Category Archives: Worship

PC(USA) Passage Of Amendment 14-F: Reaction

Word has quickly spread through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this evening that Palisades Presbytery on a voice vote approved Book of Order Amendment 14-F making it the 86th presbytery to do so. While unofficial, everyone – and as you will see in a minute I do mean everyone – has taken this vote to mean that the amendment has reached the majority mark for the passage of the change to the Directory for Worship section W-4.9000 changing the definition of marriage.

There has been official reaction with three resources being added to the PC(USA) Marriage web page. These include a video statement from the Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, a letter from GA Moderator Reda and GA Vice Moderator Kwong Abazia, and an Advisory Opinion regarding the new wording. In the letter from the Moderator and Vice Moderator they encourage presbyteries to keep discussing and voting:

Though we know that this amendment received the necessary majority for approval, we encourage the congregations, presbyteries, and synods of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to continue to be in conversation about marriage and family. We hope that such “up/down” voting does not mark the end, but the continuation of our desire to live in community; a partnership that requires prayer, the study of Scripture, listening to and with one another, and a dedication to partnership in the midst of our diversity of opinion. The change will go into effect with the other changes to the Book of Order on June 21, 2015.

The Presbyterian Outlook has an article posted with reaction from both sides. In addition, related groups on both sides have issued statements. The statement from the Covenant Network Board says they are grateful for the passage of the amendment and that with its passage “our denomination steps forward into a new chapter.” The statement concludes by looking forward:

As an organization, we are deeply committed to helping the church live joyfully and peacefully into this new and more inclusive day. Our national Covenant Conference will focus on these issues this fall, with dates and location to be announced soon. We are in a season of discernment about the goals and objectives that will guide our work in the coming years and look forward to sharing more in the next few months.

Similarly, the statement from the More Light Presbyterians also praised the result and said “This vote is the culmination of decades of selfless service by so many people.”

While nothing is posted on The Fellowship Community web site, its executive director, Paul Detterman, is quoted in the Outlook article as saying “I’m saddened by the passing of the amendment. I think we are listening to each other rather than listening to Scripture and the voice of God through Scripture . . . We’ve eroded some of our ability to stand on the teachings of Scripture by this vote.” (ellipses in article)

[UPDATE: The Fellowship Community has now posted a pastoral letter.]

And the Presbyterian Layman has an article posted with this quote from the president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, Carmen Fowler LaBerge:

“The passage of the amendment is further indication of the erosion of Biblical fidelity within the PCUSA. There is nothing new to say in response. Just as we repudiated the action of the General Assembly in issuing the Authoritative Interpretation we now stand in firm opposition to the passage of this amendment to the denomination’s constitution.”

I will stop there tonight but there is plenty of verbiage out there about the vote from individuals, presbyteries and news outlets.

At this point I am going to let the data point accumulate a bit more before doing any more analysis of the voting trends. So back in a few weeks with that.

Where Are The Ruling Elders?

Fair warning – this probably qualifies as another one of my rants on one of the topics I rant about from time to time – Where are the ruling elders?

In the last few days two documents have come out of agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that seem to overlook the fact that according to our Book of Order “This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders.” (F-3.0202 first part) and the last part of G-2.0301:

Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships. When elected by the congregation, they shall serve faithfully as members of the session. When elected as commissioners to higher councils, ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as teaching elders, and they are eligible for any office.

And your point is…?

The first document to come out was a press release from the Presbyterian Publishing Company (PPC) – one of the six agencies of the PC(USA) – concerning their decision to stop using Cokesbury for distribution to brick and mortar locations and that they would now distribute their products almost exclusively online through their own system. Now that is an interesting development in and of itself and I may return to it. But within the press release was the line:

PPC encourages all PC(USA) clergy, church educational and office
professionals, religious academics, and lay members to support the
denominational publisher by purchasing books and resources through these

And where are the ruling elders? For those not familiar with Presbyterian polity they do not fall into the category of “lay members.” And this from the publishing house that operates the The Presbyterian Leader imprint. Maybe it is just that the ruling elders are not encouraged to support the denominational publisher.

