Category Archives: mission

Top Ten Presbyterian News Themes Of 2014

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

General Assemblies and Same-Sex Relationships

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Congregations Switching Branches

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

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

Fossil Fuel Divestment

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

Independence Referendum in Scotland

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

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


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

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

PC(USA) Ethics Investigation

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

Israel-Palestine Actions

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

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

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

Women’s Ordination and Related

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

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

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

Death of Ian Paisley

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

And a couple of other Presbyterian-ish stories

Knox 500

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

Spectacular Viking treasure hoard found on Church of Scotland land

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

PC(USA) GAPJC Decision — Presbytery Of NYC v. McGee And Others

Last weekend the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) heard a remedial case brought against the Presbytery of New York City (PNYC) concerning details and process related to their Gracious Dismissal Policy (GDP). The complainants filed the case against the Presbytery concerning irregularities in the Gracious Dismissal Policy shortly after it was adopted. The Synod PJC agreed with the complainants and the Presbytery appealed it to the GAPJC.

The Executive Summary is that the GAPJC sustained none of the specifications of error in the SPJC’s decision, the GDP has been rendered null and void, and this decision has given other presbyteries something to think about. The first specification of error dealt with the claim that the PNYC GDP “conferred a unilateral right on a congregation to depart from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The second was that the GDP “does not give effect to the Trust Clause.” Specifically, PNYC had specified a formula in their GDP for compensation for property and the GAPJC reaffirmed that this must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The third specification of error related to dismissal simply because there were theological differences. The GAPJC said:

It is the nature and weight of theological difference that is critical in a justification for dismissal. The mere presence of theological differences does not preclude coexistence within the PC(U.S.A.).

The fourth specification may be, from my experience, the one with the most implications. It was in regard to a congregation in schism and the GAPJC responded that “It is clear what a presbytery must do when confronted with a property issue… a presbytery is obligated to serve the interests and guard the rights of the ‘true church
within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The final error related to PNYC allowing churches to retain their records.

OK, now let’s drill down into the detail.

In the matter of Presbytery of New York City Appellant (Respondent) vs. Ruling Elder Mildred McGee, Teaching Elder Flora Wilson Bridges, Ruling Elder Douglas Howard, Teaching Elder Lonnie Bryant, Ruling Elder Daniel Amiot Priso, Teaching Elder Phillip Newell, Ruling Elder Emmanuel Gouad Njayick, Teaching Elder George Todd, Ruling Elder Estella Taylor, and Ruling Elder Norita Chisolm, Appellees (Complainants) in Remedial Case 221-08 the GAPJC did not sustain any of the five specifications of error the Appellant charged regarding the trial decision before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Northeast.

The case results from the PNYC adopting a Gracious Dismissal Policy on January 29, 2013 by a vote of 56 in favor and 49 against. The complainants filed a remedial complaint with the SPJC on February 13, 2013 and along with the complaint a request for stay of enforcement, which was granted. The complaint was filed specifically in regards to the adoption of the GDP and not in connection with the application of the GDP in the dismissal process of a church as was the case in the Tom and Anderson cases (noting that the latter was a complaint to a SPJC which was settled in mediation).

The complainants listed seven charges in their complaint and in the decision of the SPJC five of the seven charges were sustained. There is a direct relationship of these five sustained charges in the SPJC decision to the five specifications of error in the GAPJC decision so I will not dwell on those any longer. The respondent appealed the SPJC decision to the GAPJC.

The first specification of error by the respondent was that “The SPJC erred in constitutional interpretation by holding that the Presbytery GDP conferred a unilateral right on a congregation to depart from the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)…” This stems from a number of details of the GDP and a general sense in the GDP that if a church fulfills a certain set of steps it will be dismissed. In particular, there is no requirement that the presbytery votes to dismiss the congregation. The argument was put forward that since the presbytery approves the GDP that counts as their approval of any and all dismissals that follow the GDP.

This particular requirement is specifically addressed in a set of additional comments in the SPJC decision about the challenges of decision making in a narrowly divided presbytery:

We are sensitive to the difficult situation in which the PNYC finds itself and appreciate its sincere desire to deal with that as well as it can. [snip] Considering that the presbytery mustered a majority vote, however slim, for the GDP under consideration in this case, and with the case-by-case requirement satisfied in these cases, it ought to be possible for the PNYC to reach agreement on approval for such dismissal arrangements.

The GAPJC echoes this comment in their writing on the first specification of error:

While it may be understandable for a presbytery to develop a policy dealing with congregations considering dismissal with the intention of avoiding costly litigation, the GDP at the center of this case breaches the bounds of the Constitution of the PC(U.S.A.). [snip] A final vote by the PNYC is purposefully denied in the GDP in order to avoid divisive and argumentative response to a dismissal request, as admitted by the PNYC in the record and during arguments.

In responding to, and not sustaining, this specification of error the GAPJC finds three constitutional irregularities with the PNYC GDP: 1. The GDP is “self-executing” having the congregation jump through three hoops and meet the payment requirements in the GDP and dismissal will be granted. 2. The last of the three hoops is a congregational vote making that the effectual step of dismissal. And 3. “that a predetermined, formulaic mechanism runs counter to constitutional provisions for mutual dialogue and particular discernment.”

The GAPJC decision notes that the Constitution at G-3.0301a and G-4.0207 “reserves as a direct act of the presbytery the authority to dismiss a church,” thus arguing against the first two constitutional issues. Furthermore, case law helps clarify the latter two issues. In Sundquist v. Heartland Presbytery (219-03) the GAPJC affirmed “Withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not a matter that can be considered at a congregational meeting.” In the case of formulaic application in polity matters the GAPJC ruled against that in ordination matters in the case of Larson v. Los Ranchos Presbytery (221-04).

The second specification of error was that the SPJC had erred regarding its decision “that the GDP does not give effect to the Trust Clause.”

This issue relates back to the various formulas incorporated into the GDP to determine payments to the presbytery for dismissal and specifically a payment of 10% of the assessed value of the property. The GAPJC decision reiterates the findings in the case of Tom v. San Francisco Presbytery (221-03) and continues on to say:

Under the facts of this case, the PNYC argues that the requirement of due diligence under the Trust Clause has been met by adopting a formula for determining the value of the property at the time of enacting the GDP by the PNYC. However, the fiduciary nature of the Trust Clause requires an individual determination of the facts and circumstances related to dismissal of any church rather than a set formula, which may not be appropriate to the particular circumstances of a congregation. As stated by the SPJC, there must be an “individual assessment and valuation of the church’s unique situation, finances, history, spiritual needs and financial needs” when considering dismissal.


In addition, the exercise of the fiduciary duty must be carried out during the course of discernment of a particular church’s request for dismissal. A formulaic predetermination fails to account for the individualized requirement demanded by proper application of the fiduciary duty incumbent upon a presbytery.

and finally

Thus, the presbytery, in exercising its authority to perform due diligence under the fiduciary duties required by the Trust Clause, is required to make an appropriately timed, individual, unique determination of the circumstances applicable to any church requesting dismissal. In accountability to the PC(U.S.A.) as the beneficiary under the Trust Clause, such determination must be reasonable and based on documented facts.

