Author Archives: Steve Salyards

Teaching Young Children About The Reformation: It’s Complicated

As the magical date of October 31, 2017, rapidly approaches the opportunities around Reformation 500 abound. In particular, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has gone all-in and, as you can see from this article, has an opportunity with many of their ministries and programs to celebrate the anniversary. It may be a bit of overkill, but remember that their unofficial motto is now “We are not dying. We are reforming” so there is some sense to it.

Among these resources are curricula for every age group including “The Protestant Reformations” for adults, “The Protestant Reformation” for youth and young adults, and for ages 5-10 a one Sunday lesson as part of the “Growing in Grace and Gratitude” curriculum titled “Luther Learns from Paul.” That last one you can download and look at for free so I downloaded a copy and what follows are some of my thoughts about it.

Bottom line: Generally a nice, age-appropriate overview of Martin Luther’s journey and thinking that led to his work to reform the church. But, I have to add that in my opinion in constructing this curriculum they have missed an opportunity to more fully demonstrate Luther’s ideas and have perpetuated a common and subtle error. Back to that in a minute.

Now, before I go further it is helpful if I make two disclaimers that you should keep in mind as I go through this review. The first is that I am involved in higher education and not elementary education so I will be expressing my personal opinion about age-appropriate content which is not technically a professional opinion at this level. Second, my background in higher education manifested itself as “teaching up” to my own children as they were growing up and the bottom line I will come to at the end is predicated on my own experience with family discussions and what our children experienced and participated in. (We have a standing joke with good friends of ours, also involved in higher education, that “Other families don’t have these discussions at dinner, do they?”)

So with that, let’s dive in.

As I indicated above, this is a curriculum for ages 5-10. While there are some sections which refer to an activity or approach for the older or younger children, for the most part the material is the same across the whole age range. The lesson follows a traditional lesson plan with a welcoming and gathering activity, a brief worship section, the story with preparing and reflecting questions and discussion, and a selection of responding activities that are participatory for the children. The scripture passage for the lesson is Ephesians 2:1-10 with an emphasis on the portion that says “…God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love God has for us, saved us by grace.” The story tracks the life of Martin Luther from childhood, through his thunderstorm experience, his journey into the monastery, his challenge to the sale of indulgences and finally to his nailing the 95 theses to the castle church door.

The object lesson from the story and activities seems to be well presented and has good focus on the important truth that Grace is a gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to earn it or attain it by ourselves. So it strikes me as overall a nice lesson that helps to teach the scriptural lesson and historical context of Reformation Sunday.

One good age-appropriate touch to note at this point is that in one of the activities the children are introduced to three of the solas (solae?) – faith alone, grace alone and scripture alone – while in the take-home sheet for the family all five of the solas are included for family discussion. One critical point I would mention now is that the scripture lesson is from Ephesians and while it is an appropriate passage to teach that we are saved by grace alone, it is my understanding that the breakthrough in Luther’s thinking came from studying the Letter to the Romans.

Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, there are two points in the story of Luther as the curriculum tells it that really jumped out at me where the authors and editors used some license to make the curriculum age-appropriate. To me, these two points present certain historical and theological compromises that the teacher should be aware of and maybe should be addressed with the children. I will certainly admit that this is a tricky balance when dealing with complicated topics as these are: On the one hand the material must be understandable to the intended audience within the targeted time frame of the lesson. On the other hand, the question arises whether a particular incident, while complex, presents both a teachable moment as well as should be presented in a manner that won’t need to be untaught or corrected at a later date.

The first item is the classic account of Luther in the thunderstorm. The curriculum talks of him being caught in the storm and crying out to God that if he comes through the storm all right he would become a monk. The actual account is that he cried out to St. Anne, the family patron saint since his father was in the mining business.

The editorial change is understandable since the reference to St. Anne would necessitate some introduction for the children to the concept of saints, especially patron saints, and compounded even further by the fact that her identification as the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus is based upon the apocrypha. So yes, it is a complicated concept to teach.

On the other hand, this strikes me as a teachable moment as the message of the lesson is that we are saved by grace alone and not by the good works of any other except the atoning death of Jesus. And a key component of the Reformation was that we can speak directly to God and do not need to go through intermediaries like priests and saints.

I reached our to Congregational Ministries Publishing about my concerns and received a gracious reply from Dr. Mark Hinds, the publisher. Regarding this concern he says:

As you surmised, the two questions you raised highlight intentional editorial revisions based on the supposition that, in a story for children, certain details might prove to be more problematic than helpful.

In a review of children’s stories, “God” often replaces “St. Anne” in the thunderstorm story. In our view, this is a wise choice. Praying/crying out to St. Anne in our version would have introduced a detail that would have required interpretation that we weren’t prepared to include, especially given the limits of word counts and varying abilities of children to process non-contextualized data.

The second detail that jumped out at me is admittedly even more complex and in making it age-appropriate the curriculum introduces what I see as a notable inaccuracy. This is the topic of indulgences. The curriculum says:

A monk named John Tetzel began selling pieces of paper, called indulgences, that he claimed would bring God’s forgiveness. People actually used to think they could earn God’s forgiveness by buying a piece of paper.

OK, there is a lot here to unpack – I said this was complicated – so let’s begin with the nature of indulgences themselves. According to the church dogma an indulgence does not bring forgiveness, but rather the shortening or release from purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia online says:

[A]n indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.

Now, on top of this is the question of how the papers conveying the indulgences were worded and how Johann Tetzel promoted them. There seems to be broad agreement that Tetzel did not tell people that buying an indulgence would directly grant them personally forgiveness. The limited eyewitness accounts and later researchers agree that for the living the indulgence was to be viewed in conjunction with confession and penitence. There is however some evidence that Tetzel was outside church dogma when he promoted the indulgences for forgiveness of sins for the dead and the Catholic Encyclopedia has a good summary of that. However, a paper by J. N. Lenhart presents the argument that if Tetzel was promoting forgiveness for the dead, and not just remission of the temporal punishment, it was because that is what was printed on the indulgence.

