Category Archives: History

Reformation Day Thoughts On A Reforming Pope

On this Reformation Day I would like to spend a few minutes talking about a pope that is not of the traditional nationality for popes, is an outsider to the Holy See and upon taking office sets his sights on reforming the church starting at the top with the Curia and the administration in Rome and thereby raising resistance and concern from the traditional insiders. Current history? Hardly.

Some of the Reformation era popes are fairly well known. Leo X is remembered as the pope that authorized selling indulgences to finance St. Peter’s and then excommunicated Martin Luther when he complained about it (and some other stuff). Clement VII, who happened to be a cousin of Leo’s, is known for his disagreements with Henry VIII and getting Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But until I started doing the research for this post I am not sure I was ever aware of Adrian VI whose short papacy lies between those two.

Adriaan Floriszoon Boeyens was a native of Utrecht, now in the Netherlands, and was the last pontefice barbaro, that being a non-Italian pope, until – wait for it – John Paul II. He is also one of only two modern popes to keep his given name upon becoming pope. While highly regarded for his loyalty, intellect and administrative abilities much of his higher church duties were in Spain, which is where he was in January 1522 when the other cardinals elected him. They had reached the conclusion that no one in the room in Rome would receive enough votes and upon considering others Adrian was overwhelmingly elected. When he arrived in Rome to be installed it was the first time he had ever been in Italy.

Adrian had no illusions about the state of the church and immediately set about trying to reform it. One biography describes his efforts and the response like this:

History presents no more pathetic figure than that of this noble pontiff, struggling single-handed against insurmountable difficulties. Through the reckless extravagances of his predecessor, the papal finances were in a sad tangle. Adrian’s efforts to retrench expenses only gained for him from his needy courtiers the epithet of miser.

Another says:

Adrian VI. lost no time in adopting measures designed to put an end to the religious troubles agitating Europe. He rightly began with the Roman Curia, but made slow progress, because the evils which he sought to eradicate were deep seated and of long standing.

One of his immediate challenges was the Diet in Nuremberg where the German princes were gathering and the duty of trying to keep them loyal to Rome fell to the pope’s legate Francesco
Chieregati, Bishop of Teramo. Adrian prepared for him Instructions to be read to the Diet which one source says is a document “unique in the history of the Papacy” and “is of exceptional importance to an understanding of Adrian’s plans of reform, and his opinion of the state of things.” Here is the Instruction delivered to the Diet on 3 January 1523 quoted in an essay written for the 400th anniversary of the Reformation:

“You are also to say,” wrote Adrian to Chieregati, “that we frankly acknowledge that God permits this persecution of His Church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy: of a surety the Lord’s arm is not shortened that He cannot save us, but our sins separate us from Him, so that He does not hear. Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the outcome of the sins of the priesthood; therefore, as Chrysostom declares, when our Saviour wished to cleanse the city of Jerusalem of its sickness, He went first to the Temple to punish the sins of the priests before those of others, like a good physician who heals a disease at its roots. We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See; sacred things have been misused, ordinances transgressed, so that in everything there has been a change for the worse. Thus it is not surprising that the malady has crept down from the head to the members, from the Popes to the hierarchy.

“We all, prelates and clergy, have gone astray from the right way, and for long there is none that has done good; no, not one. To God, therefore, we must give all the glory and humble ourselves before Him; each one of us must consider how he has fallen and be more ready to judge himself than to be judged by God in the day of His wrath. Therefore, in our name, give promises that we shall use all diligence to reform before all things the Roman Curia, whence, perhaps, all these evils have had their origin; thus healing will begin at the source of the sickness. We deem this to be all the more our duty, as the whole world is longing for such reform. The papal dignity was not the object of our ambition, and we would rather have closed our days in the solitude of private life; willingly would we have put aside the tiara; the fear of God alone, the validity of our election. and the dread of schism, decided us to assume the position of Chief Shepherd. We desire to wield our power not as seeking dominion or means for enriching our kindred, but in order to restore to Christ’s bride, the Church, her former beauty, to give help to the oppressed, to uplift men of virtue and learning; above all, to do all that beseems a good shepherd and a successor of blessed Peter.

