process for Highland Park Presbyterian Church to determine whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and contrary to Grace Presbytery’s “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination.”
  2. On or about September 23, 2013, you… did commit the offense of moderating the Session of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and permitting it to vote to call a congregational meeting to vote on whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an action not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
  3. On or about October 27, 2013, you… did commit the offense of moderating a congregational meeting of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and permitting it to vote on whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an action not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Book of Order G-1.0503) and contrary to Grace Presbytery’s “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination.”
  4. On or about October 27, 2013, and following, you… did commit the offense of permitting the dissolving of the installed pastoral relationship of teaching elder Marshall C. Zieman to serve as associate pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church without action of the
    presbytery as required by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This is a “theme and variations” set of charges and for each root charge there were multiple variations. For the first, this charge was cited as being a violation of ordination vows W-4.4003e, “Will you be governed by our church’s polity…”, and W-4.4003g, “Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?”.

For the second and third root charges related to calling and holding a congregational meeting with business not permitted by the Book of Order, these were charged as violations of G-1.0503 that limits the business of a congregational meeting, as well as the two ordination vow violations attached to the first root charge.

Similarly, the fourth root charge was a violation of G-2.0502 as well as G-2.0901 regarding the process for dissolving pastoral relationships and the ordination vow about being subject to our church’s polity.

So the two variations of the first root charge and three variations of the other three add up to the total of eleven individual charges.

The Presbytery PJC found him guilty of the first eight, that being the ones associated with root charges 1, 2 and 3, but found him not guilty of the last regarding the dissolution of a pastoral relationship.

Disciplinary trial decisions, unlike many remedial cases and appeals, typically do not come with analysis so there is not much more to directly draw from the PJC’s decision.

The court rendered their decision:

Whereas, you, JOSEPH B. RIGHTMYER, have been found guilty of the following offenses, and by such offenses you have acted contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); now, therefore, Grace Presbytery acting in the name and under the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), does hereby set aside and remove you from the ordered ministry of teaching elder.

Removal from ordered ministry, also referred to as being defrocked, is the strongest penalty that can be levied in a disciplinary case.

That pretty much sums up the PJC decision. In an interview with Carmen Fowler LaBerge of the Presbyterian Layman, Mr. Rightmyer indicates that he is in the process of considering an appeal of this decision.

Discussion

Let me begin my comments with what is to me the elephant in the room — the only reason this trial could take place was because Mr. Rightmyer did not leave the PC(USA) with Highland Park Presbyterian Church but chose instead to remain in the PC(USA) after his interim service was over. In a large proportion of the departures from the PC(USA) all the teaching elders depart for the new denomination taking them out of reach of the PC(USA) disciplinary process should the church’s process been outside the established process. It is worth noting that regarding these charges going to trial Mr. Rightmyer did live into his ordination vow to be “…governed by our church’s polity and… abide by it’s discipline.”

[As a polity note, there is much that can be argued about Mr. Rightmyer’s status and leaving the denomination in light of the fact that interim pastors usually depart the church and the fact that since an investigating committee was considering his case he could not be transferred. I won’t belabor this point except to say that if he wanted to depart with the church, or on his own, a way could probably be found, possibly including renunciation of jurisdiction.]

Another question that arises is why the church went to the civil courts and did not engage in the presbytery’s dismissal policy? In the interview mentioned above Mr. Rightmyer explains the church’s perspective:

“The leadership of Grace Presbytery made it abundantly clear that any candidate for pastor would have to pledge loyalty to the denomination and subscribe to a ‘big-tent’ ideology; meaning that he or she would have to tolerate and perhaps even celebrate what God deems intolerable in the body of Christ.  With the church’s children and grandchildren at heart, the leadership of HPPC felt a clear responsibility for the ‘preservation of the truth’ and fidelity to the Scriptures in the preaching of Christ.  When seen in that light, the vote to disaffiliate from the PCUSA became a spiritual mandate and the cost was minimal compared to what was gained.”

What are the implications of this decision? You could say that this is only a Presbytery PJC decision and a disciplinary one at that so the formal precedent it sets is minimal. From another perspective this shifts the playing field. While previous cases were all remedial this case indicates that someone is willing to reach into the toolbox and try another option. It sends a message to the presbytery that in the future churches need to engage with the presbytery about dismissal or get our cleanly and quickly so that teaching and ruling elders are out of reach of the judicial process. I thought it significant that the decision specifically indicates that the teaching elder who submitted the accusation was the chair of the committee on ministry giving strong weight to the appearance that this was a case being filed with presbytery backing.