Finally, implied in the statement is that indulgences are a thing of the past. Indulgences for acts of mercy, contrition and faith are still very much around and lists can be found on web sites like this one and this one, and they have in fact made the mainstream media. And in his article Lenhart talks of indulgences that were for sale within the last 100 years.

Looking at the 95 Theses it is easy to conclude that the purchase of an indulgence might forgive sins when Luther writes “21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.” But also among the theses is “34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.”

Again, Dr. Hinds was kind to respond to my concerns here and said:

We did not intend to affirm anything about the Textzel [sic] encounter other than Luther saw the practice as a problem, mostly about the church’s power over the poor, illiterate Christians of that era. Nor did we intend to treat the matter of indulgences beyond the story; however, the concept of earning one’s salvation is addressed in the lesson and shown to be an error.

Again, besides the problem of confusing forgiveness of sins with reduction of time or release from purgatory, is this a teachable moment? As the message of the lesson is that we are saved, and fully saved, by grace alone through Christ alone, is this an opportunity to present that message and further that no refining fire is necessary following our death?

So what are the options? On one end of the spectrum is the “all in” option and you can use the curriculum as published and figure the editorial changes are appropriate and helpful for the audience. On the other end is the option to not use the lesson, or use the lesson but drop the story. In between you have a number of options which might include using the lesson with the details more accurately conveyed with appropriate explanation for the children. Or use the story but drop those two items from the story. And for either of these latter two you could prepare a guide for the parents that goes home with the take-home sheet helping to interpret the historical and theological context of the parts that were modified.

So yes, it is complicated. I will readily acknowledge that there may not be a perfect answer to how to present this material to the 5-10 age group. I will leave it up to others to decide how they want to present it and what appropriate editorial license is useful or necessary. As you probably figured out from my thoughts above, I would lean towards an approach that, if the material were to be presented, would include some of the complexity to more tightly hold to the historical and theological details. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out the appropriate approach for your situation.

My thoughts on the topic. Your mileage may vary.

Happy Reformation 500. More to come over the next few weeks.

Last Week In The Presbyterian Church In Ireland: Everyday Disciples And Essentials

Last week was a busy one for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with their Special Assembly on Everyday Disciples and in that the roll-out of the new Essentials discipleship program. A close look at the Essentials material in a moment, but first a brief review of the Special Assembly.

Beginning on Monday of last week, over 600 people gathered at Ulster University in Coleraine for this Special Assembly around the theme Everyday Disciples and focusing on discipleship. It was not a deliberative assembly but a four-day event to prepare and energize members in their own discipleship walks as well as reaching out to others. In the church’s news article in advance of the Assembly the Moderator of the GA, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely is quoted as saying:

As Christians, Jesus calls us to be His disciples in all aspects of our lives. The title and theme of our Special Assembly is in recognition of the increasing necessity for today’s followers of Jesus to be equipped by the Church to be effective disciple-makers in their various spheres of everyday life.

Many of us however, recognise that we have perhaps concentrated too much on programmes and activities in our churches and have not been as strong on providing the essentials to facilitate making mature disciples.

The daily keynote addresses from our two principal speakers and the range of seminars available will help us to consider seriously the need for daily discipleship. It will also help us to understand better how we can be involved in a 21st century reformation of church and society.

The two principal speakers were pastors from U.S. churches who spoke on the theme of discipleship with an emphasis on a believer’s life and the local church. The first speaker was Rev. Randy Pope, pastor of Perimeter Church (with the PCA) in Atlanta. The second speaker was the Rev. Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr., pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville. More on the speakers from both the PCI news article as well as one from the Belfast Telegraph.

I saw no indication of a live stream of the event but there was a healthy (OK, one non sequitur has crept in) and helpful Twitter presence so I would encourage you to check out the hashtag #everydaydisciples. And tracking there, from all that I saw the conference had a laser-sharp focus on the topic of discipleship and good quality keynote sessions and workshops. I appreciated the high quality of the stream of tweets but have resisted pasting any in here.

At the end of the Special Assembly a new discipleship program called Essentials was rolled out. I have purchased a copy and am favorably impressed with the focus, quality and helpfulness of this resource.

So, for your £12 you get the eight videos and five participants books with additional books £1 each. There is also a leader’s guide and a preaching plan included. And with the purchase you get access to the videos online for download in a number of different formats.

As you might have guessed it is an eight session program with each session taking the participants through a step in the journey of Jesus with his disciples. Here is a breakdown of the sessions:

  1. Come – COME AND SEE: Discipleship starts with awareness of Jesus before activity for Him
  2. Call – FOLLOW ME: The essential call of discipleship is to follow our Master Jesus
  3. Community – SHARE LIFE: We can’t do discipleship alone. We learn to follow Jesus as part of His church
  4. Culture – STEP OUT: Disciples don’t escape or embrace culture, but engage with it as they follow Jesus
  5. Courage – SPEAK UP: Disciples aren’t just called to live well in culture, but also to speak up for Jesus
  6. Cost – DENY YOURSELF: Following Jesus brings a cost in every area of our lives
  7. Challenge – GO MAKE: The challenge of becoming disciples who make disciples
  8. Continue – LOOK UP: We never graduate from needing Jesus but continue following him in every age and stage of life

I really liked this progression and thought it was a useful and logical way to develop the concept of discipleship. And it should be clear from the progression above that this resource, like the Special Assembly, was about both our own discipleship as well as equipping disciples to make disciples of others. I also liked that this is not a prescribed formula for doing discipleship but a journey and way of life from which helping others develop as disciples is an integral part.