“Yet let no man wonder if we do not remove all abuses at one blow, for the malady is deeply rooted and takes many forms. We must advance, therefore, step to step, first applying the proper remedies to the most difficult and dangerous evils, so as not by a hurried reform to throw all things into greater confusion than before. Aristotle well says: ‘All sudden changes are dangerous to states.”’

Amazingly frank words about the state of the church coming from the very top. And apparently an admission resulting from the pressure generated by Martin Luther’s calls for change.

A few historical points should be noted about all this. First, the Instruction acknowledges the corruption in the system but the church stood by the doctrinal standards that were also at issue with Martin Luther. In fact, part of the message of the legate to the Diet was for them to stand by and enforce the decision of the Diet of Worms against Luther.

Second, the Instruction was an acknowledgement that Luther and other reformers were correct on certain points and it should come as no surprise that Adrian’s acknowledgement of the need for reform of the system was seized upon by them as validation of those claims that reform was needed.

Third, the work and stress of reforming the church took a heavy and rapid toll on Adrian and from his installation on 31 August 1522 he served barely a year until his death on 14 September 1523. The essay says of his successor, Clement VII, “Although he had given evidence of efficiency and was free from extravagance, yet he lacked decision.”

Yet the need for reform was acknowledged and while the path was not straight and the wheels turned slowly, Adrian’s naming the problems helped pave the way for Clement’s successor, Paul III, to convene the Council of Trent.

Finally, an editorial note: Lest you think that I was being selective in my sources to prove my argument and show the medieval church in a particularly bad light, I would point out that every quote, source and link in this post is from a document from the Roman church. In particular, I was excited to find that collection of essays titled The Reformation: A Series of Articles Published in The Tidings which collected in one volume 24 articles published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in their weekly The Tidings from November 1916 to May 1917 in their  recognition of the 400th anniversary of The Reformation. I may not agree with their doctrinal interpretation of the Reformation, but I have found it a rich source of historical information from the Roman perspective. [And for my friends on Twitter and Facebook – this was the unnamed “rabbit hole” that excited me last weekend when I found it and discovered a rich source of information for my Reformation Day post.]

And so with that I wish all my Protestant and Reformed friends a very good Reformation Day. May you always be reforming according to the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Decision In Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other side…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presbyterian News Headlines For The First Half Of August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Across the Presbyterian branches there were calls for peace in Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So until next time…

A Brief Comment On Presbyterian History Regarding The Princetons

The political news of the day is the upset primary victory of Dave Brat over Eric Cantor, the US House of Representatives majority Leader, i.e. the second highest leadership position for the Republicans in the House.

I am not going to wade into the politics of that race, but something else, something Presbyterian caught my eye.

Professor Dave Brat has an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Yup, it looks like another alum of that venerable institution might be going into government service. You can check out his academic credentials on his faculty web page at Randolph-Macon College.

Looking at his faculty web page it would suggest that he has a Reformed background, having also attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

Now, I am not saying that Dr. Brat was ever Presbyterian, let alone PC(USA), but there is a connection. And his campaign bio lists him and his family attending a local Roman Catholic parish.

It is interesting that his campaign bio has gotten a few people worked up because in it, and elsewhere, he talks about getting an M.Div. from “Princeton.” without being any more specific. This apparently has most people thinking PU, leading that institution to need to clarify when asked by the media.

OK, enough about politics and on to what really got my attention.

What I found most interesting is that the Princeton University spokesperson, Martin Mbugua, made this comment (as quoted on the Washington Post live blog):

Mbugua said people occasionally “make an association between the
institutions here in Princeton, an incorrect association.” The two
independent institutions simply “happen to be in the same town,” Mbugua

May I take exception to his comment? I will grant you they are two independent institutions but it is not by pure chance they are in the same town. At least to me, to say that there is no association between them ignores the fact that they were both established by early American Presbyterians, that the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) was founded to train ministers and most of its early presidents were Presbyterian ministers. Further, Princeton Theological Seminary was founded as a spin-off from the College to provide a more extensive theological training and the first Principal of the Seminary, Archibald Alexander, came over from the College to head up the seminary. While the college and the seminary may not have always had similar viewpoints, I think it is fair to say that the seminary is a younger sibling of the college.