OK, I was going to let this go as a one-off, an oversight, a press release put together in a hurry. After all, one point does not define a trend. But then we got another point…

In the meeting this morning of another PC(USA) agency board, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, a proposed revision to the Directory for Worship was revealed. The Board agreed to send it to the 221st General Assembly with the recommendation to forward it on to the whole denomination for study. I will have more to say on this document at a later time. For now I will say that there are a number of typos in the document that need to be cleaned up.

But reading through the Rational section I was intreagued and concerned to read about the focus group they put together to get reaction to the document:

A diverse group of scholars, pastors, and mid council leaders provided feedback on the proposed revision…

And where are the ruling elders? Yes, within the scholars and mid-council leaders there probably were ruling elders. But if pastors were invited were ruling elders from churches invited to give feedback on the document and not just ecclesiastical professionals?

As regular readers of my blog know the equal governance of teaching and ruling elders together is an area that I am hyper-sensitive about and when I read documents with that filter things like this jump out at me. I am sure that some of you are thinking that I am blowing this out of proportion. But to me the situation is something to pay attention to. If we are serious about our government structure then we need to be intentional about including ruling elders in the mix the same way we are intentional about including the wide diversity of our membership in the decision making process. Furthermore, the joint decision making by teaching and ruling elders is the genius of our system and provides the means for better decision making (see Landon Whitsitt’s Open Source Church – sorry, could not find it on The Presbyterian Leader to link to) and it is the means to engage a greater cross-section of the church in ministry. Both of these quotes, to me at least, place more emphasis on the institutional side of the church and not it’s wide diversity.

OK, my coffee break is over. Just a few thoughts for now. But I leave you with the famous words of Cynthia Bolbach, the Moderator of the 219th General Assembly…

“Elders Rule!”

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…

2012 General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland

  Just down the street and around the corner from where one General Assembly has begun meeting you will find a second one convening tomorrow – the 2012 General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.

The Assembly will begin at 6 PM on Monday 21 May at St. Columba’s Free Church and conclude its business on Friday 25 May. (Note, unless there is a time warp somewhere in there and the 25th of May is missing like the Order of Business says.   ) [Update: The time warp has been resolved.]

Now, you may have to chose, or be good at multi-tasking to do this, but to follow along with the Free Church GA here is what you need to know…

  • The General Assembly 2012 page has most of what you need
  • The Programme for the meeting gives the order of proceedings
  • Reports are available individually from the General Assembly 2012 page
  • The Assembly will be webcast through the facilities of the host church
  • This GA is not big on Twitter but if I spot consistent activity I will update here [Update: Yes, there is Twitter activity! The Free Church is now in the twitterverse at @FreeChurchScot and the meeting is using the hashtag FCGA2012.]

If you want to have the polity documents at the ready you can begin with the Acts of Assembly page.  Some more detail, a bit like a Book of (Church) Order, is found in the online Free Church Practice. In addition, for reasons I will discuss in a moment, it might be useful to have the Worship Papers – 2009 available.

Having just gotten back on the grid from a weekend in the desert I am still scanning the Free Church reports for items of interest.  For now, let me highlight the two special reports.

The first is the report of the Special Committee on Praise.  This Special Committee was formed by the Plenary Assembly of November 2010. After they decided to make the church’s requirements for worship music broader than just exclusive psalmnody, they formed this group to help them find additional music that would be appropriate. To to this the report says:

The Committee decided to draw up a list of hymns which, in its judgement, are “consistent with the Word of God and the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith”. After examining a wide variety of praise material, including hymnals and web-based resources, the Committee has produced, in the first instance, a list of hymns from the hymnbook Praise!, published by Praise Trust in 2000.