Each session has a Before You Watch opening discussion with some intro questions and the Bible reading. The book gives a basic idea to keep in mind during the video and provides space in the book to jot down thoughts or comments. And in the After You Watch section a time to respond and discuss based on the five concepts of React, Reflect, Apply, Story, and Respond.

Each video is about 15 minutes long (plus or minus about one minute) and are all follow the same pattern, opening with a brief intro, then the Bible passage followed by a couple of individuals commenting and reflecting on the Bible reading. Finally, just under half the video is a member, or in a couple cases two members together, telling a part of their spiritual journey relevant to the topic of that session. The videos are well produced, the timing of them and the segments in them right for the audience and generally interesting to watch. The almost four minute promo video on the web page uses segments from all the videos and gives you a flavour for them.

It is worth saying up front that this series is not intended for a world-wide audience as it is produced for individuals from Ireland with themes and stories that resonate within their cultural setting and experience. For example, near the beginning of video three as the speaker talks about Christian community he makes reference to a number of experiences in that society in saying “Doesn’t Jesus know this is Ireland… We do division really well.” The cultural focus is definitely a benefit in getting the material out to the intended audience. For me it detracted little from the videos but if used in another setting some interpretation may be necessary if viewers are unfamiliar with the cultural themes.

Overall I was very favorably impressed with this resource. High quality and well thought out. I can only say that I went through the whole thing on my own and not with a group but it seems like it should work well. It is not high-pressure and the spiritual journeys shared in the everyday members of the church are well chosen and engaging and would seem to give plenty to talk about in a group discussion.

There were a couple of minor items that did jump out at me: One was that the scripture passages which, while appropriate, were not in chronological order. While session one and session two did come from early in the Gospels, session 3 then jumps to the end of John and the High-Priestly Prayer to talk about community. If the over-arching framework is disciples on their journey being developed by Jesus something more in order might have been more powerful. The second is pretty minor and that is a mention by the person in session 5 in telling his story talking about leading someone to Christ and the Sinners Prayer. It is a quick passing reference and not in the spirit of “this is how its done” but in some Reformed circles that particular prayer is not highly regarded for various reasons. (e.g. Ligonier, TGC)

Finally a couple of nice touches I liked in the series. First, the series is bookended in forming disciples – at the beginning the call to become one and at the end the commission to go and make them. And second, the final session ends in prayer – a good conclusion and reminder of where, as disciples, we are grounded.

Bottom line – I liked the series and found it a good framework and model for such a resource. Clearly some significant thought and testing has gone into designing it and producing it. Yes, it is produced with a particular cultural setting in mind but I think the value of this outweigh’s the downside of portability. And you can’t argue with the cost and I have not figured out if the production budget is depending on volume of sales or subsidy, but I suspect the latter. However, I can say I enjoyed working through the series on my own and can say I was stretched a bit by it.

My thoughts for what they are worth. Your mileage may vary… (to use one of our cultural idioms 😉 )

Info Related To Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief From American Presbyterian Branches

As the catastrophe of Hurricane, now Tropical Storm, Harvey continues to develop, American Presbyterian branches are responding with aid and prayers. Here are links to the latest information I am aware as well as a brief summary from each branch that I have found has posted online:  [Update with MSM links and some church info 8/30/17; more MSM links and church updates 8/31/17]

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
In a pre-landfall update they named the leaders and members of Good Shepherd ARPC in Houston, Hope Presbyterian ARPC in Pearland, and Faith Fellowship in Cypruss TX for prayer. A post-landfall report yesterday gives an update and a link to donate through their Good Samaritan Relief fund.

Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
Nothing obvious on the web site but an email/Twitter bulletin when out before landfall seeking prayers and updates. After landfall they have retweeted to help with relief through World Renew. You can get updates from World Renew on Twitter from @WorldRenew_net.

Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Information on donations is in both an EP Connections article as well as on their Emergency Relief page.

Orthodox Presbyterian Church
They have posted a number of resources for prayer and contributions including the article on the main site, the OPC Disaster Response Facebook page, and the OPC Short-Term Mission and Disaster Response web site. They ask us to keep in prayer the leaders and members of Cornerstone OPC in Houston and Providence OPC in Kingwood, TX. For updates keep an eye on the Facebook page.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is deployed on scene and beginning their work. There is PC(USA) coverage in a couple of articles posted on that site – Aug 27, and Aug 28. The Presbyterian Outlook has just posted a detailed article about PDA’s work there and options for supporting the efforts. The PDA site also includes worship resources for churches including a bulletin insert about the recovery work. Updates from PDA can be seen on their Twitter feed @PDAcares. Update: New article from PC(USA) on the work by PDA

Presbyterian Church in America
The PCA’s Mission to North America (MNA) Disaster Response team is also deploying to the area. There is a page with Disaster Updates that also has information for Prayer, Giving, Sending Supplies, and Preparing to Go to serve. Updates can be found on the Twitter feed @pcamna. Update: New update added to the Disaster Updates page.

That is the information I have found at this point. Let me know if you have additional resources and I will update as appropriate.

Our prayers and support go out to all those affected by this disaster.

UPDATE: Adding some links from the mainstream media that involve Presbyterians. Plenty that mention Presbyterian disaster relief organizations in where to give lists, but beyond that, some others I have seen:

 

2017 National Youth Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland

As I write this the 2017 National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland will be getting underway in Stirling. This event is a bit different than the rest of the Assemblies on my list in that it is not the highest governing body of a Presbyterian denomination. However, I appreciate this event because it is Assembly-like in its process and provides a forum for young adults (ages 17-25) to gather and discuss contemporary issues and how they interact with society and their faith. Furthermore, their discussions and conclusions are presented to the Church of Scotland General Assembly the following May. (If you are interested in more detail, have a look at the National Youth Assembly report to the 2017 Assembly as well as their Joint Report with the Church of Scotland Guild related to inter-generational initiatives in the church.) In addition, other entities within the Kirk, like the Church of Scotland Guild (as indicted above) and the Go For It initiative work with the NYA and its leadership.