If you want to take it a step further up to the present day the University’s Wikipedia page notes that “Today, Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary maintain
separate institutions with ties that include services such as
cross-registration and mutual library access.”

While the two schools grew apart during the Civil War and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, it is worthwhile to note that at their root they come from the same stock.

OK, history distraction over – back to the GA’s.

P.S. Waiting to see if David Brat does win the fall election if that might get him distinguished alumni recognition at the seminary. His name has already been added to the Notable Alumni section of the Wikipedia page.

To every action… (A Reformation Day Reflection)

…there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

That is Newton’s third law of motion as translated from the Latin of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, often noted by the shorthand Principia.

That is the rule in Physics, so on this Reformation Day I wanted to consider the ecclesiastical reaction to the Reformation. Whether it was “equal and opposite” is left as an exercise for the reader.

The personal consequences of Martin Luther’s questioning of the Roman church that is commemorated on this day are fairly well known: The papal bull, his excommunication, his stand before the Diet of Worms, the protection by political authorities who may have had motives more or less theological versus political, and the resulting split with Rome in parts of Germany have been regularly chronicled in the popular media.

But what about broader and longer-term reactions to the Protestant Reformation?

There was a reaction in the Roman church which goes by a few different names but is commonly called the Counter-Reformation. And as I began researching this I found that the Roman church laid claim to Martin Luther in this, at least to a point…

[T]he name [Counter-Reformation] suggests that the Catholic movement came after the Protestant; whereas in truth the reform originally began in the Catholic Church, and Luther was a Catholic Reformer before he became a Protestant. By becoming a Protestant Reformer, he did indeed hinder the progress of the Catholic reformation, but he did not stop it. It continued to gain headway in the Catholic South until it was strong enough to meet and roll back the movement from the North. [from Catholic Encyclopedia]

They go on to argue that it was not a reaction but continuing process, even talking about how the movement continues today since the heresies from the time of Luther still continue. (I guess they figure that there are still Lutherans running around.)

This idea is echoed in a scholarly article from The Catholic History Review (Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 383-404 ) by Wolfgang Reinhard titled “Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State a Reassessment.” He writes:

Traditionally, German, and to a certain extent European early modern
history as well, is divided into three periods: the “Reformation” 1517-
1555, the “Counter-Reformation” 1555-1648, and the “Age of Absolutism” 1648-1789. This division has become almost indestructible
because of the simple and convincing dialectical pattern it is based
upon: a progressive movement, the “Reformation,” as thesis, evokes a
reaction, the reactionary “Counter-Reformation,” as antithesis; their contradiction leads to extremely destructive armed conflicts, until Europe
is saved by the strong hand of the absolutist early modern state, which because of its neutrality in the religious conflict is considered the synthesis, a synthesis which opens the way to that culmination point of
world history the modern national power state. This view of history is
wonderfully convincing, but quite incorrect. If only we were able to free
ourselves from its grip, we might easily learn from recent research that
“Counter-Reformation,” if a reaction, was still not simply reactionary.
But we would also recognize that the relation between “Reformation”
and “Counter-Reformation” was not just that of action and reaction, but
much more that of slightly dislocated parallel processes.

The article goes on to talk about the modern state making this a mildly interesting article. But that is not the point today.

Returning to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, I am willing to grant that on one level these were movements in much broader developments across Europe at this point in time and that there were reform movements clearly working within the Roman church (such as the Society of Jesus). But there are two historical developments that I am not sure would have developed as they did were it not for the Protestant Reformation, leading me to see the Counter-Reformation as truly “counter” to the Reformation.

The first event occurred on 21 July 1542 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was founded under the original name of the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. According to that web site it has the “duty… to defend the Church from heresy.” (It should be noted that Inquisitions had existed before in local or regional settings but now it was, and its successor is still, based in Rome for the whole church.)

The second event followed a couple of years later when on 13 December 1545 the Council of Trent was opened. According to the abstract of the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia the Council is described thus:

Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it.

