Category Archives: PC(USA)

Teaching Young Children About The Reformation: It’s Complicated

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

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

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

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

So with that, let’s dive in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thoughts on the topic. Your mileage may vary.

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

Info Related To Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief From American Presbyterian Branches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


PC(USA) Membership Numbers For 2016

A couple of days ago the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the summary of statistics for 2016 and the corresponding narrative. This does of course provide new data points for my growing data set and gives me an opportunity for some statistical analysis which is, for me, a “source of innocent merriment.”

On the one hand, it is tempting to just tell you that if you read my analyses from the last couple of years you can move on since there is really nothing new in this year’s numbers. The bottom line is just about the same as 2015 and 2014 – number of churches down 2.0% and membership down 5.7%. OK, you are welcome to move on now if you want.

On the other hand, the commentary – some might refer to it as the spin – from the OGA invokes their new slogan, motto, mantra, tag line, I am not sure what they are calling it, regarding the PC(USA) that “We are not dying, we are Reforming.” There is an interesting statistical facet on that so in the second part I will drill down into that a bit.

But first, let’s run the numbers. Here is what I have for the last 24 years:

Year Num Churches Num Change % Change Num Members Num Change % Change
1993 11,416 -40 -0.3% 2,742,192 -38,214 -1.4%
1994 11,399 -17 -0.1% 2,698,262 -43,930 -1.6%
1995 11,361 -38 -0.3% 2,665,276 -32,986 -1.2%
1996 11,328 -33 -0.3% 2,631,466 -33,810 -1.3%
1997 11,295 -33 -0.3% 2,609,191 -22,275 -0.8%
1998 11,260 -35 -0.3% 2,587,674 -21,517 -0.8%
1999 11,216 -44 -0.4% 2,560,201 -27,473 -1.1%
2000 11,178 -38 -0.3% 2,525,330 -34,871 -1.4%
2001 11,141 -37 -0.3% 2,493,781 -31,549 -1.2%
2002 11,097 -44 -0.4% 2,451,969 -41,812 -1.7%
2003 11,064 -33 -0.3% 2,405,311 -46,658 -1.9%
2004 11,019 -45 -0.4% 2,362,136 -43,175 -1.8%
2005 10,959 -60 -0.5% 2,313,662 -48,474 -2.1%
2006 10,903 -56 -0.5% 2,267,118 -46,544 -2.0%
2007 10,820 -83 -0.8% 2,209,546 -57,572 -2.5%
2008 10,751 -69 -0.6% 2,140,165 -69,381 -3.1%
2009 10,657 -94 -0.9% 2,077,138 -63,027 -2.9%
2010 10,560 -97 -0.9% 2,016,091 -61.047 -2.9%
2011 10,466 -94 -0.9% 1,952,287 -63,804 -3.2%
2012 10,262 -204 -1.9% 1,849,496 -102,791 -5.3%
2013 10,038 -224 -2.2% 1,760,200 -89,296 -4.8%
2014 9,829 -209 -2.1% 1,667,767 -92,433 -5.2%
2015 9,642 -187 -1.9% 1,572,660 -95,107 -5.7%
2016 9,451 -191 -2.0% 1,482,767 -89,893 -5.7%

So what have we got? Both the number of churches and the number of members had a somewhat consistent decline for the first part of this time period through about 2004. The membership decline was creeping up but still hung below 2%/year. The rate of decline in the number of congregations was much more stable hanging a bit below 0.2%/year. Both then show a bit of a acceleration up to 2011 with the rate of church decline rising to just below 1%/year and the membership decline rising to a bit over 3%/year. Then in 2012 there was a rapid increase to a plateau that continues in the 2016 data. The rate of decline of the number of congregations has been right around 2.0%/year, the number for 2016, and the decline in total membership has generally been above 5%/year, with the 2016 number at 5.7%, a tie with the previous year for highest rate in the time period.

It is a bit interesting to see the headline of the narrative from the OGA: “PC(USA) membership decline continues but slows.” The answer to this headline is a bit of yes, and no. They are correct that in terms of net numbers the membership loss in 2016 is the lowest that it has been in three years. Good news? Not really, because as noted above the decreasing total membership number means there are fewer members to lose so the net number is magnified and the rate of decline, as expressed in percentage loss, is actually among the highest it has been.

Moving on, let me make some comments based on the slogan “We are not dying. We are Reforming.”