With the third specification of error we begin to get into fresh territory with this decision, that being polity areas without substantial previous case law or interpretations. The specification is: The SPJC erred in constitutional interpretation by holding that the GDP did not provide specific guidance regarding discernment of theological differences as a basis for dismissal, in violation of F-1.0302a and F-1.0301.

The GAPJC begins their brief response to this specification saying:

The PNYC adopted the GDP “to provide for reconciliation and resolution within the Presbytery of New York City” and to permit their congregations to be dismissed to join another Reformed denomination for theological reasons. The policy did not seek reconciliation and resolution as the initial step in the process (G-4.0207). The policy accepts notice from a congregation of perceived theological differences as sufficient for dismissal without concern for mutual discernment and dialogue (Sundquist). It is the nature and weight of theological difference that is critical in a justification for dismissal. The mere presence of theological differences does not preclude coexistence within the PC(U.S.A.).

The section concludes with this:

The SPJC rightly concluded it was important that the PNYC “ensure that dismissal is the only viable remedy for the relevant theological differences.”

The fourth specification of error also helps to clarify an area that seems to be an occasional but potentially murky situation – the deference to be shown to a minority who indicate their loyalty to the PC(USA). The specification of error concerned “that the GDP did not provide an opportunity for the minority of a church in schism to retain the
property of a congregation.”

The GAPJC decision notes that in the formulaic dismissal process adopted by the PNYC there was no consideration of G-4.0207 and the determination of a true church in the group wishing to stay with the PC(USA). The second paragraph of this response puts this in more general terms:

It is clear what a presbytery must do when confronted with a property issue. Under G-4.0207, a presbytery is obligated to serve the interests and guard the rights of the “true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” regardless of who is in the majority of any session or congregational vote. The presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is the “true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” majority notwithstanding. Any negotiation and decision about the disposition of the property must consider this interest of the true church. The GDP failed to comply with G-4.0207.

More on this in a moment.

The last specification of error is a bit of a technicality in my opinion, but the PNYC GDP allowed the church to retain its records. The GAPJC succinctly notes that upon dismissal the church ceases to exist as a PC(USA) council and the presbytery takes possession of the records as the successor council. The church may retain copies for historical purposes.

As I read this decision the interpretations for errors 1, 2 and 5 seems to me to reinforce previous interpretations rather than really breaking new polity ground. It is primarily a reiteration and application of constitutional requirements and polity interpretations that have been written on before. To me, these sections are consistent with the interpretations and practice in previous cases.

I would note a polity discussion I was involved in since the release of this decision stemming from the section regarding error 1. In PC(USA) polity there are congregational meetings and then there are meetings of the congregation. This may seem a minor semantic difference but under our polity there is a big difference. Section G-1.05 of the Form of Government defines and controls Congregational Meetings with subsection G-1.0503 regulating the business that may be transacted at them. As the 218th General Assembly said – and is subsequently quoted in the Sundquist decision and this one – “Withdrawal from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not a matter that can be considered at a congregational meeting.” So what is going on when a congregation has a meeting to vote to accept the dismissal terms? If we keep reading in Sundquist it says:

This does not mean that a congregation is prohibited from requesting dismissal. However, it is the presbytery (or its duly appointed administrative commission or its Committee on Ministry) that has the responsibility to consult with the members of a church about dismissal (G-11.0103i). The presbytery is required to afford all persons affected by a dismissal notice and an opportunity to be heard on the subject (G-9.0503b(2); Item 04-20). These consultations (which may be in the form of listening sessions, hearings or other consultations) are for the benefit of informing the presbytery as it considers a request for dismissal, but are not meetings at which any business of the congregation may be conducted…

So the meetings to discuss and vote on the terms of dismissal are meetings of the congregation held in conjunction with the presbytery for the purpose of consulting with the presbytery on this particular matter. For most GDP’s that I am familiar with, this meeting considers terms already negotiated and not subject to change at that meeting. In my experience the congregation may vote to select between different predetermined financial arrangements but no new terms or options may be proposed in the course of the meeting.

In summary, a Congregational Meeting is a specific constitutionally defined meeting usually called by the session for the congregation to transact certain business named in the constitution as the sole right and responsibility of the congregation. There are also meetings of the congregation (or whatever you would like to call them) which may discuss other items but may only transact business in a manner that is in cooperation with the presbytery which, as noted in the present decision when it quotes a 1991 GA Authoritative Interpretation, “Nowhere is written that the congregation is permitted to make the decision that the presbytery commits itself in advance to confirm.”

OK, that was a bit of a polity wonk discussion to distinguish the two types of meetings but 99.99% of the church will still consider both types of meetings as the same thing. C’est la vie. And other polity wonks are invited to try their hand at playing this game and giving their distinctions between these meetings. (And thanks to my correspondents for helping me refine this discussion.)

Returning to the specifics of this decision… In the interpretation of errors 3 and 4 the decision does not really shake things up but I see it as a call for presbyteries to examine their own GDP’s or at least to be careful to properly address these items in the negotiated settlement with a church.

For example, it appears advisable that presbyteries be intentional about considering the question of whether theological differences are great enough to warrant dismissal. It may even be a reasonable practice to be so specific about this as to spell it out explicitly in the negotiated agreement. I am not sure that it is necessary to take this to the extreme and hold a specific vote on this point much as a specific vote is required to certify that the body to which the church is being dismissed is another qualifying Reformed body. But it may be advisable to specifically list steps that have been taken to attempt reconciliation and resolution as the initial steps in the process, possibly in an appendix to the agreement or as part of a timeline presented in the introduction to the report.

Similarly, in light of this decision it now seems advisable that a presbytery be intentional and transparent about its due diligence when it comes to a congregation with a PC(USA)-loyal minority. Again, investigation, discussion and documentation appears to be the order of the day in leading up to any negotiated settlement and that settlement must “serve the interests and guard the rights of the ‘true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),’ regardless of who is in the majority.” This decision does say that “The presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is the ‘true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).'” I will venture a bit of pushing the polity envelope here and suggest that the determination be made on a case-by-case basis as other property decisions are but that the “true church” must be properly provided for. Retaining the property with the PC(USA) may be the right thing to do, but mission may dictate otherwise. Is it best to continue the congregation in that location or has the neighborhood changed? Is the property of size and condition that it can be maintained and utilized by the PC(USA) group? While it needs to be documented retaining the property may not be preferable to another arrangement that provides for that group. And please realize that I write this from a distinctly urban multicultural perspective – your situation may be different and retaining the property for a group in a rural more culturally homogenous setting may more often than not be the best thing to do.

Let me suggest that the bottom line on this decision, as on other decisions, is that there are certain hard and fast items a presbytery must consider in dismissals. In this case it is that the church is dismissed by action of the presbytery, that the property must be properly considered in light of the Trust Clause, that theological differences must be considered and reconciliation attempted and if appropriate an inquiry into whether it is a church in schism and a “true church” can be identified and cared for. While not mentioned in this decision, the GAPJC in other decisions has noted that the presbytery’s authority is broad as long as it is guided by the church’s constitution and polity. With this in mind, presbytery decisions should be well reasoned and documented, rooted in the circumstances, context and mission of that particular presbytery while being guided by PC(USA) polity.