My point is not to call the Roman church to task for defending its doctrine and correcting abuses – it has every right to do that although the methods were sometimes extreme to our modern sensibilities. The point is that even if there were certain internal reform movements already in place, the unprecedented success of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman church certainly got the church’s attention and the Roman church decided that a response in the form of some major and targeted action was necessary.

Equal? Maybe or maybe not. Opposite? Not entirely as it did address some of the same internal abuses that got Luther going.

But a response to the action? From my reading of history there clearly was. But you can be the judge for yourself.

Happy Reformation Day. May we always be Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.

An Interesting Comment On The Battle Of Gettysburg

On this 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg I read a number of articles and a quote from one in particular from CBS News jumped out at me. I will give you the extended passage from the article and not comment but simply suggest that readers might think about what implications this suggests for leadership and organizations.

With momentum on his side, Robert E. Lee launched a dramatic march
around the south end of the Union position along Cemetery Ridge. Under
the direction of James Longstreet, Confederate forces advanced to the
heart of the Union line on Cemetery Hill, catching Union generals off

Allen Guelzo,
author of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” says the surprise attack
would have worked if not for a flurry of desperate actions by low-level
Union soldiers who kept the Confederates at bay. Those acts of heroism
included a last-minute bayonet charge by the 20th Maine volunteers to
hold Little Round Top; a suicidal charge by the 1st Minnesota volunteers
that thwarted two Confederate brigades; and a last-minute rush by a
brigade of Ohioans, Indianans and West Virginia volunteers that saved
Cemetery Hill.

“That’s the real story of the July 2nd
fighting and, in some senses, the real story of Gettysburg itself,”
Guelzo said. “The (second day of battle) was decided not by the genius
of great generals but by the initiative of some very ordinary but some
extraordinarily well positioned individuals who on their own initiative
did the right thing.”

2013 General Assembly Of The Presbyterian Church In Ireland

Beginning in a few hours we turn our attention to the western side of the North Channel for the penultimate General Assembly in the British Isles. At 7:00 PM this evening, Monday 3 May, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will convene. This year will be a bit different as the Assembly takes one of their very occasional trips away from the Assembly Hall in Belfast (the last time was 22 years ago), this year to meet at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry.

If you are interested, here is some helpful information:

  • The Church has produced an excellent outline of their meeting on the Assembly page. There is also a news item with a narrative of the meeting and highlights for each day
  • The reports that were published in advance are available on the Reports Page
  • There are usually news reports from The Press Office. There is the news page or I will update if a separate page is used.
  • If you need a polity refresher you should check out their unified document, The Code as well as their Guide to Assembly Procedure
  • In the past the PCI has done a wonderful and prolific job of tweeting the Assembly at @pciassembly. For the meeting the hashtag is #pciga13
  • Other Twitter accounts related to the church that could be interesting are @PCIYAC from the Youth and Children department and @pciSPUD from the Youth Assembly
  • The best observer of the GA to keep an eye on is Alan in Belfast on both Twitter @AlanInBelfast,  and his blog Alan in Belfast
  • The local news site Slugger O’Toole with their Twitter @sluggerotoole is also a good source that might have some coverage
  • Finally, there will probably be PCI commissioners tweeting. Let me start with the moderator of a past General Assembly @staffordcarson. (And on a side note, Dr. Carson is up for approval by the Assembly to a new position. UPDATE: He was approved as the new Principal of Union College. ) Update: I would add to the list James Currie (@jcbelfast) who is active with PCIYAC and pciSPUD.

Regarding live streaming we have this unfortunate statement from the Arrangements Committee (pg. 7):

Web Streaming and ‘Twitter’
9. The Arrangements Committee regrets that due to technical restrictions, the General Assembly will not be streamed this year.  However, proceedings may be followed on ‘Twitter’

The raises a couple of questions in my mind, one being the quotes around Twitter. (Are those scare quotes?)
But further, in an advanced facility such as the Millennium Forum why are there technical issues with streaming? It seems the key word is… restrictions. It leads me to conclude that the requirements of the venue are that they handle the streaming at a cost which is prohibitive to the church. Another thing I see is that portions will be broadcast by the BBC so there may be restrictions to competition there. It may be something else but those are my guesses at the moment. For those of us who enjoy the stream and are interested in the business and decisions reached we still have Twitter but the lack of streaming is a disappointment when it seems easy enough to do.