So this year’s Assembly convenes this evening, Friday 21 July and will adjourn mid-day on Monday 24 July. It will be meeting again this year at Gartmore House in Stirlingshire. The Kirk put out their story on it yesterday.

The discussion topics this year are Young People and Discipleship (which is tied in to Year of Young People 2018), Interfaith, and Priorities of the Church. The NYA Facebook page is one way to follow along with these discussions and has links to some videos related to the discussions. For Young People and Discipleship, there are some additional themes with video links, such as Participation and Leadership, Education, and Health and Well Being. There is also a video introducing the organization Interfaith Scotland related to the second discussion topic.

A belated congratulations to the incoming leadership of the NYA. They were introduced in a press release a couple months back and will begin their one-year term this evening. The incoming Moderator is Robin Downie of Lochcarron who is currently a hospitality employee – a barman to be specific – but plans to pursue a career in nursing. He has been active with church work including volunteering for six months at Blythswood Care and working at an orphanage and teaching English with the Roma community. The incoming clerk is Catriona Munro originally from Paisley but now calls Stirling home. She is active in many ways with her home church as well as with the NYA team over the last couple of years. And she has been presented with her sign of office.

Besides Facebook the best way to follow along is probably Twitter so keep an eye on the hashtag #nya2017. You should also be looking at the official NYA account (@cosy_nya) as well as the NYA Moderator Account (@nyamoderator).  The NYA will be covered by the curated account Church Scotland Voices (@churchscovoices) under the operation of Gigha Lennox for the weekend who can also be found on her personal account, @Little_isle23. The incoming officers can be followed on their personal accounts as well with Robin at @robin_downie and Catriona at @atrionacmunro. We will have an appearance of the Church of Scotland Moderator, Rt. Rev. Dr. Derek Browning, who tweets at the official account (@churchmoderator). Might see something on the Moderator’s official Facebook page as well. Other groups include the Go For It initiative who will probably be there (@GoForItcofs) and the Kirk Guild (@cofsguild). There are some foreign and ecumenical delegates to the NYA so maybe the representatives from the United Reformed Church’s Youth Assembly in January (@URC_youth) will be there again. I will also include the official Kirk account @churchscotland. Finally, keep an eye on the outoing clerk Lyndasy Kennedy (@GhettoSmurf90) and the soon-to-be former Moderator Andrew MacPherson’s personal account (@StAndrewMac).

And so, with that, we begin another exciting weekend with NYA 2017. Best wishes to the new Moderator and Clerk and to all those in attendance. Our prayers are with you. It will probably take a bit for some of their deliberations, decisions and recommendations to be processed and reported, but we look forward to hearing about those when they are ready. Have a wonderful weekend of fellowship, discernment and spiritual renewal.

 

186th Synod Of The Reformed Presbyterian Church Of North America

We are on the eve of the opening of this Synod which has a particularly heavy schedule to pack into a three day meeting. But as we prepare for this meeting let me comment on the origins of this branch, with apologize to those for whom this is familiar territory. The U.S. is so full of “split-P’s” that it is worth reminding ourselves that the Reformed Presbyterians and Associate Presbyterians have their origin story in the Covenanters and Seceeders in Scotland and came across to the colonies as independent branches. And while they have their own convoluted history since then, it should be remembered that in their tradition they stand on their own apart from the mainstream/mainline of Presbyterian branches in both Scotland and America.

OK, on to what is happening this week.

The 186th Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America will convene bright and early tomorrow morning, June 28, at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, IN.

This is not a meeting with a livestream so we are out of luck there, but so far there is a bit of Twitter chatter so that will probably be our connection. In addition, there is so far no site I have seen with posted dockets, schedules or reports. I will update if that changes. The Constitution is available for download to see their confessional and polity standards.

There are three official places to look for information. First, they have an active Facebook page and I would expect that to have a nice variety of updates and pictures from the meeting. Second, their official media group, RP Witness Magazine, has a nice web site of news items where daily updates will be posted. There is also a Flickr channel, however that has not been updated in two years so we will have to see if there is any new activity this year.

Finally, there is Twitter. Still not sure if the hashtag for the meeting will be #rpcna or #RPSynod2017 and there is an official feed for the RP Witness Magazine (@RPWitnessMag). I would note that there is indeed an official Twitter account for the RPCNA (@RPCNA) but there have been no tweets. Looking at the early action it appears that Nathan Eshelman (@pastoreshelman) will be actively tweeting so might be worth a follow. [*I have added a note related to Nathan at the end.]  Finally, in the category of “there is one in every crowd,” you just might want to keep an eye on John Knox (@fakeRPCNA) and see if he weighs in on Synod. And I will update all this info as warranted when the meeting gets under way.

As I mentioned above, this looks to be a very busy meeting as discussed by the RP Witness in their Synod Preview article. The article begins:

Recent Synods have worked to make the business of Synod more efficient and effective, partly in the hope of requiring less time of delegates and making it feasible for more ruling elders to attend.

This is a year that will test the practicality of shorter Synods, as there is a mountain of work to handle in a three-day schedule, including some very important issues.