So that is what I gather from this particular GAPJC decision. Your mileage may vary.

At this point let me make an editorial note that I will be going into GA mode for a while. I am hopelessly behind on the headlines and probably will not get caught up on those. Most of my attention for the next couple of months will be related to the Assemblies, beginning with the Church of Scotland later this week, and then I will fall back into more general items later in the summer. For the Assemblies, it promises to be an exciting few months so we will see what develops. Stay tuned…

Two News Stories About Churches And Their Worship Space

Last week two different news stories caught my attention and they both  were related to changes in the church and how they were working out their need and vision for worship space.

The first story is about the Gilcomston South Church, now referred to as just the Gilcomston Church, in Aberdeen, Scotland. This congregation had been making the news recently because of its discernment about whether to withdraw from the Church of Scotland. Well, it did so on February 15 and unlike the earlier withdraw of St. George’s Tron in Glasgow, it appears Gilcomston was prepared to walk away from the property. The few members of the continuing congregation are now meeting with the South Holburn Church until new leadership is in place and the future prospects are evaluated.

When Gilcomston left their building they began by meeting in a local hotel ballroom but complaints from guests resulted in the hotel management asking them to leave. (Their Facebook page has some pictures of the first Lord’s Day away from their building.)

Being without a home the Aberdeen Presbytery made them a very gracious offer (from an article in the Scotsman):

In a remarkable gesture, the members of the Aberdeen Presbytery of the
Church of Scotland have agreed to offer members of the former
congregation at the city’s Gilcomston South Church the temporary use of
the city centre building while they find a permanent base for their
breakaway church.

And a BBC article contains this quote from the convener of the Presbytery’s special committee considering the property:

The Rev George Cowie, committee convener, said: “‘It is deeply sad
when people choose to leave the Church of Scotland. We believe that the
Church of Scotland is a broad church and that it can accommodate people
who hold differing views.

“In this case, however, the situation has not involved conflict, scandal or litigation.

“All parties have shown respect for one another and it has
been a good Christian witness for us to engage with one another in this

While I could say a lot about this situation, and the benefits to both parties, I am going to leave that last sentence to speak for itself about the witness. It will be interesting to see in what sort of worship space they finally move into. And that is part of the next story as well…

The second story is about three Georgia churches uniting – brought to us by the Marietta Daily Journal.

Yesterday was the last Lord’s Day with the three separate worship services and this coming week they will join together and charter as the new Light of Hope Presbyterian Church on Resurrection Sunday. Having a look at the PC(USA) statistics for these churches you can see the value of joining forces. (And in the discussion below, since the churches are being dissolved, there is no certainty how long the links will still be good.)

Southminster Presbyterian of Marietta shows in the PC(USA) statistics a membership of 86 members in 2011 and average worship attendance of 43, both declining from about twice those numbers seven years ago.

Woodlawn Presbyterian of Mableton has similar numbers with a membership of  69 and average worship attendance of 38. Their decline is not as sharp with only about a 25% drop over the last ten years, a number similar to the PC(USA) as a whole.

Calvary Presbyterian (official website already gone) of Marietta is the smallest of the three with a membership of 45 and average worship of 37. Their membership decline has two phases, a major drop in 2003 and then a steady loss of about half their members since then.  Since the worship attendance does not show the large 2003 drop that is probably just a cleaning of the membership rolls.

Let me highlight a few details from the news report:  First, all three churches are said to have been founded in the 1960’s so these are not historic churches but more likely represent the mainline expansion into suburbia as the city spread. (They are all on the southwest side of Marietta.)  Second, the pastors speak of their congregations getting older so these churches reflect the graying of the PC(USA). (The comment is made that the average age of one of the congregations is 65 which is only slightly older than the median age for the denomination of 63 determined by the latest Presbyterian Panel Snapshot.) Third, Southminster and Calvary share a pastor – managing with dwindling resources. Finally, both of the pastors of these three churches are at retirement age and with the closings will go into retirement.

But what caught my attention was the future plans for the new church. The first is the new pastor coming in to work with the new church – The Rev. Edwin Gonzalez-Gertz. He is transferring from the Presbytery of Tropical Florida and the summary of the November meeting of Cherokee Presbytery indicates that they were conducting a presbytery level search to fill a designated pastor position. The 2013 Mission Yearbook lists Rev. Gonzalez-Gertz as being on the Tropical Florida Presbytery staff as the Associate Missional Presbyter. A 2006 article in the Sun Sentinel describes him and his earlier work at Cypress Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach. Lots of good stuff in the article but here is his quote describing that church:

This church has been transformed into a bilingual, multicultural
community that fits the projected demographics for the nation in 2050,
so it is a project that the Presbyterian General Assembly is supporting
to test the different ways of doing church.

Looking to the future the other aspect is all three properties are for sale. So what does this mean for their worship space? Here is what the current pastors say in the article:

The Southminster church building will house the new Light of Hope
congregation for no more than two years, Paulsen said. It will then move
to a new location that’s not a traditional church building.

church buildings aren’t built for ministries,” Paulsen said. “We need
to add some elements to the program to make it more attractive to young

The new elements will be more contemporary, but won’t stray from the “classic Presbyterian DNA,” as Paulsen put it.

church has promised that the site starting out at Light of Hope will
only be temporary, and they intend to find a vacated building – possibly
an old bookstore or Home Depot site – to draw a new crowd, Spangler

New ways of doing church, and you don’t know how it will work out until you try.

We wish both of these congregations well as they move forward and will try to remember to stop back in to see how they are doing. And a big thanks to Aberdeen Presbytery for your gracious Christian Witness.

And a bit more on church growth in the next day or two…

Reverberations From Ordination Decisions: The PC(USA) And Her Global Partners

[Ed. note: This is the first in a three part series that I hope to get written and posted over the next week.]

Over the last few months a couple Presbyterian branches have made decisions to make, or move towards making, standards for ordination more inclusive, particularly regarding the ordination of individuals who are in active same-sex relationships.  These decisions have made waves in the international Presbyterian community and these waves will be reverberating in the community for a while to come.  This is a look at one specific reverberation.

In a couple of widely publicized decisions the General Assemblies of the
Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana de México (IPNM) (National Presbyterian Church In Mexico) and the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG) have gone on record expressing disapproval of the passage of Amendment 10-A by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and warning that it jeopardizes the partnering relationship between the churches. However, each of these decisions have multiple nuances that seem to be getting lost in the media headlines and tweets.

The IPNM decision was made at a called Consultation of the General Assembly held August 17-19.  This decision was then communicated to the PC(USA) in a letter to the Stated Clerk and the PC(USA) has posted an English translation.  It says in part

In my position as Secretary of the H. General Assembly of the
National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, I [Presbyter Amador Lopez Hernandez] am sending the present
document to communicate the official decision made by our National
Presbyterian Church of Mexico, in the last extraordinary and legislative
Council meeting held at El Divino Salvador Church, in Xonacatlán,
Mexico, on August 17-19, 2011, regarding the partnership between our
Churches, which states:

“To revoke Article 41, number 4 of our Manual of Procedures, which
entitles us to have official, covenant relations of work and cooperation
with the PC (U.S.A.) and terminate the official relationship with the
church, starting on August 18, 2011. As the General Assembly, we are
open to restore the partnership and work together in the future, if the
Amendment 10 A is rescinded.”