There are two evening events of some interest. The first is a series of seminars on Tuesday evening at Magee College. It was founded by Presbyterians but is now a branch of the University of Ulster. The series of presentations will reflect on Presbyterian history and tradition. The second is “Christ Transforming Culture” on Wednesday night in the meeting space. As the description says of the event “Through drama and music the Moderator and others will lead an
exploration of how the Assembly theme, ‘A Place of Transformation’
impacts on the Church and individual Christians and on the culture of
where they work and witness.”

A number of interesting items of business on the docket. There is a report on Baptism from the Doctrine Committee (pg. 13 of the report) The report concludes that baptism by immersion is not necessary and is not the most appropriate method but does not recommend forbidding it.

There is an interesting report from an Advisory Committee to the General Board that includes a section (beginning on page 32) about helping resolve conflict in congregations. The many recommendations include better training of Elders and this:

(iii) The Church should seriously consider the Church of Scotland and PC USA [sic] model of having an interim Minister for up to a year, where there has been a long ministry of say 15 years or more. This would allow a Congregation to adjust, grieve if necessary, think of themselves without the previous Minister, deal with any outstanding issues and prepare themselves for a call.

In my experience, both are good moves and I might suggest shortening that 15 years down a bit to ten or even seven.

There is also some tension related to the trajectory the Church of Scotland is following on same-sex partnerships and the ministry. There are a few points that this may present itself during the Assembly including the Church and Society report as well as Ecumenical Relations. In particular, the Moderator’s Advisory Committee of the General Board is looking to open conversations about human sexuality within the church.

Finally, the Priorities Committee of the General Board (report beginning on page 39) is conducting a Structures Review that is looking at the form and function of the church. Among the issues it sees that resonate with the findings of a similar panel I have been on is about communication between bodies within the church with the report saying ” The current engagement that takes place between Presbyteries and Boards is at times very sparse.” Like that understated wording.

Almost all of there are General Board committees and will be part of the General Board report on Tuesday.

So there is lots going on this week and we look to the social media outlets for updates. Our prayers are with the Assembly and the incoming Moderator, the Rev Rob Craig. May the Holy Spirit indeed be moving among you in your discussions and discernment.

Review Of The BBC Documentary “An Independent People”

I had heard about the BBC – Northern Ireland producing a documentary on Ulster Presbyterians titled “An Independent People.” Well, it is now released and was broadcast on the BBC this past week with the final part airing last night.

Since it was on the BBC it is available on their iPlayer, but that did not help those of us outside the UK. Well, this past weekend I found it on YouTube and spent some time watching it. In short – I was not disappointed!

This is a documentary that presbynerds and those interested in Presbyterian church history will enjoy and I suspect that others with a more passing history of Presbyterianism will as well.  As I will explain in a moment, the first episode is a good general background for any Presbyterian and the second episode has some interesting background for Americans – Presbyterian or not.

This is a three-part documentary, each part one hour long, hosted by BBC NI religion correspondent William Crawley. The program presents the history of the Ulster Presbyterians with a wonderful balance of Mr. Crawley’s narrative, expert quotes, historical and current imagery, and plenty of location shots at historical sites. I don’t think there is a studio shot in the whole three hours.

But beyond the visual richness of the series it does a great job of explaining the history and the individuals behind it without taking sides in the many conflicts and controversies throughout the history. While it seemed to me that it presented a fairly complete history – and helped fill in several holes in my understanding of the Ulster Presbyterians – I do not have a deep enough knowledge of the history to know if there were any glaring errors or omissions.

It is also worthwhile to note that it sticks very close to the Ulster Presbyterians so when it talks about Scottish or American Presbyterians it is only to the extent that the Irish were involved. The primary exception is the very beginning when the origins of Presbyterianism in Geneva and Scotland are discussed.