Furthermore, if the case does go through a series of appeals to the General Assembly PJC, then formal guidance to the whole church could result. That is certainly a wait and see situation.

But digging a little deeper, does this case now suggest a preemptive strategy for those that would prefer stronger enforcement of the trust clause? While I am not endorsing this and hesitate to continue this thought exercise lest I give anyone ideas, I want to consider a couple scenarios:

What if a church were to baulk at a presbytery’s gracious dismissal policy or the negotiations under it? Could some random member of the presbytery who has standing bring charges like these against the teaching elder(s) and ruling elders on session if they were to take some sort of unilateral action outside the process even before they tried to separate from the denomination?

Or consider charge 2, the most general of the charges in this case: the offense of
advocating and facilitating a process… to determine whether to remain a member of the PC(USA) not permitted by the Constitution and contrary to the Gracious Dismissal Policy in violation of your ordination vow “to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church”. So what might qualify as advocating a process? A discussion in the session meeting about alternatives? Preaching a sermon critical of the PC(USA) or its leadership? Consulting with the leadership of another Reformed body? It would seem that any number of possible actions could have the appearance of “advocating and facilitating a process” and be the basis for an accusation.

Farfetched? Probably. Minor and not likely to be successful at trial? That could certainly be the case. But my point is that simply filing an accusation and having an elder under investigation is enough to stop their transfer and possibly stop all progress under a Gracious Dismissal Policy, particularly if it is the installed teaching elder. So what are the choices? Waiting it out could easily take a year or more like this case did. Speeding it up by changing to self-accusation would amount to pleading guilty and taking your chances with the penalty imposed by the PJC. Moving forward by renouncing jurisdiction means that you lose standing with the denomination and would probably lead to the congregation departing but likely leaving the property behind. Is there another, easier and faster alternative to clearing this that I am missing?

It is an interesting possibility to ponder, and hopefully not one that we will have to respond to. For the moment we are left with our first disciplinary case and penalty for actions take outside the presbytery process for gracious dismissal. There are still questions whether the trial verdict would stand up under appeal and whether more disciplinary cases will follow now that the ice is broken.

Stay tuned…

 

Top Ten Presbyterian News Themes Of 2014

As we close out this eventful year I will once again join the numerous sources putting out top ten lists for the year that was. And as in past years my primary focus will be on stories, or themes, that were seen across multiple Presbyterian branches with a few more selective ones thrown in.

General Assemblies and Same-Sex Relationships

This was probably the top news theme of the year: The Church of Scotland GA sending to the presbyteries, and the presbyteries approving, language for churches to opt-out of the traditional standards. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 221st GA approving language to redefine marriage in its Book of Order and it appears on path to approval in the presbyteries. The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand approving a change to their Book of Order to prohibit same-sex marriages. And momentum is building around an overture to the next Presbyterian Church in Canada GA that would remove the prohibition against ministers being in a same-sex relationship.

Seminaries

This was a category that really caught my attention this year but which I have yet to write up in detail. In any year there is interesting seminary news, like Doris J. García Rivera’s installation as president of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. But this seemed to be a year with more initiatives than normal.

These included the reorganization of the Free Church Seminary as the Edinburgh Theological Seminary. There was also the new joint initiative between Reformed Theological Seminary and Redeemer Church in New York City.

More radical seminary initiatives include a non-accredited communal seminary associated with Church of All Nations in Minneapolis and San Francisco Theological Seminary has launched a Center for Innovation in Ministry with a workshop on the theology of video games.

But the one that I have found most interesting is the Redesigned Master of Divinity Program at Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller listened to their alumni and launched a new program which is described in part like this:

Many graduates can no longer count on traditional systems to create jobs for them. They will have to invent new ways to minister. Our reshaped curriculum is designed to prepare students with entrepreneurial skills.

One of the interesting things about this new initiative, and Fuller in general right now, is the prominence of Presbyterian leadership. In addition to Mark Labberton becoming President last year, the initiative is under the oversight of Scott Cormode, the Academic Dean. Behind the Vocation and Formation part of the initiative are some well-known Presbyterian faces that include Tod Bolsinger, Steve Yamaguchi and Laura Harbert.