As I said above, this came from a special Consultation of the General Assembly and it is interesting to note that the primary purpose of the called meeting was ordination standards, but specifically the ordination of women.  The Presbyterian Outlook article helps fill in the details:

The Mexican church, with close to two million members, held a special
assembly Aug. 17-19 specifically to discuss the ordination of women –
voting overwhelmingly, by a margin of 158 to 14, to sustain its policy
of not ordaining women. The assembly also voted 103 to 55 not to allow
any sort of grace period for presbyteries that had, on their own,
already begun ordaining women. That vote means that any presbytery which
has already ordained women must immediately revoke those ordinations.

They also let us know that the vote to end the relationship with the PC(USA) came on a vote of 116 to 22 and was only a small part of this meeting.

In light of the full scope of these decisions made by this General Assembly it is interesting to note that in the blogosphere and twitterverse the PC(USA) related decision seems to be held up with little to no mention made of the other one. To be fair only the one decision directly affects the PC(USA) so that is one possible explanation. (At least one blog (non-PC(USA) related) did highlight the decision about the ordination of women and only mentioned the other in passing.)

Now, my Spanish is not very good, but from what I can tell and getting translation help from a couple of different sources it seems that when this meeting is discussed on the IPNM Facebook page it seems to be the women’s ordination issue which gets the most attention.

There is of course a response from the PC(USA), first an official statement then a webinar (archived presentation available from the Mexico Ministry page) to help those involved in ministry with the IPNM understand the new lay of the land.  In the webcast Dave Thomas (World Mission regional liaison for Mexico) gives a great description of the timeline and process for the decision.  He concludes by saying “And I think it’s ironic to think that here’s a church in Mexico that has nearly two million members, do you know it is almost the same size as the PC(USA), and yet 116 men voting on one Friday afternoon changed things. And in spite of the fact that thousands of people on both sides of the border, thousands of people from both countries have been impacted, have been transformed by God’s grace and by the work that they have been able to do jointly through this partnership we have had with the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.” There is clearly a tone of sadness and frustration in his voice as he says this but also a hint of condescension. My personal reaction is “this is what Presbyterianism is about” were a small subset of the whole church, be it 200 commissioners or 850, try to discern God’s will and make decisions for the whole church. And it seemed to me that throughout the webinar there were times when comments by panelists or questions from participants projected the expectations, process, standards or norms of the PC(USA) onto our sister Presbyterian church.

The webinar did offer an opening – As Maria Arroyo (World Mission area coordinator) said “…[The IPNM] would continue receiving the presbyteries in partnership that voted against 10-A and also were willing to sign something saying that they were against 10-A and they would conform to the principles of the Mexican Church.”

In his comments, Hunter Farrell (Director of Presbyterian World Mission) summarizes the situation and includes this comment, “Perhaps the most regrettable piece in this is that the Mexican Assembly in its action reduces us and our 139 year relationship to one question, our stance on a particular issue — It is critically important, and that is not to say the theology is not important, but the result is that we are reduced to yes or no on one particular question. And ironically that is what our church was trying to move away from by adopting 10-A — to broaden that understanding of ordained ministry.” He continues “At the same time our part in this, we understand from the perspective of Presbyterian World Mission, is to accept and respect the decision by the Mexican Presbyterian Church.”

This changed relationship will have to be lived into and there are still more questions than answers. The Mexico Ministry page does note that on September 8 an agreement between the two churches was reached to continue boarder ministry.

The second decision made and stance taken was from the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. This came from the 11th General Assembly recently concluded and can be found in both a communique from the Assembly as well as a summary page. But again, there appear to be nuances that are not reflected in the blogosphere and twitterverse.

For example, one article is headlined “Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG) severs ties with US partner over homosexuality.” Is the the situation?  That is a definite maybe!

First, let’s take a look at what the church has actually publically said.  The Communique is a bit longer and so I will focus on that.  The section begins on page 21 and starts by echoing the announced stance from earlier this year. It also reaffirms the earlier announcement that “The General Assembly wishes to state that although it unreservedly condemns homosexuality as sin, the Church is prepared to offer the needed pastoral care and counseling for those wishing to come out of the practice, in keeping with the truism that, ‘God hates sin but loves the sinner.’”  It is only in the last paragraph of this section that they address foreign partners and say, in total:

The Presbyterian Church of Ghana is further taking steps – a process which has began with its just ended General Assembly to sever relationship with any partner church local and foreign that ordained homosexuals as ministers and allowed for same sex marriages and wants to make it clear that we respect the decisions of our Ecumenical Partners abroad concerning gay and lesbian practice and same-sex marriages and believes that our position would also be duly respected by them.

Note that there is an “and” in there – that the conditions appear to be both “ordained homosexuals as ministers” AND “allowed for same sex marriages.”

Now unfortunately this appears to be all we have to go on.  I have requested clarification from the General Assembly Clerk on this point but am still waiting for his response.  (Will update if I get one) I am not aware that the church has sent official notification to any partners yet, but please point me in the right direction if I have missed something. It looks like we will have to wait until the church has worked out more of the details.  It also raises the question about other partners like the Church of Scotland which has not approved ordination or marriages but has set a trajectory in that direction.

So all the headlines about severing ties? At the present time it appears that no specific action has been taken from this decision and since the PC(USA) does not currently permit same sex marriages it appears that the PC(USA) does not currently fit the stated criteria.  It is interesting to note that the Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCG, the Rt. Rev. Prof. Emmanuel Martey, is currently touring the USA and we may get more clarification from his statements here.

Are there other partnerships in jeopardy? It does appear that there are.  Without being specific, in the webinar Maria Arroyo does say that some partners in the Caribbean and Latin America will be considering their relationship with the PC(USA) at their upcoming General Assemblies or General Synods.  In addition, Rev. Jim Miller gives us a five point declaration from the National Council of the Korean Presbyterian Church of the PCUSA. This is an entity within the PC(USA) but probably reflects broader attitudes within this ethnic community nationally and internationally.

I don’t think I need to stick my neck out very far to predict that over the next year we will see a variety of responses from PC(USA) international partners ranging from approval to acceptance to disapproval to dissolution of the relationship.  And in cases like there, where a possible way forward is provided based on their standards, it will be interesting to see how all this develops. But in it all we do pray for God’s mission to be advanced in whatever ways God ordains.

Next, a look at what has been happening in the Church of Scotland over the last few months.

181st General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church

A couple weeks ago there was a second General Assembly underway with its own business and exciting developments while I was preoccupied with another one.  Well, afterwards I got a really nice “what about us” message.  So here we go…

The 181st General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was held in Springfield, Missouri, from June 20-24.  There was a highlights piece and the preliminary minutes (a large file) containing all the reports coming to the Assembly.

There was no live streaming but an effort was made to introduce the commissioners to Twitter with a Twitter screen running during Assembly business one day and an introduction to Twitter given by @tifmcclung.  If you want to go back and see the traffic the hashtag was #cpassembly.

It was noted by more than one person on Twitter that the Assembly ran very smoothly, especially as far as the business was concerned. As @mtndew05 put it “it has been a real smooth GA this year, way to go!!”

