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 decision, civil 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.
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
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!