Congregations Switching Branches

The moves between branches continue with the PC(USA) once again transferring more churches than it closes. And in the Church of Scotland there has been a slower, but noticeable, departure.

The other interesting movement is churches moving from the Reformed Church of America to the Presbyterian Church in America. Last Spring one of the flagship churches, University Reformed Church, voted to transfer. This fall five churches in Illinois have also voted to make the move.

Fossil Fuel Divestment

The General Assemblies of both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand considered this issue. In the PC(USA) the Assembly did not approve an outright divestment but referred it to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee for further consideration. The PCANZ instructed their Property Trustees to divest and recommended that individual churches do likewise.

Independence Referendum in Scotland

The Church of Scotland was prominent in the time leading up to the Scottish Independence Referendum with an open session at their General Assembly that presented a variety of voices on the subject and further national and regional level gatherings leading up to the vote. Following the vote there was a service of unity hosted by the Kirk.

The Free Church of Scotland also held a session at their General Assembly and issued their own material providing viewpoints on Independence.

Property

For the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this was certainly a hot topic with a GAPJC decisioncivil legal challenges, settlements and high-valued negotiations. For this post the full extent of the property news is left as an exercise for the reader but there are still a lot of open questions and at the moment there seems to be momentum in favor of the hierarchical church.

Another property news item is the Greyfriars Church in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The historic structure was sold to a developer and it’s future is uncertain. Some preliminary demolition has begun and efforts are underway to try and preserve it.

PC(USA) Ethics Investigation

In a still developing story, it was revealed that four PC(USA) church development employees associated with Presbyterian Centers For New Church Innovation were the subjects of an internal ethics investigation for not following policy in setting up an outside non-profit corporation to facilitate distribution of 1001 Worshiping Communities funds. Initially there were administrative actions taken but as the story grew the four were placed on administrative leave and an outside law firm brought in to conduct an independent investigation. At year’s end it was decided that firm had a conflict of interest and a new firm was chosen.

Israel-Palestine Actions

The other hot topic leading up to the PC(USA) General Assembly was issues around Israel-Palestine. At the previous GA a proposal for divestment from three companies who profited from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory failed by a very narrow three-vote margin. The proposal was returning to this GA. In addition, a PC(USA) affiliated group, The Israel/Palestine Mission Network, (IPMN) issued a controversial study guide Zionism Unsettled that questioned Israel’s character and identity. While IPMN does not speak for the PC(USA) the study guide was sold by the official Presbyterian Distribution Services making the distinction fuzzy in many minds. In addition, there was some advanced controversy when the commissioner chosen to moderate the related commissioner committee was asked to step down because a number of people questioned his impartiality.

The 221st General Assembly did approve the divestment proposal by a slim seven-vote margin, but the action also encourages ecumenical dialogue in the region and affirms the denomination’s commitment to Israel and the peace process.

The Presbyterian Distribution Service dropped Zionism Unsettled shortly after the Assembly and it is now available on the IPNM web site. However, studies around this topic are available on Thoughtful Christian.

Women’s Ordination and Related

The religion gender issues news this year was dominated by the Church of England and the completion of the process to have women serve as bishops. In fact, in Presbyterian circles it was a very quiet year for complementarian/egalitarian discussions, which in itself is probably news.

The one big item is the decision by the Mizoram Synod conference to reject a long-standing request from Kohhran Hmechhia, the Women Ministry of the Presbyterian Church, to ordain women theologians.

In another story, history was made when Michael Barry and Liz Hughes tied in the first round of voting for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Rev. Barry was elected in the second round by one vote over Rev. Hughes and a third candidate, Rev. McNie. This was the strongest showing that a female candidate has had in the election.

Death of Ian Paisley

Among several notable deaths in the Presbyterian community, the death of Ian Paisley stands out for his iconic status in both Northern Irish religion as the leading founder of the Free Presbyterian Church and for his important roll in politics and reconciliation in Norther Ireland.

And a couple of other Presbyterian-ish stories

Knox 500

While the date of birth of John Knox is not known with certainty, the best information suggests that it may have been in 1514 making this the 500th year of his birth. This was marked by the Knox 500 Conference in Edinburgh as well as the making of a documentary about him titled “Give Me Scotland.”