The article gives a list of several important items to be considered by the Synod in the allotted time. Here is that list and my attempt at a brief description about each of them:

  • Special Committee on Vocalized Prayer: Is the Directory for Public Worship prescriptive or descriptive when it speaks of elders leading prayers in worship?
  • Special Committee Addressing Ruling Elder Participation at Synod: As noted in the quote above, recommendations on how to get better participation of ruling elders in Synod. Interesting that the ARP also reflected on this issue.
  • Special Study Committee on Gender Identity: Presents the paper “Gender as Calling: The Gospel & Gender Identity” for adoption as a standard for the church.
  • Special Committee on the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ (interim report): An interesting and timely report in progress dealing with the difficult issue of whether in civil elections to only vote for those who live lives that truly follow Christ.
  • Judicial Review of Communication 2016-2: complaint by members of a session and presbytery regarding the beverage used in the communion cup: The presbytery requires the use of wine in communion, a decision that belongs to the session. The Review recommends to drop charges and that all parties seek unity. (And that is simplified way too much.)
  • Judicial Review of Communication 2016-4: appeal of a presbytery’s actions by a retired RP minister: The teaching elder submitted a paper to his presbytery regarding his favorable views on ordination of women to the eldership. The presbytery found them outside the standards and recommended removing his ordination. A Special Committee reviewed the proceedings and recommends that the presbytery be found to have acted with “undue haste.” Presbytery says views are clear and due process was followed so Committee’s primary recommendation should not approved. Teaching elder accepts primary recommendation with concerns. Alternate recommendations are provided.

This list does not include a Special Committee that looked at the Directory for Church Government section of the Constitution and is making the recommendation that all sections related to establishing churches be consolidated into a single, new chapter.

A few other items of business caught my interest. The report of the Board of Trustees of the Synod which brought to the attention of the Synod issues in at least one state with the church’s Trust Clause and that it would not always stand up to neutral principles of property law. The Trustees will be looking at ways to make language in property documents more robust. A communication from a presbytery asks for a slight but notable rewording of the quorum requirements for meetings of a presbytery and the Synod to be very clear how many church must be represented and how many of the commissioners must be ruling elders. Another communication from a presbytery deals with a specific church which is unable to make its assessment payments to the Synod multiple years in a row and asking if there is a solution. They propose paying the presbytery assessment first and the Synod only if the church’s finances that year are good enough.

As I noted at the beginning, the quantity of the business before this assembly is high and the importance of many items is notable. So as the Synod begins our prayers are with the elders, ruling and teaching, who have gathered and we ask for the Spirit’s leading in their discernment of God’s will. We wait to see how they are led and the decisions they make.

 

*Off topic side note related to Nathan: He is one of a quartet of pastors that host a podcast called The Jerusalem Chamber that is walking through the WCF one section at a time. I have found it to be interesting listening for confessional Presbyterians.

37th General Assembly Of The Evangelical Presbyterian Church

As I begin this post let me make two prefatory comments: First, there are two other meetings this week which I regret I do not have the time to preview. These are the GA of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland (hashtag #gaqld17) and the joint General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of America (hashtag #cpga17). Second, in a related comment, I had hoped to be at the EPC GA in person this year since it is in my neck of the woods. The missing posts and the canceled trip are both due to a family commitment that happened this week so my time and tether are both short right now.

But on to the topic of this post, the 37th General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church which began yesterday at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, near Sacramento, California. (And as Fair Oaks notes, it is in partnership with four other churches in the area.) According to the schedule Tuesday began with workshops in the morning and classes as part of the Leadership Institute in the afternoon. There will be Leadership Institute plenary sessions the next two mornings and business will convene Wednesday afternoon. Committees of Commissioners will meet later on Wednesday and Thursday morning if needed. Then the Assembly returns to plenary business sessions Thursday afternoon and running through Friday – as long as it takes to get the work done.

The Assembly meeting will be live streamed and it appears that plenary programs outside the business meeting will be part of the streaming.

There is a lot of information online, most linked through the Documents page. Here are some of the links for information about Assembly business and operation:

As for social media, there is a bit of that out there. There is a Facebook page for the EPC that is currently being updated regularly with Leadership Institute items. The official EPC Twitter feed is @EPChurch and the declared official hashtag (#epc2017ga) has sprung to life. There is also a feed for EPC Student Ministries (@EPCStudentMin) and the Stated Clerk Jeff Jeremiah (@Jeff_Jeremiah ) -but neither has been active for a while.

As for individuals, strong live tweeting going from Matthew Everhard (@matt_everhard), Joshua Brown (@PastorJoshBrown) and Heather Strong Moore (@StrongHeather).

A couple of items of business stand out. I mentioned above the Preliminary Position Paper on Human Sexuality, which was provisionally adopted by the last GA and has been under study by the church this year. This is part of ongoing work and the Ad Interim Committee that considers revisions plans for additional work later this year, but the National Leadership Team will be bringing the recommendation that the Paper be approved.. There are two Overtures from the Presbytery of the Alleghenies related to the Report. One would add fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness to the section on the standards for leaders. The other overture would have an Ad Interim Committee consider the Human Sexuality paper and the Sanctity of Marriage paper (not available online) to eliminate duplicate issues between the two documents.

Another interesting report is that of the Ad Interim Committee on Ministerial Education. While there are no action items in that report, it describes the new education requirements beginning on January 1 of this year. These include a fourth ordination exam in original language exegesis and change in specific course requirements. There is also a Mentored Apprenticeship Program that is being tested. Going forward, they hope to clarify the position of Commissioned Pastor.

And the Stated Clerk’s report has a couple of items related to the dynamics of the denomination. One of those is funding the budget and the use of Per Member Asking was reviewed. There was some significant discussion but sticking with the asking for support on a per member basis is currently the plan. The other interesting note relates to the growth in the denomination. Traditionally GA’s have been hosted by individual churches but with the growth there are now a limited number that are capable of hosting the meeting. The Assembly will consider options and provide input on how they should proceed in the future.

With that, I will wish the EPC commissioners well and we will be lifting them up in our prayers as they meet. I am sorry I can not be there this year but I look forward to observing this particular assembly at a future time.

45th General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In America

The 45th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America convened their plenary sessions last night, 13 June, in Greensboro, North Carolina and will continue through noon on Friday 16 June. In their first action following worship they elected RE Alexander Jun the Moderator of the Assembly. The theme of the Assembly is “Come To The Table.” The meeting will be live streamed and they have their GA app available for several platforms to follow along. There is also a ShareFile! app there for registered commissioners to download reports and other documents.