There were however several items of note that, while passed in a gracious and unifying spirit, are none-the-less important and newsworthy.

Chief among these is the action by this Assembly, as well as a concurring action earlier in the month by the 137th General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, to begin the process of uniting. This was the one item that got a brief news update from the official publication The Cumberland Presbyterian where they said

The 181st General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church has
just adopted a resolution supporting pursuit of unification with the
Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America.  It is an historic move, and
was approved unanimously by all present.

My thanks to Dr. Daniel J. Earheart-Brown, President of Memphis
Theological Seminary, for a helpful communication highlighting some of the more significant actions of the Assembly:

There were several significant actions taken, including a commitment to
seek unity with the CPCA, approval of a plan for certifying youth
ministers, a resolution on welcoming churches from other Presbyterian
and Reformed denominations, a 10 year plan for evangelism and new church
development, a new covenant relationship with the CP Children’s Home,
and a decision for the GA to meet in Cali, Colombia, South America in

Let me develop a couple of these further from the Preliminary Minutes:

The CPC maintains their focus on evangelism and new church development through successive ten-year plans.  The Assembly adopted the next one and it can be found as Appendix C  of the Ministry report beginning on page 71 of the Preliminary Minutes. Here are some of the specific goals listed:

Local Church Goals
Each local church will:

• Hold training events for members on faith-sharing (Coordinated by Evangelism)
• Do evangelism through service outside their congregation, such as NCD and mission projects, in addition to local community evangelism efforts (MMT)
• Participate in a program to develop lay leaders which will help with NCD (PDMT & NCD Staff Person)
• Identify those with the gift of evangelism (Evangelism)
• Develop a prayer network for the evangelism emphasis (Evangelism)
• Establish an accountability group to maintain an emphasis on evangelism (Evangelism)
• Establish evangelism growth of 10% per year based on present active church membership. (Ambitious goals will reinforce evangelism as a priority.)
• Support a denominationally-endorsed missionary. (The modern model of missions requires CP missionaries to raise their own support.) (GMLT)

Presbytery Goals
Each presbytery will:

• Hold local churches accountable for evangelism to the Presbytery Board of Missions. (Evangelism)
• Promote among CP youth a vocational call to NCD, missions, evangelism and pastoral ministry through youth events and other means. (DMT/ PDMT)
• Consider planting churches where there are no CP churches. Presbytery boundaries should not be considered s a limiting factor to church planting. (NCD/ Cross-Cultural Ministries)
• Hold a fund drive for their NCD projects (NCD/BOS)
• Plant 10% of the present number of churches over the 10 year period. NCD Staff will conduct workshops for presbyteries to learn about different methods and styles of NCD. (NCD/ Cross-Cultural Ministries)
• Name one NCD task force that will work with all NCD projects in the presbytery, with task force members rotating. (NCD)
• Host Miniversities on Evangelism and NCD (DMT/ NCD)

The Ministry Council report contains a lot of interesting information including the new edition of Understanding the Process for Ordination beginning on page 76.  While it contains the usual information on education, examination and process, there are a couple of interesting companion pieces on Government and Theological Background including “Ministry in a Litigious Society” on page 101 and “‘The Call’ In Historical and Theological Perspective” on page 102. This nice piece by Dr. Earheart-Brown is widely applicable to the Reformed Church and in the historical development does reflect upon the idea of vocation as seen by Luther and Calvin that affect us all.

It is important to remember that the CPC is no longer a strictly “American” Presbyterian branch but has spread out in its global missions and presbyteries.  The Assembly accepted the invitation to hold the 2015 meeting in Cali, Columbia, but looking at the list of Assemblies (p. 9) you will see a previous international meeting in 2008 when the Assembly was held in Japan. And the evangelism plan that was just adopted calls for prayer and study as to where to open a new front for world outreach.

Finally, there was a commissioner resolution regarding the possible transfer of churches from the PC(USA) to the CPC.  Again, let me quote the message from Dr. Earheart-Brown for the proper context:

One item of business that is not in the preliminary minutes was a
commissioner-presented resolution on receiving congregations from other
Presbyterian and Reformed denominations. The original resolution was not
approved, but a substitute replicating much of the original content
written by the select committee on judiciary was. I have attached a copy
of the GA approved resolution to this e-mail. We in the CPC have been
very careful not to contribute to the conflicts in the PC(USA), but we
wanted to communicate in some way to churches that have made the
decision to leave that they may want to consider the CPC. I also believe
that some who have gone to the EPC may reconsider that decision at some
point, and if they are a fit for the CPC, we want them to know that we
are open to discussion.

As he said, he sent along a copy of the resolution. I find it interesting that this resolution provides for an internal review of the CPC polity regarding property.  And to emphasize the last point the final Resolved in the resolution says:

RESOLVED that this action is not to be construed as calling into question the theological, ethical, or polity decisions of any other body of Christians, nor as a license for any Cumberland Presbyterian to engage in any action that would promote division within the body of Christ, but is a simple invitation for other Presbyterian and Reformed churches who may be called by God to share with us the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to have time and space to seek God’s will in this matter.

Lots going on here and I look forward to seeing what God is doing in this Presbyterian branch. Next year in Florence, Alabama.

[Editorial note: I’m about to begin my annual time away in the wilderness off and on for the next few weeks.  Expect blogging and tweeting to be minimal for a while. Thanks and happy summer to you.]

General Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland — Being The Churh Where You Are

Today’s business of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had some interesting threads about the geographic nature of the church and what it means to be the Church where you are.  There is also an interesting “personality” thread that I will return to in a moment.

The morning worship began with a nice metric setting of Psalm 24 from the 1929 Scottish Psalter (“Ye gates lift up your heads on high”) and included holy communion.  (The morning video update contains a lengthy section of that Psalm singing. And according to the order of worship the Sanctus in the Great Thanksgiving was sung.)

The balance of the morning and part of the afternoon was spent discussing the Report of the Special Commission on the Third Article Declaratory.  (Due to the time difference I was not able to follow much of the morning session live and so am depending on the video update and to a much lesser extent the archived real time updates.) Since I have previously discussed this report at length I am not going to revisit the written report.  The comments from the convener of the Special Commission, the Very Rev. Dr. Alan D. McDonald, included pointing out that as the Special Commission traveled around and talked with people and congregations they found that “being a territorial church is regarded as a privilege.” As Mr. McDonald is quoted as saying, “The Kirk is not a supermarket, in business only where there is a customer base.”  As the morning update puts it, the Commission came to the point where the question was not whether the Third Article should be retained or deleted but rather, “how can the principles it enshrines be implemented not in 1929, but in the present context?”  In response to a question about how the Kirk, with its already tight resources, can continue to minister everywhere.  The convener is quoted as replying that where there are people but no minister “the people fulfill the remit.”

In the end the deliverance was approved with only minor modifications in wording.

In the afternoon session one of the items following the Special Commission report was the Report of the World Mission Council.  For this discussion I would like to cast a very narrow focus on item 9 in the deliverance:

9. Noting the desire of the congregations of St Andrew’s Nassau and Lucaya Kirk, Freeport to affiliate to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (USA) as an interim step towards the formation of a Presbyterian Church of Bahamas, agree to their severance from the Church of Scotland, commend them for their Christian mission and service over the past two hundred years and wish them God’s continuing blessing as they take forward their life and witness in the Bahamas.

