Tag Archives: PC(USA)

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Prelude To Friday At The General Assembly

Last night the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) kept going right up to the 11:30 PM deadline and I am pleased to say that they are almost caught up to docket. There are two business items left. This is a very encouraging sign after the very first report was arrested at the end of Wednesday afternoon and Thursday afternoon only one committee reported.

But with the late hour, I chose the pillow instead of the keyboard last night so there was no wrap-up. Here are a few very brief (I hope) notes about yesterday.

Yesterday was about voting.

I will note at the front that the last item of the night was item 11-05, the LGBTQ/Q apology. While there was a substitute motion to reinstate the language of the original overture but the committee’s alternate resolution was ultimately adopted. While it was agree to by a substantial 90% majority that was no consolation to many. Talking with friends, watching Twitter and just seeing the faces of many I know this was not the outcome they had hoped and prayed for. The PC(USA) is evolving. Too fast for some and not fast enough for others.

The other vote of interest last night was not in the Assembly hall but in the UK. I have been sitting a few seats away from the Rev. Derek Browning, Business Convener and parish minister in the Church of Scotland. Going into the vote the Church of Scotland had supported staying and Rev. Browning though that would be the eventual outcome. He sat in disbelief last night at the results came in and it went the other way. To be noted, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted stay, but England had the votes to pull to leave. All this was not lost on the Assembly and many people came up to chat with Derek during the evening and the Assembly paused not once, but twice, to pray for the future of the country. The second time specifically included prayers for the Church of Scotland. Connectionalism on a global level. And Rev. Browning will be bringing the ecumenical greetings this morning.

Finally, as I watch the Assembly and the vote numbers there seems to be a consistency in many of the counted votes with a lot of votes coming in between 80% and 90% on the prevailing side. It is interesting to wonder if the commissioners are of such a similar mind on all these issues. Or, considering the work load and the backlog the Assembly had, were they putting trust in the work of the committees. Specifically, based on what I would have expected, a couple of synod items and the apology at the end of the night would have gotten more maneuvering. I hope to get a correlation plot up in a bit and see if what I think I am seeing is in the data.

So now we head into the morning session. Up first is the Stated Clerk election. Based on history the search committee’s nominee should have not problem being selected, but we will see if this Assembly has that mind about it.

So here we go… Hang on!

[Live blog coming in a couple minutes]

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

And we are back with lots to do this evening. Word on the street is this will either go really fast or really slow. The concern is that Committee 4 – The Way Forward is reporting this evening.

And away we go…

Too late for anything else tonight, so…
Thank’s all folks!

Live Blog – Thursday Morning Session Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

And we are back on a misty and drizzly Portland morning. It has been so bright and sunny outside (not that we would know) it somehow feels right to have a morning like this

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And so, as the house band warms us up with “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” be get ready to blog

Following worship we are in recess until 1:30 PM

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

And we are back from dinner at the PC(USA) General Assembly. The band is warming up, and warming us up.

Just a reminder, we have an arrested report and a tribute to Gradye Parsons coming up.

So here we go…

That is it for the Assembly session. Hang on because I have to more items to post tonight.

Live Blog – Wednesday Afternoon Session Of The 222nd General Assembly Of The PC(USA)

So here we are again! Back in the Assembly hall for the start of the Plenary half of the meeting.

To watch the live stream check out the GA 222 Web Page.

As a reminder I will be putting my emphasis on Live Blogging the session. I will be doing some broad tweeting at @ga_junkie and more focused tweets at @gajunkie (no underscore).

For good Twitter streams check out @L3_UMD for the play-by-play and @jodicraiglow for color commentary with a bit of wit.

So here is the live blog app

The Assembly is in recess until 7 PM this evening.