This list is not attached to the report but I am hoping it might be published elsewhere during the Assembly. The Committee does emphasize in their report the need for following copyright law noting that only 11 congregations have so far obtained a CCLI license. The Committee has also been selecting and editing Scripture passages for singing and a booklet will be circulated to commissioners.

The second report contains the final report on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage produced by a Study Panel on the subject. The report is 39 pages long and I will not review the document here. It is an interesting read and reflects the input received from the church following the release of the review version at the last GA.  The committee also notes: “In view of the Scottish Government’s current consultation about proposed legislation for “same-sex marriage”, the Panel thought it wise to include a section on this subject to explain the Biblical basis for the Church’s opposition to this proposed legislation.”

Both of these reports are docketed for Tuesday evening.

As always, our prayers for the deliberations and discernment of this General Assembly and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

General Assembly Of The Free Church Of Scotland 2011

The General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland will convene at 6:00 pm on Monday 23 May in St. Columba’s Free Church, Edinburgh, and continue through Friday 27 May.

For those interested in the meeting the Assembly page has a great summary of several committee reports and links to those full reports.  The reports page has the links to all of the different reports for the meeting.  And the church has posted a revised programme, or docket, for the meeting.

I will post a link to daily updates here, if they are made available, as well as hashtags or Twitter users that may be active during the meeting.  For blogs to watch, I would recommend Iain D Campbell at Creideamh and Gordon Matheson at Rev Jedi — they have been posting in advance and I would expect them to also reflect on the Assembly.  Again, I will update here if I find concurrent commentary and will link to others (which I know there will be) when the meeting concludes and I write a summary.

A few of the business items that caught my attention for this meeting.

The Board of Ministries will be bringing three ministers from other denominations to the Assembly for membership in the Free Church.  In addition, the Board is requesting a one year postponement in the previously approved Probationary Placement process for new ministers to allow for the refinement of certain details and to clarify the provision of the financial support for the probationers.  As the report puts it “The Board is recommending delay… to allow it to examine in greater detail the budgetary implications for the Board in providing stipends and for congregations in providing housing and meeting expenses.”

The Home Missions Board is proposing legislation to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act to create Team Ministries to share full-time ministers between churches under certain circumstances.  The legislation is detailed with the responsibilities of the presbytery and Home Missions Board and represents a creative solution for charges with staffing challenges due to size or finances.

Speaking of financial challenges the report of the College Board acknowledges right at the beginning “The Board is aware that there are voices within the Church questioning the feasibility of maintaining a College. As the denomination continues to decline, the support base for the College continues to shrink.”  The report goes on to argue for the continued importance and utility of the College and its link to the Free Church identity and Scottish and Free Church history.  But it concludes with this:

More pertinent than any of these reasons, however, is the fact that the College provides the forum where students, committed to a common theological position, called to a common ecclesiastical work, and training for a common evangelical purpose, can live and learn together. Bonds are forged, fellowship is fostered, friendships are made, and the best interests of Presbyterian ministry are served as those who will work together first learn to train together. The denomination can surely only be enriched and enhanced by continuing to encourage and support such an institution.

What follows is a frank discussion of the challenges the College presently faces, particularly the difficulty filling certain professorial chairs.

The Communications Committee report contains three reports prepared to address public questions: Suicide, Transhumanism — Salvation by Technology?, and Sex Education in Scottish Schools: The Church’s Response.  All interesting reading but each a topic for another time.  (I would note that the topic of suicide is also an issue for the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council this year as well.)

Similarly, there is also an extensive (18 page) report from the Study Panel on Divorce and Remarriage.  And again, interesting reading and a topic for another time.

That brings us to what may be the issue at this Assembly that is drawing the most attention, the report of the Special Committee on Praise and the reverberations of the Plenary Assembly last Fall.  For more detailed coverage you can check out my post from that time, but to summarize, the special Plenary Assembly relaxed the church’s requirements for music in worship to be only unaccompanied singing of inspired words.  The Plenary Assembly also set up the Special Committee to “investigate, collect and, if necessary prepare from within the resources of the Church appropriate portions of Scripture, other than the 150 Psalms, in a form which accurately renders the thought of the original and is suitable for singing in public worship.”  At this juncture the committee is reporting in that it has begun its work and does not consider it necessary at this time to produce a specific supplemental worship resource for this music.