Let me press rewind for a moment because this item has been hitting the press the last few days.  Consider this headline and lede from heraldscotland:

Congregation quits Kirk in protest over gay ordination

17 May 2010

An entire congregation has quit the Church of Scotland in the Bahamas after its minister resigned over the issue ofthe first gay ordination.

Around 800 members of the Kirk will hear at its annual General Assembly in Edinburgh this week that after the Reverend John MacLeod resigned from St Andrew’s in Nassau, the capital of the islands, his congregation has opted to leave the Church.

It is also expected that the 200-year-old parish will be followed by another in the Bahamas, Lucaya Kirk at Freeport, at a time when the Church of Scotland faces potentially its greatest schism in its 450-year history – over the issue of gay ordination.

The World Mission Council of the Kirk will reveal that the congregation in Nassau voted in favour of leaving the Kirk, almost immediately after approval of the assembly to join the fundamentalist Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America, which takes the position homosexuality is against the Scriptures and is opposed to women being ordained.

It is interesting, having watched the full Assembly discussion on this item, that I did not hear one comment regarding the current controversies in the Church of Scotland.  And they clearly did not do their homework when they call the EPC “fundamentalist” (if they should be using that term at all) since it is, to put it one way, the most liberal of the conservative Presbyterians in the U.S. allowing the ordination of women under “local option.”

Yesterday’s Tribune article tries to set this straight:

Presbyterian Church breakaway ‘not linked to gay issue’

Published On: Thursday, May 20, 2010

REVEREND Scott Kirkland has rejected claims that the ordination of gay ministers in the Church of Scotland drove Presbyterian kirks in the Bahamas to break away.

The minister of Lucaya Presbyterian Church in Freeport announced at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Scotland this week that Presbyterian congregations in the Bahamas had voted in favour of leaving the “mother church” after 200 years to align with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in the United States.

A total of 39 church members voted in favour of joining the EPC and three against after Rev John Macleod resigned from St Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in Nassau and admitted it was partially over the Church of Scotland’s ordination of its first openly gay minister, Scott Rennie.

So yes, we are dealing with two different churches and two different clergy on only one was represented at the Assembly.  But, the Rev. Kirkland gave a nice speech from the floor of the Assembly about the realignment of the church.  As I said, neither he nor anyone else in the Assembly session, linked the departure of these two parishes to controversies.  The decisions are related to geography, proximity to their new presbytery in Florida, and the EPC’s experience with developing new foreign presbyteries with the vision of one day having established stronger churches in those areas.  He specifically mentioned the work the EPC is doing with St. Andrews Presbytery in Argentina and the five-year cooperative agreement there between the EPC and St. Andrews.  The plan that is being proposed is a similar one to build up the church to do mission in the Bahamas.

I will close with comments from the Very Rev. Andrew McLellan on both these topics.  Regarding the subject of territorial mission, the video update relates his telling two stories from his own experience related to the importance of the Kirk “being there.”  One was from his work with prisons and a particular inmate who did not know he had a pastor until the pastor from his home parish came to visit him.  As Mr. McLellan told the story, the fact that he had a pastor and the pastor had visited him meant a lot to that individual.  The second story was about an employer/employee tribunal and a colleague of Rev. McLellan’s who was asked to be with the employee, but found he was welcomed as well by the employee’s supervisor because he was trusted by both of them.  Those stories were offered as examples of what territorial ministry means.

Regarding the Lucaya Presbyterian Church in Freeport, Rev. McLellan spoke of his father who was at one time the pastor of that church and is buried in the church yard there.  He spoke of his father’s devotion and stubborn loyalty to the Church of Scotland and paraphrasing Rupert Brookes he spoke of how even though the church may realign with the EPC, “There will forever be some part of that foreign field that will for ever be Church of Scotland.”

As I write this over my lunch hour in L.A. the evening session is under way in Edinburgh and the section with the past Moderator’s address is closing with the hymn “As A Fire is meant for burning.”  I leave you with the first verse which ties all this up nicely –

As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
so the Church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Preaching Christ, and not our customs,
let us build a bridge of care,
joining hands across the nations,
finding neighbours everywhere.

The General Assembly Of The Church Of Scotland — Reaffirm The Third Article Declaratory

The report of the Special Commission on Third Article Declaratory to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was posted on the reports web page today.  The decision to reaffirm the Third Article Declaratory is a big deal because it essentially says the church has a “commitment to maintain worshipping, witnessing and serving Christian congregations throughout Scotland.”  (I stole that from the report.)  This has been under study for two years and the 2008 National Youth Assembly suggested change saying that Territorial Ministries were an “unnecessary burden.”  In contrast the Special Commission recommends keeping the Third Article as is, effectively saying “we must remember our mission from Jesus Christ, but find new ways to do it.”

First, for reference here is the Third Article from the Articles Declaratory :

lll. This Church is in historical continuity with the Church of Scotland which was reformed in 1560, whose liberties were ratified in 1592, and for whose security provision was made in the Treaty of Union of 1707. The continuity and identity of the Church of Scotland are not prejudiced by the adoption of these Articles. As a national Church representative of the Christian Faith of the Scottish people it acknowledges its distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry.

Now here are excerpts from the report.  I think it speaks for itself so I won’t be adding much additional commentary.
The deliverance itself:

1. Receive the Report

2. Pass a Declaratory Act anent the third Article Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual in the following terms:

The General Assembly declare as follows:

(1) The Church of Scotland reaffirms the principles enshrined in the third Article Declaratory and declares anew its commitment to be a national church with a distinctive evangelical and pastoral concern for the people and nation of Scotland;
(2) The Church of Scotland asserts that, while this commitment is recognised by Act of Parliament, namely the Church of Scotland Act 1921 and Articles Declaratory appended thereto, its true origin and entire basis lie not in civil law but in the Church’s own calling by Jesus Christ, its King and Head;
(3) The Church of Scotland remains committed to the ecumenical vision set out in the seventh Article Declaratory and, in pursuit of that vision, stands eager to share with other churches in Christian mission and service to the people of Scotland;
(4) The Church of Scotland understands the words “a national church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people” as a recognition of both the Church’s distinctive place in Scottish history and culture and its continuing responsibility to engage the people of Scotland wherever they might be with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
(5) The Church of Scotland understands the phrase “bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry” to mean a commitment to maintain worshipping, witnessing and serving Christian congregations throughout Scotland.

3. Call upon the whole Church to give heed and respond with a sense of real urgency to the challenges coming from the Ministries Council, the General Trustees and those charged with the Church’s stewardship and distribution of resources.

4. Affirm the key role of Presbyteries in the delivery of the commitment expressed in the third Article Declaratory as understood by the Church and instruct Presbyteries anew to engage with the process instructed by the General Assembly of 2008 to create a Presbytery structure which can more effectively manage the deployment of the Church’s ministerial and other resources.

5. Instruct the Ecumenical Relations Committee, in consultation with the Ministries Council and relevant Presbyteries of the bounds, to seek discussions with sister churches with a view to identifying areas where a sharing of ministries and buildings would enable a more effective ministering to communities throughout Scotland and to report to the General Assembly of 2012.