One important aspect of this is that the annual statistical reports and these summary statistics are more and more missing a developing component of the denomination. These reports reflect traditional congregations, but the PC(USA) is developing New Worshiping Communities which are not in the reports. While not yet substantial enough to offset the significant losses in the traditional congregations they do reflect one of the ways the denomination is trying to reform itself.

The second aspect, and one of the reasons I have posted the long timeline above, is what is happening to the denomination with the membership changes. Going back to 2000 I have the reports on categories of membership gains and losses. Members are gained through transfer, affirmation of faith, and “other.” Similarly, losses are counted in transfers to other churches, transfer to the Church Triumphant (id est, deaths), and again, the ever popular “other.” In the case of losses this can generally be though of as people who walk out the door and don’t come back.

So, at the end of 2000 the PC(USA) counted 2,525,330 members. In the intervening 16 years they gained 328,519 members by affirmation of faith of those 17 and younger. There were gains of 638,308 from affirmation of faith of those 18 and older. From transfers in it was 444,527 members gained and from other it was 200,440. So the total new members received in those 16 years was 1,611,794.

Going the other way, 573,098 were transferred to churches in other denominations, 528,030 joined the Church Triumphant, and 1,553,301 are in the other category. The total losses were 2,654,429. It is interesting to note that this is just slightly higher than the total membership in 2000. There is not much that can be done to stop, or induce to come back to church, the members lost to death, so the losses from transfers and walking away are 2,126,399.

My point, related to the reforming aspect, is that with turnover of this magnitude the PC(USA) of 2016 is not the same PC(USA) of 2000. That is not to say that aren’t some of those members from 2000 still around. But it must be acknowledged that unless there are a lot of people who leave and return the number that flow through the denomination is fairly high. (And I would note that there are some of the leave and return, as evidenced in my own church when there is a pastoral transition.)

If you want a graphical depiction of how this develops with time, here is one that I put together. It is a bit simplistic because all losses come out of the year 2000 total membership (the “Base Membership” in the figure). And at any given time the total membership of the PC(USA) would be the Base Membership plus the Members Added – the top edge of the orange indicated by the arrow on the right side of the figure.

It is a simple first-order model but it helps to show the interplay of the gains and losses how the losses build up with time. There is significant membership flow and so membership turnover is one way the PC(USA) is reforming.

To really consider the membership dynamics a more multidimensional model is needed that considers losses in both categories and that some gains may be individuals in a previous year’s losses. If I find some time I might play around a bit with modeling this with more parameters. Definitely would make losses proportional between the Base Membership and the Members Added. Maybe add a bit of reentry into membership from the Other and Transfer Losses. And if the demographics of the latest Presbyterian Panel are reported some estimate could be made of the retention time in the denomination. (Yes, there is a reason this is starting to sound like an aquifer model.)

I will note in closing that on a first look I see no changes in trends in this year’s numbers compared to the last few years. One interesting trend that continues is the increase in the number of candidates ( 2014 – 562; 2015 – 632; 2016 – 653) and the decrease in the number of ordinations ( 2014 – 292; 2015 – 249; 2016 – 215). Watching the Church of Scotland General Assembly this week they have a number of empty charges (id est, called positions) and mentioned this over-supply in the PC(USA) as a possible source of trained pastors.

And so we look forward to the release of the detailed comparative statistics in the fall to get a better breakdown on some of these summary numbers. But for now, at least as I read the reported numbers, it appears to be a bit of status quo in the PC(USA).

Stay tuned…

And now back to our regularly scheduled General Assembly tracking.

The Curious Case Of The Kuyper Prize

So apparently the tent is not that big…

But I am getting ahead of myself here.

First, in case you need the elevator pitch on what is happening, Princeton Theological Seminary announced that the Abraham Kuyper Lecture would be delivered by a Presbyterian pastor of some note, the Rev. Timothy Keller who is about to retire as the senior pastor of a church in New York City. A bit of a ruckus arose because TE Keller is apparently not the right type of Presbyterian pastor – it turns out that he is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America. An initial attempt by the President of PTS, TE Craig Barnes, to explain the situation apparently did not help and so, with the gracious consent of both the Kuyper Committee and TE Keller the prize will not be awarded this year but in the interest of academic freedom and hearing a variety of voices Mr. Keller will still give the lecture.