Spectacular Viking treasure hoard found on Church of Scotland land

Not your typical religion news story but a very important archaeological discovery involving the Kirk and a couple of its ministers as well as a metal detectionist.

And let me take a moment to throw in two transitions: The retirement of Jerry Van Marter after over 26 years with the Presbyterian News Service and Jack Haberer stepping down from the helm of the Presbyterian Outlook to return to parish ministry. Best wishes to both in their new settings.

And those are some of the highlights of 2014. Now as we look ahead to 2015 – and many of my friends around the world are already there or now busy celebrating Hogmanay – I wish all of you a very Happy New Years and best wishes for the coming year.

May you balance your ardor and order and remember to be decent and in order.

Happy New Year!

Christmas Messages From Around The Presbyterian Branches

Over the last couple of weeks I have seen the following official Christmas messages from Moderators of various Presbyterian branches.

The Church of Scotland – The Rt. Rev. John Chalmers

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland – The Rev. Dr. Michael Barry: “Presbyterian Moderator calls for people to welcome strangers this Christmas”

The Presbyterian Church of Wales – The Rev. Neil Kirkham

The Presbyterian Church in Canada – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – The Rev. Peter Cheyne

In the PC(USA) both the Moderator and the Stated Clerk get into the act

Reasons to celebrate the PC(U.S.A.) this Advent season – from RE Heath Rada

December 2014 – Link daily toil and holy quest in a deeper, earthier way this Advent – from The Rev. Gradye Parsons

And finally, a message from the Moderator-designate of the Free Church of Scotland posted on the web site which has gotten some coverage.

No Room In The Inn For Jesus – The Rev. David Robertson

Those are the ones that I have seen and I apologize for any missed. Feel free to bring missed ones to my attention.

And with that, a Merry Christmas to all who observe this special day.

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Second Half Of October

And we keep on plugging through these. This time period is a bit lighter…

A new conference center director

Richard DuBose Named President of Montreat Conference Center – from Montreat press release

The preservation organization Historic Scotland proposes charging for tourists visits to Glasgow Cathedral, a move opposed by the kirk session:

Anger over admission charge plan for Glasgow Cathedral – from BBC News

A plan to improve educational opportunities:

Livingstonia Synod to construct agriculture college in north Malawi – from Nyasa Times

The Free Church of Scotland endorsed a proposal to cut the voting age for regular elections following the success of the move in the Independence Referendum. The suggestion is being seriously considered:

Voting age should be cut to 16, says Free Church – Herald Scotland

Plan to cut voting age for 2016 Scottish election -from BBC News

The Church of Scotland is working with other churches on economic reforms and initiatives. More on that at a future date, but here is a bit from this time span:

We should bank on a fair deal for everyone – from The Scotsman

A gift from the Lilly Endowment:

Louisville seminary gets $8 million endowment grant – from Louisville Business First

Repurposing unneeded church buildings (I visited the one in the lede picture when the GA was there):

Former Churches Blessed With New Lives in Pittsburgh – New York Times

And another one, a historic building in Scotland:

Falkirk businesswoman gifts church to arts group – from The Falkirk Herald

And finally, it is not Presbyterian per se but I got a smile from this one – a participant in the Vatican Synod on the Family who thought the process was a bit too open and equal?

RI bishop: Synod process is ‘rather Protestant’ – from Crux; “The concept of having a representative body of the Church voting on doctrinal applications and pastoral solutions strikes me as being rather Protestant.”

So have a good holiday season. I will try to catch up on headlines in the new year and have plenty, probably way too much other stuff that I want to cover the next couple of weeks.

Church Of Scotland Ordination Overture Results And Reaction

Almost all of the presbyteries in the Church of Scotland have now voted on the overture from the 2014 General Assembly related to ministers in same-sex relationships and it is clear that the overture has gotten strong approval from them.

While this is a major hurdle it is important to keep in mind some of the fine details. First, it is not final until the 2015 General Assembly takes a look at it and adds its concurrence. Considering the margin with which it passed the 2014 Assembly and the number of presbyteries that gave approval it would seem reasonable to expect the next Assembly to also approve it. But we need to keep in mind that at the moment the process has not been completed.