6. Instruct the Ministries Council to give consideration to the establishing of arrangements similar to the Shetland arrangements for other remote areas and to report to the General Assembly of 2011.

7. Urge ministers of word and sacrament to give prayerful consideration to serving urban priority area and remote rural parishes.

8. Instruct the Ministries Council, as it takes forward the Presbytery planning process, to engage with the General Trustees and Presbyteries on the development of a strategic plan for church buildings and to report to the General Assembly of 2012.

9. Instruct the Ministries Council in consultation with the Worship and Doctrine Task Group of the Mission and Discipleship Council to consider authorising identified and appropriately trained individuals to celebrate the sacraments in the absence of an ordained minister and to report to the General Assembly of 2011.

10. Instruct the Ministries Council, in consultation with the Legal Questions Committee, to review the helpfulness of Act VI, 1984 anent Congregations in Changed Circumstances with regard to ministerial flexibility and to report with proposals to the General Assembly of 2011.

11. Thank and discharge the Special Commission.

And here are excerpts from the 31 page report that help explain the recommendations.
I will include the very first paragraph because I really like it and because it seems any committee struggles with this — I know the special committee I was on really struggled with how to have people read the report, not just jump straight to the recommendations.  This commission says:

1.1 The tradition of placing the proposed deliverance at the very beginning of a General Assembly report is rather like opening a novel with the final chapter in which all is revealed. To read the deliverance is to see, before reading any further, precisely where the report is heading.  Nevertheless, the Commission trusts that commissioners will read on and follow the reasoning which has led to the conclusions reflected in the deliverance.

The report continues:

1.2 The Special Commission believes that the Church does indeed have a divine call and duty in this regard and holds with passion to the commitment enshrined in the third Declaratory Article. The Commission also dares to hope that the General Assembly will capture its enthusiasm for rising to the challenges and embracing the opportunities which the spirit of the Article lays upon the Church today. These include a readiness to take difficult decisions on the distribution of resources, an acceptance of the need to develop fresh models of ministry and mission, a new willingness to work ecumenically and a refusal to adopt some kind of “supermarket model” which maintains a Church presence only where there is the “customer base” which makes it economically viable to do so.

1.3 In the course of one meeting of the Commission all the ministerial members acknowledged that the parish dimension was an integral part of their calling and a crucial aspect of their ministries. Along with the other members they are grateful for the opportunity which the work of the Commission has given over the past two years to test those convictions. It is now the Commission’s earnest hope that the General Assembly will judge that it has exercised due diligence and accept the recommendations which it brings.

The report then continues with a discussion of the Commission’s remit and the history and background of the Articles Declaratory.  It notes that the language used is “national” and not “established” church and within that it refers to it as not “the” but “a national church.”  Regarding their consultation with the presbyteries they comment that “It is noteworthy that in every response, though with varying degrees of emphasis, Presbyteries were in favour of the retention of the Third Article Declaratory. It is clear that Presbyteries viewed the Third Article not as an onerous obligation but as a Gospel imperative.” (5.2)

There is an interesting comment on the cultural significance of the Kirk in the section on Ecumenical Relations:

7.4.4 The Commission was also informed of a recent conversation amongst denominational Ecumenical Officers which indicated that, were the Church of Scotland to depart from its territorial responsibility, the whole church in Scotland would lose something important. In such circumstances it would be likely that other churches would feel a need to rise to the challenge. However, it is recognised that their resources are also stretched. Certainly there is a willingness amongst Scottish churches to explore the concept of ecumenical team ministry (not necessarily exclusively clergy), to provide ministry in a given area.

Another paragraph caught my eye which discusses a tension we are now seeing in the States with what we call “designated giving” where individuals control what their giving is used for.  This is an issue for us not just in the church but in the culture in general:

7.7.7 The meetings with office-bearers from a number of south Glasgow suburban churches threw into sharp focus the issue of wealthier churches contributing significant sums of money… to support work such as that carried out in priority areas parishes. There was a ready recognition of the need for this work, a concern that it should be encouraged and expanded and a willingness to support it. At the same time there were voices which indicated that those congregations which were significant net contributors to the Ministries and Mission Fund should have some kind of say in how “their money” was being spent. The Commission also heard a challenge to this approach on the grounds that, as one minister put it, “once the money is in the plate it’s the Lord’s, not yours”.

There was considerable recognition of the need for “shared ministry,” how one congregation had resources of location and knowledge to work in a high priority area but depended on others to provide the financial resources.  The concept of “twinning” was mentioned in this regards noting that “when these work well they provide a valuable two-way flow of information and enrichment.”

The consultation phase was very wide in every sense including many parts of Scotland, the Ecumenical Partners, and input from communities and secular organizations.  The deliberations of the commission were just as wide ranging considering the Ministries, Review and Reform (I will post on those next), General Trustees and their oversight of buildings, Finance and Stewardship and the financial situation of the Kirk, the Church Without Walls initiative, the trend towards a secular society, the feeling of a “sense of place” as well as a “sense of call.”  They also noted the extensive process of amending the Articles Declaratory — approval by three sucessive GA’s and two-thirds of the presbyteries in between.  They also say of the phrase “ordinances of religion”:

8.7.1 The Commission is quite clear that the task of bringing the “ordinances of religion” to the people of Scotland cannot simply be understood as the passive supplying of the religious needs of the population on request in terms of ‘matching, hatching and dispatching.’ The phrase must be interpreted dynamically in missional terms, not statically in reactive terms. Our calling is nothing other than the challenging of the people of Scotland with a vision of God’s kingdom and asking them to respond to it in faith and love.

The Commission recognizes that this will not be easy and as the deliverance shows it will require doing new things in the areas of Ministry, Finances and Stewardship, property through the General Trustees, ecumenical partnerships, and individual congregations.

To get a real taste of what territorial ministry means I will close with the words of the members of the church printed in the report. First, the report contains two letters from pastors.  The first is from the Rev. George Cringles who has a linked ministry that includes the only church, with 15 members, on the Island of Coll, almost three hours by ferry when the ferry runs.  He describes the church and its ministry saying:

The Basis of Linking with Connel requires that I visit the island and conduct worship there at least four times in the year. Depending on circumstances the nature of the services will vary. I try to include communion on two occasions (sometimes three) and also have a family service that will include the island Choir – the Coll Singers, and the children of the local primary school on special Sundays – e.g. harvest thanksgiving. I have made it my policy to try and visit the island for one of the main festivals every second year. So far this has included Easter, Harvest, Remembrance and Pentecost. I have yet to pluck up the courage to go over at Christmas! At other times I will visit for funerals and weddings or other pastoral needs as required.

Two of the elders have undergone basic training in leading worship and they will readily conduct worship if no one else is available.  Indeed they sometimes have more than one service in the winter months if there is sufficient demand.

Provision is made in the basis for weekly worship between Easter and the end of September. This is normally provided by visiting preachers – ministers (quite a few who have retired), readers and lay people, who enjoy a holiday in the manse in exchange for the Sunday service… This system seems to work quite well. There are the regulars who like to return every year, and others who find that once is enough! … It is a system which seems to be advantageous to all parties – the visitors enjoy a cheap holiday while the congregation doesn’t have to worry about paying pulpit supply and travelling expenses, which they simply could not afford.