While the full volume of reports is available only to commissioners, the docket and overtures are available on-line. [Tech note to the GA organizers – it is once again the case this year that you might want to change the title in the GA docket PDF properties so it no longer says “40th General Assembly.”] A more general schedule of events is also available. There is a nice page with links to all the forms and schedules for the meeting. And the Zika Virus Advisory is still on the web site, although I don’t think it is as applicable this year as it was last year in Mobile.

To track the polity of the PCA you can access the Book of Church Order online.

News updates will be posted through the official news website and online publication byFaith.

Turning to social media, you will probably want to keep an eye on the byFaith Magazine Facebook page. There are numerous opportunities to follow the meeting on Twitter including the official feed from byFaith (@PCAbyFaith). The hashtag for the Assembly is #pcaga. For pictures, keep an eye on the PCA Flickr site.

Other related Twitter accounts include Reformed University Fellowship (@RUFnational), PCA Discipleship Ministry (@PCACDM), and the Mission to North America (@pcamna). I would also include in this group the denomination’s schools, Covenant College (@CovenantCollege). and Covenant Seminary (@covseminary).

As for individuals to watch – round-up the usual suspects. Some who will be at the meeting and are, or will probably be tweeting include Fred Greco (@fredgreco), Ligon Duncan (@LigonDuncan), Sean Michael Lucas (@SeanMLucas), Melton L. Duncan (@MeltonDuncan), and Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby) and his Reformed African American Network (@RAANetwork). Having included one organization there I will also mention Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (@prpbooks) and Reformed Theological Seminary (@ReformTheoSem). (And as a note, there are other Twitter accounts for the different RTS campuses.) Let me also include Jim Moon Jr. (@jimmoonjr) and Allan Edwards (@edwardsae1) who in past years has given us the Bingo Card and the Selfie Scavenger Hunt. And for a Twitter feed that is posted decently and in order there is the @PCAPresbyter himself.

Regarding business to the Assembly, from the social media chatter the hot topic will be the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church. This report was authorized by the last GA and attempts to balance a recognition of women’s gifts for service in the church with the PCA’s understanding of the complimentarian nature of ordained office. It comes with a pastoral letter and nine recommendations. Among those recommendations is one that says:

3. That sessions, presbyteries and the General Assembly strive to develop, recognize, and utilize the gifts, skills, knowledge, and wisdom of godly women in the local, regional, and national church, and particularly consider overtures that would allow qualified women to serve on appropriate committees and agencies within the church.

There is another recommendation that, after quoting the Book of Church Order adds:

6… Thus, for the well-being of the church, the committee recommends that sessions and presbyteries select and appoint godly women of the congregation to assist the ordained leadership; these godly, unordained women have often historically been referred to as deaconesses.

This one is sure to elicit a discussion about the nature of deaconesses and any parallels it may have to the ordained office of deacon. An opportunity to recognize and incorporate all in a more inclusive ministry or the camel’s nose under the tent? This report is docketed for 2:45 PM EDT on Thursday afternoon.

That report will be preceded at 2 PM by the Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Racial Reconciliation, a continuation of a discussion that began two years ago and as part of last year’s discussion this Ad Interim Committee was formed.

Having the news update from Monday, we know the recommendations of the Overtures Committee (OC) of Commissioners and can anticipate a few other items of business. Overture 2 was advanced on a divided vote and will come with a minority report. It would give the BCO section on Solemnizing of Marriage full constitutional authority and is aimed at “strengthening the PCA’s public witness to a biblical definition of marriage.” Overture 16 was advanced with a near unanimous vote and would add a requirement that congregational meetings for a church to withdraw from the PCA would have a higher quorum requirement of one-half of the members. And Overture 18 has both practical considerations and polity nuances for the polity wonks in the audience. It would require requests for ad-interim or study committees come only by presbytery overture. The rationale for the overture argues that assembly business, particularly those items strongly connected to doctrine, should be bottom-up and not top-down. In other words, business like this should be generated from the presbyteries not committees of the higher judicatories. It also points out that having it come as presbytery overture provides a path that allows assembly debate, amendment and perfection of the requests.

All this and more is on the table for the next three days. It should be an interesting meeting and a barometer, or maybe a Rorschach test, of where the PCA is at the present time. Be ready to read the tea leaves.

Our best wishes to the commissioners and leaders of the PCA General Assembly for this important meeting and prayers for your discernment the next few days. May the Spirit guide you in your work.

213th Stated Meeting Of The General Synod Of The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

arpc_2846216So extending my analogy from the last post, we started yesterday juggling three balls in the air. At this time two of those GA’s have concluded – the OPC and the PC Canada. With the PC Ireland GA still going strong let’s look at the new ball in the air, the 213th Stated Meeting of the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.

The meeting began yesterday evening, 6 June, and continues until tomorrow, Thursday, 8 June, at the church’s Bonclarken conference center in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

The basic documents for the meeting are posted. First, there is the tri-fold program that summarizes the meeting. The rest of the meeting documents and information are being hosted on a Google share. The document names are fairly clear, but Index A does contain a list of the reports and whether for Committee or Synod and is helpful to find specific reports of interest.

For the doctrinal and polity standards of the ARPC you can check out their Documents page which has all of those, plus some national forms, in one place.

While there is no live stream, the ARP’s official media outlet takes up the challenge nicely. ARP Magazine will be extensively covering the meeting on their news feed, Facebook page and on Instagram. The news feed will also be the place to look for daily updates every evening. They are also the official Twitter feed for the meeting as well (@arpmagazine) and the hashtag is #arpsynod2017, but they tell us to check #arpmagazine as well. Other official and related entity feeds that may or may not be active include the main @ARPChurch, Outreach North America (@ONA_ARP), World Witness (@theworldwitness), and Erskine Seminary (@ErskineSeminary). The latter two are significantly fresher than the first pair.