The second item to remember is that this overture does not change the official stance of the Kirk but only provides a mechanism for individual churches to depart from that stance in the ordination and installation of officers should the need arise.

And the headlines, even from the official publication Life and Work, are a bit inaccurate in that gay clergy have been permitted if they were celibate, but the overture proposes new policies for partnered clergy in same-sex civil unions.

One important aspect of this vote to keep in mind is that the margin among the overall votes cast is much narrower than the presbytery vote. Of the 46 presbyteries it is being reported that so far 28 have voted yes and 11 have voted no on the overture. That is a 72% yes vote. But if you look at the total from the presbyters, it was 1253 yes and 1006 no, a 55% to 45% split.

As the results were spreading through the news media the last couple of days the group Forward Together, a Church of Scotland affinity group opposed to the proposed polity changes the overture would bring, announced their new initiative — the Covenant Fellowship. Their Statement begins:

We believe that the Church of Scotland is moving away from its roots in Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. We believe that the time has come for the creation of a ‘Covenant Fellowship’ within the Church. This Covenant Fellowship will draw together those who believe that the Scriptures, in their entirety, are the Word of God and must provide the basis for everything we believe and do. Our vision is nothing less than the reformation and renewal of the Church of Scotland, in accordance with the Word of God and by the empowering of his life-giving Spirit.

The Church of Scotland is facing a severe crisis. A majority of Presbyteries has now adopted an Overture which would permit those in same-sex civil partnerships to serve as ministers and deacons in the Church. Many people feel that the only way to protest against this unscriptural move is to leave the Church of Scotland. Many ministers, elders, members and adherents have done so already and more will follow. While respecting that position, our hearts’ desire is to remain within the Church, in order to seek its reformation from within, although we recognise that not all will feel able to make such an unqualified commitment.

The Statement goes on to solicit from like-minded individuals and churches their signing on to the Declaration of support for these principles and protest of the actions of the Church of Scotland.

The Statement was issued in association with comments from the Rev. Prof. Andrew McGowan, which were picked up by the media. He said, in part:

If approved, this (overture) will extend even further the disruption of the Church of Scotland.

Many well-known congregations (individual ministers and groups of worshippers) in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Stornoway and elsewhere have already left the Church, or been split in two.

and

The hope is that the Covenant Fellowship, which begins today as a protest against recent events, will grow to become an effective campaign group within the Church on behalf of those who believe in Christian orthodoxy.

This statement and comments did not go unnoticed, and some of the language in the comments and the Statement elicited an official response from the Acting Principal Clerk of the General Assembly. The Rev. Dr. George Whyte says:

The Church of Scotland welcomes Professor McGowan’s continued commitment to remain a member and a minister but there are in his statement accusations which we believe are not accurate.

The proposed legislation which is the focus of the group’s criticism has been painstakingly considered by the Church across the nation. We know that for many people the discussion has been difficult and it has always been clear that we could never come to a common mind on the matter.

This pain and disillusionment has been felt by those, like Professor McGowan, who think the Church is going in the wrong direction and those who desperately want a Church which would go further on their chosen route. Yet the issue has to be discussed and we are a Church which recognises “liberty of opinion.” Our General Assembly has agreed that this proposal – to allow a congregation call a minister in a civil partnership – falls into that category. It is not, therefore, an attack on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith.

“We share Professor McGowan’s abhorrence of further disruption and we hope and pray that across Scotland Christians will find ways to continue to work together despite their varied opinions.”

In addition to the Covenant Fellowship, media was also reporting comments from a spokesman for the Free Church of Scotland. The comments expressed concern for the actions and direction of the Church of Scotland and concluded with the line “Although we are saddened by the present circumstances in the Church of Scotland, we are happy to provide a home to those who wish to leave.”

The Church of Scotland has seen the departure of a few ministers, congregations and members over the last few years since the trajectory was set by the 2011 General Assembly. But this new association seems to now more clearly define one side although being a brand new initiative we will have to see how it develops.

It is also tempting to map the current landscape of the PC(USA) and the directions of ebb and flow there onto where the Church of Scotland find itself now, and it almost seems that naming the new initiative the Covenant Fellowship invites that comparison. However, the lay of the land in the Kirk is probably going to be shifting rapidly and I will let the structures settle down a bit before I take the time to undertake that analysis.

What can I really say at this point to sum up these developments but… Stay Tuned!