When I initially heard about the prize I must admit that I was a bit surprised at the choice of Tim Keller. On the one hand, considering the description of the prize is:

The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society. A condition of the Prize is that the recipient deliver a lecture on a topic appropriate to the aims of the Center. This lecture normally opens the annual spring conference, which is usually on a related theme.

Tim Keller – with his pastoral and missiology work – has easily done this. He founded, developed and put a program of expansion in place for church planting in an urban setting. If you want a statistic here, his multi-site congregation is roughly half the size of the combined total of the 101 PC(USA) congregations around him in New York City Presbytery. He has left a mark on Manhattan of “social, political and cultural significance.” On the other hand, my jaw dropped a bit at the chutzpah of a unit of PTS inviting a Presbyterian of another flavor to give the lecture knowing that he did not share some of what are becoming essential tenets of the modern PC(USA). It was no surprise to me that the controversy broke out.

Several strong voices of opposition appeared on the internet regarding the decision and how TE Keller was a part of a religious tradition that, while Presbyterian in governance, did not model the inclusiveness now expected in the PC(USA) and at its seminaries. Exempli gratia: Carol Howard Merritt, Traci Smith, and a faculty, staff and alumni online petition.

On the other hand, I was appreciative of the Kuyper Center reaching out to TE Keller and although I understand the motivation behind the criticism I was saddened to see such a strong reaction. I will not deny his overall theological views and their incompatibility with the modern mainline, but I want to take a few steps back and consider all this in a wider temporal and spacial context. A few points came to mind.

First, the topic of the lecture is not about what we as American Presbyterians disagree on but on something which we share regarding the social impact of the church. I believe that the walls that American Presbyterians have put up in the name of orthodoxy do a disservice to the proclamation of the Gospel and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. (I sometimes wonder if we are a bit too much like an award winning heretic joke.)

Second, Tim Keller seems like a reasonable leader for those in the PC(USA) to reach out to if the point is to develop this dialog. Within each denomination the membership is spread across a range of opinions on any given issue and it is helpful to remember that within the PCA there are some who became a part of it when the Reformed Presbyterian Evangelical Synod merged with the PCA in 1982 and those from the RPES gave up their ordination of women. While TE Keller did not come in through that branch, his church has been the target of criticism for having deaconesses serving along side deacons in the church leadership. As the PC(USA) knows very well, church beliefs evolve and maybe an evolution will be seen in the PCA’s stance with time. And I dare say, we acknowledge there are those within the PC(USA) who do not affirm the latest moves towards inclusiveness and might there actually be a few individuals who are still not fully in favor of the ordination of women?

Finally, what does this controversy say to PC(USA) ecumenical partners, many in Latin America and Africa who still do not ordain women? Is this saying, there are certain non-negotiables in what we say presbyterianism means and you don’t fit it? Or is this broadcasting a double standard for what it means to be an American Presbyterian versus a global Presbyterian?

I should probably finish by saying there has been a lot of criticism of PTS for the flip-flop and to a wider audience I suspect the perception is turning out more negative than positive. Again, Exempli gratia: Owen Strachan, Denny Burk, and Rod Dreher. In the mainstream media there are stories from the Washington Times and the Deseret News picked up the RNS story. And it appears in Abrahan Kuyper’s homeland a Dutch news site has picked it up as well.

And so with that, we will see how this all goes. One commentator has even noted that Abraham Kuyper would not qualify for the prize named for him under these new unwritten expectations.

So how large is the tent? Hang on to your hats as we try to find out.

Brief Comment On The Central (now Alps Road) Presbyterian Church Decision, Athens, Georgia – The Exception That Proves The Rule

I began my previous property post on the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church court arguments with the reference to the cliché “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” This is a very apt phrase to keep in mind when dealing with church property cases because the law varies significantly between states and each case has its own particular circumstances. Earlier this month we got a very good example of this in a court decision from Athens, Georgia.

Being in Georgia the hierarchical church gets strong support as laid out in the 2011 state supreme court decision of Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Inc. v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, Inc. (Timberridge decision). The court wrote in the conclusion:

Like the trial court, we conclude that neutral principles of law demonstrate that an implied trust in favor of the PCUSA exists on the local church’s property to which TPC Inc. holds legal title. See Barber, 274 Ga. at 359; Crumbley, 243 Ga. at 345. The Court of Appeals erred in concluding to the contrary.

The critical word in that block is “implied,” sort of like “if you are a PC(USA) church than the trust clause applies to you – end of story.” Very few states have given this level of deference to hierarchical churches. But the latest decision shows that it is not necessarily that simple and it is probably best to wait on analysis until you have the data.