Looking at the initial Twitter action it looks like Muswell Hillbilly (@WVPitt) and Robert Flight (@rflight79) are actively tweeting the activities. It is also worth noting that Iver Martin (@IverMartin), Principal of Edinburgh Theological Seminary of the Free Church of Scotland, is also attending the meeting.  It is a short meeting, but I will try to update with others as the meeting progresses.

One of the bigger items coming to the Synod this year is a draft of a new Book of Discipline to be received by the Synod and distributed to the church for comment this year, anticipating adoption of the final version at next year’s Synod meeting. A couple items of interest from the Committee on Inter-Church Relations. One is the invitation from the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America to hold concurrent meetings in 2019. The second is the proposal to enter into Fraternal Relations with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales. And worth noting that the Rev. Iver Martin is at the meeting as the fraternal delegate from the Free Church. There’s also an interesting contribution from the Committee on Worship whose report contains a white paper on a Directory of Private and Family Worship and whose recommendations include one to form a special committee to consider if one should be adopted.

For the GA Junkies, Polity Wonks and Presbygeeks out there, I wanted to share a memorial (frequently considered overtures in other branches) from Second Presbytery. The concern is that the valued Presbyterian fundamental of parity between teaching elders and ruling elders is frequently a problem at presbytery and the Synod meeting with teaching elders being the dominant group in the commissioners present. The solution proposed is a specialized Point of Order they are calling a “Parity Challenge.” Not a challenge to get the ruling elders there but a parliamentary procedure to challenge a vote so that the parity of the two different groups of elders can be considered. The proposed addition to the Form of Government is:

2.13 In order to promote the unity, peace, purity, and prosperity of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, presbyters have the right to invoke “Parity Challenge” at all prebytery [sic] and General Synod meetings. A “Parity Challenge” may be called as a point of order immediately after any action of the court. When challenge is called, the court’s action is delayed until subsequent, immediate votes are taken of both elders and ministers by group. A simple majority vote of both groups is required for the challenged action to stand, otherwise the challenged action is revoked.

Seems like a creative way to handle an imbalance in elders but not sure how that discussion will go. (If anyone at the meeting wants to report back on this business item I would be interested in the arguments on each side.) If nothing else, I will put it in the polity book I am writing. 😉

So, in the midst of this General Synod we pray for their deliberations and look forward to hearing how they are guided by the Holy Spirit in their business.

 

2017 General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Ireland

bushAt this point it seems a bit like juggling where you keep adding one more ball to the collection that are in the air. It started with the OPC General Assembly. Add the 143rd GA of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Today we add the next one…

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland convened their 2017 General Assembly in Belfast a little while ago with a worship service and the installation of the new Moderator, the Right Rev Dr Noble McNeely. The Assembly runs through Friday 9 June. With the meeting under way here is some info to help follow along:

  • The live stream is embedded in the main Assembly page and further down the page a few of the streaming highlights for the week and even further down a summary docket of report dates and times.
  • The special Wednesday evening program is themed “Everyday Disciples” – the new Moderator’s theme for the year – and will be live streamed. In addition, following the Assembly’s adjournment there will be the traditional Youth Night on Saturday evening, which will also be live streamed. It’s theme is “(UN) Faithful – A faithful God and His unfaithful people, lessons from Hosea
  • More background for the Assembly can be found on the Assembly Resources page and the reports coming to the Assembly can be viewed individually on the Reports Page or as a whole by downloading the Blue Book.
  • The polity documents include the main document, The Code, as well as the helpful A Guide to Assembly Procedure.
  • The News page will carry official press releases and news items including the pre-Assembly press release which contains a rundown of the major moments and business at the Assembly this year.

There are plenty of social media contact points for the Assembly, beginning with the official Twitter account @PCIAssembly which always provides a detailed and comprehensive report of the Assembly. Please note the comprehensive part, because the level of detail can make the feed very busy. This is generally a good thing but you have been warned that the number of tweets will be very high. (Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The official moderator’s feed at @PCIModerator has become a great source as well. We will see if Rev. McNeely tweets during GA and how much he shares in his moderatorial year. (He does have an almost unused personal feed @mcneelynoble, but I don’t think we will see much there this week, or maybe even this year.) The official hashtag for the Assembly is #pciga17. And it is worth keeping an eye on the PCI Facebook page as well.

Other ministries of the church that have Twitter accounts are Presbyterian Women (@PWinIreland), Mission Ireland (@MissionIreland) and PCI Global Missions (@PCIOverseas). Fair warning that I have included the latter two only for the sake of completeness, but they have been dormant for a while.

The other set of social media contacts to keep an eye on are those related to the Youth Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. They can be followed at a couple of different Twitter handles including the Youth Assembly account for PCI SPUD (@pcispud), and the Youth and Children’s Ministry account @PCIYAC. They have previously hosted Fringe Events and you can watch their Facebook page to see what they might be up to this year.

My list of others to watch for interesting and useful updates always starts with outside reporter and insightful commentator Alan in Belfast (@alaninbelfast). He has indicated that he won’t be around the GA as much this year, but still worth keeping an eye on his feed. For those active in leadership in the church I would point to former Moderator Rob Craig (@RobCraig54) and Cheryl Meban (@cherylmeban) who is active with WCRC and PCI board leadership. So far there seems to be potential from Stuart Morrow (@stuart_morrow), Niall Lockhart (@BallyhenryPres) and Ballygilbert Church (@ballygilbert). And while the PCI does not send a representative to Edinburgh for the Church of Scotland GA, the Kirk Moderator is present at this Assembly and tweeting @ChurchModerator. Will update with others as appropriate. UPDATE: To this list I would add Peter Bovill (@peterbovill) as he had been actively contributing to the feed. And while I have not seen him on the GA feed, please note the recommendation in the comments below for ongoing comments about the PCI.)