The first episode titled “Taking Root” begins by recounting that early history and then the first wave of Scots to Ulster in the Plantation movement and resistance they found there. The next episode is “Seeds of Liberty” and talks about the Ulster Presbyterians in American and the ideas of the Enlightenment they brought with them that found expression in the American Revolution. It also discusses how that revolution, the French Revolution and the Enlightenment influenced Ireland. The final episode is “Union and Division” and traces the history in the Union of the UK and the divisions within Ireland as well as touching on the early Presbyterian missionary efforts.

The program was produced by Below the Radar for the BBC. You can find @williamcrawley and the show’s producer Fiona Keane (@fikeane) on Twitter. There are notices from both the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland promoting the show. In addition to the BBC the show was funded in part by the Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.

A trailer/ad is also available but I’m not sure it does the series justice — but what can you do in 30 seconds?

As you can probably figure out, the title reference to an independent people works on many levels. For those that think Presbyterian realignments are a new phenomenon this series makes it clear that it is not.  Mr. Crawley begins the third episode with this lede:

[P]resbyterianism has always been a fractious faith. The democracy that defines it also creates division and dissent.

While the Ulster Presbyterians have components of their history that are unique in the Presbyterian universe, much of their history has interesting influences and parallels throughout global, and especially western, Presbyterianism. This documentary does a good job of helping us see where those puzzle pieces fit in the larger picture.

UPDATE: After posting this I found that Gladys Ganiel had written about the series. Some interesting insights from her background living in both The States as well as currently in Belfast. She did alert me to one error in the program – the statement that Francis Makemie founded the first Presbyterian Church in America. The program could have meant the oldest active congregation but a Long Island congregation founded by English Presbyterians in the 1640’s is generally regarded as the first. Makemie did however organize the first presbytery. But Gladys has a good point that I remember no mention of Amy Carmichael in the third episode and generally little coverage of the role of women in the history. She has also written some thoughts on the first episode.

UPDATE: Another insightful review and discussion of the program by Steve Stockman on his blog Soul Surmise. (And thanks to @alaninbelfast for bringing it to my attention.)

You Say You Want A Reformation? OK, Now What?

Yes, it is once again Reformation Day. This is the one day we can nail down as having a dramatic specific positive event in the sequence of many actions that were part of the Protestant Reformation.

A year ago I reflected on why this date among many other possible dates and why Martin Luther over several other reformers.

As I was reflecting this year I was considering the “Now What.” On this day in 1517 Martin Luther began his very public quest to ask hard theological questions of the church in which he was a priest and which was dominant in his part of the world. But while that was a pivotal moment it was much more the beginning of the journey than the end. The papal bull was not issued until June of 1520 and was not in Luther’s hands for him to burn until December. The Diet of Worms was the following April. It then took Luther a bit over a year – while in protective custody – to translate the New Testament into the common German language, but it was another twelve years to complete the Old Testament. And throughout all this he was also writing his commentaries and other books, particularly On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church where he laid out his theology and where the church in Rome had departed from scripture.

Similarly, while we mark the beginning of the Reformation, or at least Luther’s branch of it, on this day maybe the next major milestone is not his famous defense (the famous “Here I stand” speech.) but the response to that speech in the Edict of Worms issued a month later. Unlike the papal bull that condemned Luther and banned his writings, this edict cut off his accomplices and followers with him. In effect this created the Evangelisch/Lutheran church.

But Luther was not alone in having a slow and steady march. John Calvin was first convinced to stay in Geneva in September of 1536 but was kicked out a year and a half later. Three and a half years later he accepted an invitation to return and works in Geneva for the remaining 23 years of his life. Similarly, his famous work The Institutes of the Christian Religion seemed to be a work never finished going through five editions between 1536 and 1559.

And the Scottish Reformation was a real roller coaster ride. In 1560, under the leadership of John Knox, the Scottish Parliament cut ties with the papacy and adopted a new confession of faith. However, the structure of the church changed much more slowly and the back and forth of English rule and those that ruled England led to an ebb and flow in the church. There were high points, such as the Presbyterian influence in the Westminster Assembly, and low points like the 28 years of persecution under Charles II. Religious toleration came back at the end of the persecution in 1687 and Presbyterianism recognized as the established religion in Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707.