In the case of Central Presbyterian Church, now Alps Road Presbyterian Church, a decision was handed down earlier this month that made a preliminary award of the property to the congregation. [And our thanks to The Layman for posting a copy of the decision.] The difference in this case is the strong documentary evidence that from the highest levels of the PCUS and then PC(USA) the understanding was that the trust clause was a theological understanding. The section begins with this:

Testimony showed that CPC believed that its property rights were not going to be affected by the reunion (or by any amendments to the PCUS constitution pre-dating the 1983 merger containing similar trust language). This belief was informed by a 1981 letter written by Rev. James Andrews, the Stated Clerk of the PCUS at that time, regarding a similar trust clause proposed by PCUS. The letter stated that the new trust clause in the PCUS constitution would not change the Presbyterian Church’s historical position on property. He writes, “These amendments do not in any way change the fact that the congregation, in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., owns its own property.” (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. I). In 1982, Rev. Andrews affirmed the denomination’s position in a report to all of the PCUS commissioners. The report reads, “The language dealing with trust does not in any way establish any kind of an encumbrance on church property as that term is understood in connection with real estate.” (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. K)

These communications, while not speaking directly to the PCUSA trust clause but
rather to the PCUS trust clause, are very important because in the Articles of Agreement
between PCUS and UPCUSA, PCUSA stated its intention to be bound by the representations
of its predecessor denominations. (Aff. Parker Williamson, Ex. G)

And that is just the start of that section.

The court clearly needed to address the Timberridge decision and how it relates to this one. The flavor of that finding is evident in the opening lines and since you know the bottom line of the case you can probably figure where the section goes from here:

In this case, there is a sharp conflict in the evidence as to the PCUSA mode of government (unlike in Timberridge where the parties agreed that the PCUSA was hierarchical). Petitioners presented evidence suggesting that the PCUSA structure of government is a hybrid congregational-hierarchical structure. Respondent’s witness testified that the PCUSA is hierarchical with a representational form of government.

Bottom line – take these property cases one at a time based on their own merits. Corollary – who knows what interesting material from American Presbyterian history may come to light in doing so. It will be interesting if we see more of those James Andrews quotes in the future.

I will leave it at that for today. From what I have been tracking there is a lot more property stuff in the pipeline and we will see where all this leads.

Stay tuned…

Musings On The News Report Of The First Presbyterian Church Of Bethlehem Property Arguments Yesterday

Once again, in the “where angels fear to tread” territory, I wanted to muse a bit and post some brief comments on the arguments in the Northampton County Court (PA) yesterday between the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Lehigh Presbytery, and the minority “stay” group.

The article from The Morning Call of Allentown is titled “Court arguments reveal deep divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.”

I am going to cast this in the light of the most recent case law for Presbyterian disputes over property in Pennsylvania right now, the 2014 Peters Creek decision.

And with those two inputs, maybe there is something appropriate to Mark Twain’s quip “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Now, it is worth noting that these were oral arguments to decide if this case needs to go to a full trial. The article quotes Judge Baratta as saying:

“I really would hate to render a decision at some point that’s going to hurt members of the community in matters of faith,” Baratta said. “If you’re getting close to a resolution I will do whatever I can to work with you, to push you over that line. But please, consider, 10 years from now when you look back on this, it may not be as difficult an issue as it is today.”

The argument from the majority of FPC Bethlehem is that the deeds do not mention the denomination and the church never explicitly accepted the PC(USA) Trust Clause. The judge responded “So you’re saying they didn’t really mean all of the Book of Order … only the parts they liked?” The majority’s lawyer responded that was an ecclesiastical question and not the scope of the civil courts. The judge replied that it could be looked at under neutral principles.

I must presume the judge has done his homework on this one. Part of the Peters Creek decision was laying out the boundaries of the neutral principles and the trust law related to the church trust clause. Under that decision it seems clear to me (reference Twain quote above) this court can deal with the property issue. Also under the Peters Creek decision a formal acceptance of the trust is not necessary but actions that would acknowledge PC(USA) ties and thus by inclusion the trust – like saying you are a PC(USA) church in your bylaws and charter and accepting the current Book of Order – are enough to demonstrate implicit acceptance of the trust clause. The decision quotes an earlier Presbyterian property decision that says (p. 19)

“In order for a court to find that a trust has been created, there must exist in the record clear and unambiguous language or conduct evidencing the intent to create a trust. No particular form of words or conduct is required to manifest the intention to create a trust. Such manifestation of intention may be written or spoken words or conduct indicating that settlor intended to create a trust.”