In looking at the business of the Assembly a few reports caught my eye. One of these is from the Council for Congregational Life and Witness. In looking at fostering revival in the denomination they are presenting the goal as Fruitfulness and many of the actions in agricultural terms. For example, one of the action items is “Clearing the ground for fruitfulness – Asking the hard questions.” I am encouraged when the stage is set to realize there are no easy answers and that change, particularly rebuilding from a biblical foundation, is called for. A consideration that plays into this and which is mentioned in multiple reports is the decline in those training for the ministry. (see the Council for Training in Ministry report) Another interesting report is the on Relationships with Other Denominations which is Appendix 3 in the General Council Report (starting on the 107th page in the Blue Book). One of the denominations discussed is the relationship with the Church of Scotland and it’s trajectory (and that is the word used in the report). The report also contains the PCI position on human sexuality and marriage (page 114). And the report presents a possible path to work through the differences in the section titled Principles for Pursuing Mutual Reform. It will certainly be an interesting discussion.

As always, our prayers are with the Assembly and the Moderator for the work ahead and their discernment and guidance by the Holy Spirit. We look forward to following their work.

143rd General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Canada

Presbyterian_Church_in_Canada_(logo)We may be in the single busiest week of this year’s General Assembly Season – again with two live streams – and with one GA in progress now the second of the week, the 143rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, is just about to get started.

The first sederunt of the Assembly has just begin with worship and installation of the Moderator, and the meeting will continue through Wednesday 7 June, 2017. It is being hosted by the Presbytery of Kingston and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Opening worship will be at the church and the business sessions will be in the gym of the Athletic and Recreation Centre at Queen’s University.

A few things to know to help follow along:

  • There will live streaming of the Assembly meetings and they are typically archived afterward
  • From the GA 2017 page you can download the full and final Book of Reports. The daily schedule is found on page A-1 (the 5th page) of the packet and a more detailed docket begins on page C-1 (the 11th page in the packet). The Supplementary Reports is available there as well. Also downloadable from that page is a good Summary of Reports piece that gives an overview of the meeting.
  • Official news updates are available on the news feed. While we will miss the reporting from the Presbyterian Record, which ceased publication in December, we can probably expect follow-up after the meeting in the new PC Connect e-newsletter.
  • I anticipate there will be daily GA Briefings and probably video recordings of the sederunts posted regularly. The Briefings, a summary of each sederunt, will probably be are available on the GA 2017 page and the videos archived on the Live Stream Page.
  • The General Assembly Resources page is where you will find the important doctrine and governance documents including the Book of Forms and a link to the Acts and Proceedings page.

The theme for the meeting is “Yesterday, Today, Forever”, taken from the phrase in Hebrews 13:8.

The Assembly can be followed on social media through the PCConnect Facebook page and through their official Twitter feed @PCConnect. The hastag for the meeting is #pccga2017. The Presbyterian Record Flickr feed is still there but not clear it it will be updated. Let’s see if anything appears there or watch the Facebook page. UPDATE: Yes, there are pictures but they are on the PC Connect Flickr feed – sorry to overlook that in the original post.

In early Twitter action I would point to Jeff Loach (@passionatelyhis) (but he may be too busy at the front table) and Scott McAndless (@A_Nobel_Theme) who appears to be blogging the GA. I have not included some of the usual suspects as I don’t know their status but will update as things get rolling. UPDATE: A number of individuals with great Twitter feeds this week beginning with First Presbyterian Brockville (@first_kirk) who has a nice play-by-play going. Add to that, in no particular order, Matthew Ruttan (@MatthewRuttan), Jacqui Foxall (@JacquiFoxall), Kristine O’Brien (@bloomingrev), and Curtis Wilson (@CurtisWilson4). Thanks to all of you for your efforts on social media for the Assembly.

Again this year a closely watched item is the joint Committee on Church Doctrine (CCD) and Life and Mission Agency (LMA) report with the follow up from last year’s discussion on human sexuality. The 16 recommendations they are bringing can be divided into three general groups: 1) Two “substantive scriptural studies.” One leads to the conclusion that Bible supports the current stance of the subordinate standards; the other argues for a revision to the understanding concerning human sexuality and marriage in particular. These are presented for study and prayerful consideration. 2) Acknowledging that the members of the church have “consulted in good faith” this past year but “recognize that the church has failed to fulfill the resolution ‘to listen to and share the very real pain of homosexuals and their families’ that was adopted by the PCC in 1994 and failed in its call ‘to be a welcoming, nurturing, loving and supportive community.'” and 3) A proposal from the LMA to produce a new study on marriage but in the interim to allow clergy to bless, or not bless, civil marriages according to their conscience. Besides the reports volume there is a Guide to Understanding Reports about Sexuality. [Will automatically download a PDF.] Business related to Sexuality Overtures is docketed for various presentations and times of discernment throughout the days of the meeting and the recommendations and docketed groups are in the Guide linked above.

There are a number of other important business items at the meeting. Many committees and agencies will be reporting on their actions related to the new strategic plan approved by the last GA. The Committee on Church Doctrine will also be presenting a resource on Physician Assisted Suicide. A couple related reports deal with the review of the Pensions Plan and its solvency. An overture last year asked for a study to address the reasons for the decline of the church. In their response the Life and Mission Agency says “Decline is a complex issue and while we can speak in generalities, it is impossible to point to any one thing or factor the church must address in order to reverse the decline. In our current cultural context, all bodies of the church have a collective responsibility to equip the whole people of God to work towards renewal.” They go on and recommend ways to develop Visionary Leadership and Empowering People and Congregations for Ministry as well as recommend resources.

So prayers and best wishes for the members of the 143rd General Assembly and as they address issues so important to the future witness of the church. May you indeed by guided by the Holy Spirit in these substantive matters of witness and ministry.