It is hard to see Reformation as a single date or point in time.

History generally teaches us that major change, and especially reformation, is messy, complicated and takes time. And Luther, Calvin and Knox are the successes while others like Hus, Tyndale and Hamilton did not find political and societal circumstances as fortunate and gave up their lives for their cause.

But in another sense the Reformation never ended. The point of the Reformation was to recover the Word of God and always be subject to it. The reformers made a point of the third mark of the true church, discipline uprightly administered, with the point of it to be constantly seeking together as a covenant community what God would have us do.

And so, on this Reformation Day, it brings us back around to one of the mottoes we associate with the Reformation:

“The Church Reformed and always being Reformed according to the Word of God”

Church Of Scotland Sexuality Discussion And Resulting Departure Actions

Over the last few weeks and months there have been some significant developments regarding ministers and churches that are concerned with the direction the Kirk is headed.

Briefly, the background to the recent actions is in the on-going discernment by the Church of Scotland through the General Assembly to determine the church’s stand on same-gender relationships. The current stream can be traced back to January of 2009 when Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen extended a call to the Rev. Scott Rennie who was in a same-gender relationship. This call was sustained by the presbytery and later that Spring the dissent and complaint concerning the presbytery decision was refused by the General Assembly. The Kirk has done what in my opinion is a wise thing and that is to deal with the matters of same-gender relationships as a whole including consideration of ordination standards and civil unions and marriages. The 2009 General Assembly, after refusing the dissent and complaint, considered some additional overtures and ended up setting up a Special Commission to consult with the church more widely concerning these matters. The Special Commission brought to the 2011 GA a set of recommendations which included a choice of which direction to head concerning this matter. By a vote of 351 to 294 the General Assembly chose to “Resolve
to consider further the lifting of the moratorium on the acceptance for
training and ordination of persons in a same-sex relationship, and to
that end instruct the Theological Commission to prepare a report for the
General Assembly of 2013…” So that is where we are, waiting for next year’s GA to see how the report of the Theological Commission is acted upon. From there, any polity changes based on the Theological Commission report would take another year.

Except that not everyone is waiting. With a trajectory chosen some members of the Church of Scotland are concerned with what they see as a non-biblical direction and are considering their options.

Most recently, the Rev. Paul Gibson has moved from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church of Scotland, being accepted by the Commission of Assembly on 4 October. In the Free Church news article he is quoted as saying:

I’m under no false illusions that somewhere out there is the perfect denomination or Church.

However, in these days of political correctness, pluralism and great
moral confusion, I believe that what is so desperately needed is not
further confusion and liberal ambiguity from the Church, but instead a
consistent appeal to the unchanging truths of God’s word, the Bible.

The Church should, by God’s grace, do all in its power to further,
rather than hinder, the good news of Jesus Christ in Scotland.

Something about this transfer caught the attention of the mainstream media and Rev. Gibson did an interview with The Scotsman which was picked up by several other news outlets. Something that caught my attention was the nuance that each headline writer gave. In The Scotsman it is said that he “defects” to the Free Church. The Christian Post says he was “forced out,” and at least they use that term again in the body of the article. And in the Christian Institute article the headline says he “quits Kirk.”

The other news is related to the congregation of St.George’s Tron, a landmark church in the centre of Glasgow. (Hey, if your URL is you have something going for you. )

Back in June, after a year of prayer and discernment, the church decided to leave the Church of Scotland because of their disagreement with the GA’s chosen trajectory. This past Tuesday the Presbytery of Glasgow received a report from a special committee and, based on documents online, approved the report’s recommendations to retain the property — the buildings as well as the contents, bank accounts and church records. The presbytery decision is fresh so the situation is still developing but this disagreement could certainly head to the courts.  In the statement from last Sunday the Rev. Dr. William Philip addresses this:

Now, we mustn’t pre-judge the issue, Presbytery on Tuesday night can
reject this report, but I have to tell you that I think that seems
extremely unlikely. And so, barring an intervention of God, that means
that we must be prepared for the fact that we must soon be forced out of
this building where we meet and where we so delight to share the gospel
of the Lord Jesus Christ. It may also be that the family and I are
forced to leave the manse and that we as a Church may lose all of our
other assets as well. (These things are more complicated, we may have a
better legal defence there, although it does seem that the Scottish
charity regulator has tended to side with the Church of Scotland view.
But as I say, these things are complex.)