While a final decision in this matter would involve the close examination and history of the church’s bylaws, charter and property documents, the exchange between the judge and the lawyer is telling and may suggest that FPCB has a bit of an uphill battle on this.

But the initial questioning of the Presbytery’s lawyer was no less problematic. That revolved around the precedent that had been set and why three other churches were dismissed with property but FPCB has not yet been dismissed. The response was that a mutual agreement was reached in the other cases but was unable to be reached here. As noted above, the judge clearly hopes that something can be negotiated in this case and that it will not go to trial.

The lawyer for the minority was apparently there, according to the information in the article, to report back to the judge that while his initial order from November required the two groups to share the space the minority group had been running into problems with some of its activities.

My thanks to The Morning Call and their correspondent Sarah Wojcik for a good article. It is objective, balanced and tells the story with direct quotes while providing a reasonable national context for what is happening within Lehigh Presbytery.

But this was a preliminary hearing and to apply the situation in this case against the standard laid out in Peters Creek will require more documentation and that will come as admitted evidence if this does go to trial. From the little that was reported on from yesterday’s court appearances I would think the advantage goes to the presbytery but it is far to early to say that with any high degree of confidence.

So a decision, should one be necessary, should come within 90 days. The judge hopes this can be settled before then. As with much of what I discuss…

Stay tuned.

A Summary Of Summaries Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

Over the coming week I will expand this page as different outlets and groups post their summaries of the 222nd General Assembly. For now – Here is mine if you are interested.

From The GA Junkie – A Brief Summary of the 222nd General Assembly (A resource I share with my church. You are welcome to use it as well.)

The traditional post-General Assembly letter from the leadership of the PC(USA)
The PC(USA) has posted their Assembly in Brief piece

While the Presbyterian Outlook does not have a single summary piece generally available, they have a page linking to all of their coverage.

From related organizations

Presbyterian Lay Committee in The Layman: A Shadow Of The Former Things
Fellowship Community – A Pastoral Letter
Covenant Network – CovNet Celebrates the Work of GA222: Real Progress Toward a More Just and Generous Church

Live Blog – Saturday Morning Closing Session Of The PC(USA) General Assembly

Good Morning! We are back at it for the conclusion of the 222nd General Assembly today. It is a bright and clear day in Portland.

It has been a good visit to Portland and a pretty good meeting. But time to go home today. I did get one important item checked off my bucket list – I got a Voodoo Donuts maple bacon bar, thanks to my EP.

So here is the game plan…

For the Assembly this morning I will be live blogging through the end of business and will conclude the live blog for the whole assembly as we begin closing worship.

Later this evening I plan to post my usual one-page summary of the actions of the GA. That should be available by 10 PM tonight.

And over the next few weeks I will do a few wrap-up and reflection pieces as time and family commitments allow.

But for now – let’s get to today’s business.

Live Blog – Friday Evening Session Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

Good evening folks. It is Friday evening at the PC(USA) General Assembly. This is the session that goes along with the joke about the ’60’s – If you remember it you are lying.

Here is the lay of the land..

  • We are in the middle of an item with a minority report
  • The afternoon session was arrested with that item and two more items from Middle East Issues to be acted upon.
  • We still have the Immigration and Environmental Issues Committee moved from the afternoon.
  • And Peacemaking and International Issues was already docketed for tonight.
  • And there is coffee provided by the Foundation and the Board of Pensions (and maybe another agency).
  • The trains stop running between 11:30 and 12:30 depending which line you need

So remember – there is no tomorrow. (Well, technically there is but it is so closely docketed that nothing from tonight can be carried over.)

If we get close to drop-dead and there is still lots to do there are a couple alternatives. The Assembly could do what the 209th did at 2 AM and refer any unfinished business to the next Assembly. (They had the advantage it was still annual assemblies.) Or call on the Rev. Browning to describe the Church of Scotland’s Time Bound policy. It is affectionately known as the Guillotine and has the effect that you envision – It gets everything wrapped up quickly.

So hang on, get your caffeine ready and here we go…

Well, we finished before 11 PM. It was later last night.
We are in recess until 9 AM. No more posts from me tonight but maybe something in the morning before final business begins.