There is no other active church on the island. The Free Church is effectively closed and there are very few Free Kirk folk left. I am delighted to say that one of them has even been joining with us for worship. The Parish Church is therefore the only remaining source of Christian work, witness and worship on the island. I feel it is vital to do all we can to maintain that work and encourage the Lord’s people in what is a far from easy situation.

The second letter is from the Rev. Ian Galloway from the Gorbals inner city area of Glasgow:

I understand the financial pressures being experienced by those congregations who are the net financial givers – and appreciate that to give beyond the bounds of the parish substantially is costly in terms of what local mission can be pursued. However I also consider that supporting local mission in other, poorer, places is a high calling worthy of our financially strongest congregations. The return on such investment will sometimes be hard to determine, though I know that within Priority Areas a range of examples can be given that enable measurement in both financial and human terms.

Of course Gorbals is the place I know best, and here we can point to Bridging the Gap – 11 years on with a budget of £200k and making a measured and evaluated difference to hundreds of lives each year… None of this would happen without the support of the wider church for ministry here.

We also have a few people who have chosen to belong here though they live in more affluent places. In a way they embody the same issue but this is not possible or indeed appropriate for many people.

When I look round our congregation I am, as always, aware of vulnerability and suffering as well as resilience and strong character. Lone parents and their children, kinship, caring granny, unemployed men, recovering alcoholic, gambler deep in debt, people with chronic diseases and cancers to manage, elders still faithfully taking decisions in their late eighties not through choice but necessity. The odd thing is that, even in transition without a building (though one is getting nearer) the congregation may even
be growing………

I am deeply grateful to the Church of Scotland’s redistributive model which is, I think, a real and lasting witness to the God we serve and is so deeply counter-cultural as to be more radical now than ever.

All in all, I think we need to develop clear priorities and find better ways of enabling congregations to take pride in the way their financial giftedness is put at the service of the whole church.

If we are to depart from the parish model – and by that I mean across Scotland – I think that we have to do so because there is a strong sense of God’s call – to all of us – to discover how our discipleship will evolve in a new shape.

That has to be about much more than money, and until we hear the debate move in that direction I have some difficulty in recognising God’s hand on the tiller of this particular change.

Finally, the body of the report closes with these words from a kirk session which appropriately sums up the whole report:

There are no disposable parts of Scotland and no disposable people in Scotland. The Kirk has an obligation to the whole country and all its people. It does not have an obligation, however, to do things as we always did them, and in particular to stick to one model of paid, full-time ordained ministry. The third Declaratory Article should remain, but radical rethinking of how we fulfil it is essential.

Destructive Haitian Earthquake

It has been a while since I have drifted from my usual theological and polity discussions into my area of professional work.  Yesterday’s Mw=7.0 earthquake in Haiti has prompted me to now digress to the natural world for this discussion.

I am sure that most of you are aware of the major earthquake on the west end of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.  The epicenter of the earthquake was about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti which is on the western part of the island.

I should begin by saying that while the occurrence of the earthquake was not a surprise I was a bit surprised by the size.  While magnitude 5 and 6 earthquakes occur regularly around the Caribbean we don’t see magnitude 7 earthquakes that often – this is one of six in the last 10 years around the Caribbean basin.  In this area there was another magnitude 6.5 to 7 earthquake off the northeast side of the island in 2003.  Of these Caribbean earthquakes this one was a bit unique in that it occurred on land and not in the ocean.  And there was a Mw=8 earthquake centered on the east end of the island in 1946.

One of the big questions when an earthquake gets this large is where the fault broke.  Up to magnitude 5 the length of fault that breaks is relatively small so the epicenter does a good job of describing the location of the earthquake.  For larger earthquakes the epicenter is nothing more than the point it starts at and major fault slip can occur some distance away.  In this case the good news, if you want to call it that, is that all the major aftershocks are to the west of the epicenter giving strong evidence that the fault broke to the west away from Port-au-Prince.  So not only was the strongest shaking not in the capital but the energy was directed away from it.  Yes, little consolation considering the scale of the damage that we are seeing.

The presence of this earthquake, and in fact the presence of the island of Hispaniola itself, can be attributed to this area being on a sliver being pushed up on the boundary between the Caribbean and North American plates.  There is a major fault zone just off the north shore of the island and then this one that cuts across and through the south side.

Having knowledge of the tectonic setting of Haiti and the presence of these faults it is not surprising that there is a moderate seismic hazard for the region.  However, don’t let the colors fool you – the highest hazard areas in this region are still an order of magnitude lower than most of the “low hazard” areas here in Southern California.  (And no, I’m not even going to attempt to explain what the numbers mean other than to say that it is related to the probably of experiencing damaging shaking in 50 years.)

There is one more very interesting (at least to me) behavior we see in earthquakes and that is a ten-to-one ratio of number of earthquakes as the magnitude increases.  This holds for the whole world, regions of the world, and aftershock sequences like this one.  So far the numbers are right on as demonstrated by the fact that as of now there are reported 35 earthquakes greater than, or equal to, magnitude 4.5.  If we increase one magnitude point to earthquakes greater than or equal to 5.5 there are four, including the main shock.  The magnitude-frequency ratio is holding.  (For the real geeks and seismologists I come up with a b-value of 1.05 currently but that presumes completeness of the IRIS catalog down to 4.5.)

If you want more maps and technical details on this earthquake you can check out the USGS information page for it.

Let me return to Presbyterianism to conclude.  I know that mission boards are trying to get information and status reports from workers in the country — my brother-in-law has not been able to reach his contacts there yet.  From the reports there is extensive damage to an already weak infrastructure so news may be slow getting out.  There were mission trips from New Jersey and Wisconsin churches in the country and news just appeared that the both groups are safe.  And disaster aid is being collected by PWS&D (PC Canada), PDA (PC(USA)). (I’ll add others as I see them.)  UPDATES: The PC(USA) now has a press release about mission workers, mission teams, and disaster assistance.  There is now an update from the OPC.  The PCA Mission to North America is evaluating the situation and taking contributions.  And there is an announcement that the Canadian Government will match donations to PWS&D. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church has made a donation, and encourages more, through Church World Service.

Finally, a couple of years ago I wrote about a “theology of earthquakes,” if you will.  If you want more on how I fit my professional work into my theological framework check that out.

And keep praying, not just for the devastation in Haiti but in areas all around the world that need help recovering from whatever disasters have struck them.

Presbyterian Mission On The Go — At Least As Fast As It Can On The L.A. Freeways On Friday Afternoon

On my way home from work today I passed the Mexico Outreach mission trip by First Presbyterian Church of Roseville, CA.  How do I know?  Their pickup trucks carrying the cargo, at least six of them, were pretty clearly labeled.  Considering the amount of gear in those trucks there must have been several more unmarked cars around them carrying the workers.  Welcome to the 210-Freeway through Pasadena on a “get away Friday” and best wishes and prayers for your work in Mexico.

If you want to follow their work, I found that they will have a twice-a-day update on their Mexico Outreach blog.