Nevertheless, the deliverance being urged upon Presbytery on Tuesday
night includes taking further legal action without delay to dispossess
us of these things. As you know, there is already legal action underway
personally against myself and our Session Clerk and our treasurer.

[Note: the last action he is referring to is most likely the already initiated legal action to recover the church records.]

There are articles about the decision from The Scotsman and the Herald Scotland.

Let me make a few comments on church polity and legal precedents in this matter.

The Church of Scotland does not have a “trust clause” as American Presbyterians are familiar with. As I understand the property situation in the Kirk, title to church property in Scotland is, with minor exceptions, held by the General Trustees at a national level. This clearly presents a major legal hurdle for a congregation to overcome to retain their buildings and as noted in the statement above the charity regulator tends to side with the Church of Scotland.

Now, I have been advised that Scottish laws, and property laws in particular, have some unique aspects to them so I don’t want to go too far out on a limb here, but from the reading I have been doing the current situation does appear to present an up-hill battle for the congregation.

There is one recent church property decision that may present a precedent that supports the denomination and that is the July 2009 decision in the case of  Smith and other v Morrison and others. In this case the Free Church of Scotland successfully sued the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) claiming that when the two groups split in 2000 the Free Church (Continuing) congregations were not entitled to take the property with them.

There is an interesting nuance here because it appears that under Scottish law a church may keep property if they separate after, and because, the denomination has “departed from fundamental principles.” The Free Church decision talks extensively about fundamental principles and how they are not an issue in that case. One such passage says

[63] The national church cases were of limited importance to
the essential issues in the present case. Each dealt with the issue of
fundamental principles in a different context. The pursuers here did not aver
departure by the defenders from fundamental principles

The implication throughout is that if fundamental principles were at stake the decision might have been different. Since this case does involve doctrine we will have to see if that does qualify as a fundamental principle and makes a difference in any legal proceedings.

[A couple of interesting points for those familiar with current happenings in American cases. The first is that American courts stay clear of doctrinal issues in property cases under the “neutral principles” concept and can not judge whether one side or the other has departed from fundamental principles of doctrine. The second is that for PC(USA) folks this idea of fundamental principles probably carries echos of the ongoing discussion about essential tenets and if this question goes forward it will be interesting to see the arguments made about where these issues are, or are not, fundamental principles of doctrine.]

It is interesting to note that the Free Church (Continuing) is now trying to cast their continuing property dispute with the Free Church as a fundamental principles case. Now that the Free Church has relaxed their position on exclusive unaccompanied hymn singing the Free Church (Continuing) is claiming that they have made a change regarding their fundamental principles. (Opinion: I personally don’t think that will go very far.)

If you want more on the FC/FCC property dispute you can find it with Martin Frost and Scottish Christian. There is also the statement by the Free Church regarding the decision on the Sleat and Strath Free Church blog. These actions do continue and about a year ago the decision was upheld on appeal. In the decision regarding the appeal one of the judges, Lord Drummond Young, wrote

In this respect, the exhortation to long suffering forbearance and unity
of the spirit within a congregation may be as relevant to Broadford and
other communities in Scotland in the 21st Century as it was to Ephesus
in the First Century.

And so just as there is the prospect of more Free Church cases to reclaim property there is also the prospect of not just St. George’s Tron but other Church of Scotland congregations getting involved in legal actions if they decide to leave the denomination.

As with so many things Presbyterian there is a long way to go here. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: 15 October – Herald Scotland brings the report that legal proceedings against St. George’s Tron have been initiated.

UPDATE: 21 October – The Church of Scotland has issued a statement about the St. George’s Tron situation. In the statement it is pointed out that the congregation has unpaid contributions to the Presbytery of Glasgow and has a loan of almost £1M from the General Trustees. (H/T Peter Nimmo)