The other aspect to this topic is the response from the church to the actions of the Plenary Assembly.  There are seven overtures to this Assembly and two memorials and all of them address the action of the Plenary Assembly. (These can be found at the end of the Assembly Arrangements report and they make up most of that report)

[On a polity note, I ran across something here I did not expect and is outside my experience with Presbyterian polity.  It is usually the case that overtures can only be submitted by a lower governing body, but one of the overtures is from an individual.  Doing a read of the Free Church Practice it looks like a commissioner to Assembly can submit an overture where these are know as commissioner resolutions in other branches and frequently can not be submitted by a lone individual.]

The overtures generally address two issues.  The first is that the change in worship standards was not sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  There are overtures from the Synod of North America, Western Isles Presbytery, Knockbain Kirk Session, and Lochs Kirk Session  that specifically ask for the legislation to be sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  There are also overtures that deal with the nuances of the legislation regarding the existing secondary standards including relief of conscience consideration for officers who disagree with the decision and possible adjustments of of the Formula of Ordination.  These overtures come from Western Isles Presbytery (a second one from them), Edinburgh and Perth Presbytery, and Rev. Prof. John A. Macleod.

I will admit to personally being surprised at the time that the Plenary Assembly decision was not sent down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  I want to publicly thank Mr. Horgan for some helpful discussion and insights into this polity question.  In particular he recommended an article from the Free Church on The Formula and the Psalms that answers many of these questions in a Q&A form.  This is a great article for polity wonks as it gives an historical perspective to the Acts of the church and the subtleties in the polity that do not require this to be sent down under the Barrier Act.  From a polity viewpoint I now better understand the situation, but the Assembly will wrestle with this decision themselves on Tuesday.  They get to make the decision and whether from the necessity of polity or from the desire to preserve connectionalism they may decide to put it to the presbyteries.

I want to conclude with mention of the two Memorials which are also related to the Plenary Assembly.  The first is from Officebearers, Members And Adherents of the Free Church.  It is a protest that, among other things, “the decision not to pass this unexpected and revolutionary Finding of the Plenary Assembly to Presbyteries through the Barrier Act is at variance with the constitution of the Church.”  They argue that the Plenary decision is null and void.

The second is similar, but is “From Young People of the Free Church.”  They begin:

We, the undersigned, are younger people who are concerned to ensure that we are not misrepresented in the debate regarding the worship practice of the Free Church. At the Assembly, and at other times, the assertion was made that the young people would welcome change and that the young would be lost to the church without change. „The young‟ are not some homogenous group who all think alike and who all have the same desires and preferences regarding the worship of our God. Many of us loved the Free Church as she was and believed her mode and manner of worship to have been both Scriptural and entirely honouring to our God. Following the decision taken at the plenary assembly to allow individual congregations to use hymns and instruments as part of their public worship we want to make our voices heard, to speak for ourselves in this matter and to detail our concerns. We care about our church and love her people. Above all we are concerned that God be exalted, that His will obeyed and that His Word be honoured.

They then argue against the actions of the Plenary Assembly and give give eight reasons they believe it will be detrimental to the church.

Lots and lots of interesting material here to mull over.  And lots for the commissioners to the Assembly to deliberate on this week.  May our prayers be with them as they join together to discern the will of God.  And we look forward to hearing about their discussions.  As the close of every overture says:

Or do otherwise as in their wisdom may seem best. And your petitioners will ever pray

Historic Shift By The Plenary Assembly Of The Free Church Of Scotland

I hope that I am not resorting to hyperbole to refer to today’s action by the Free Church of Scotland as a “historic shift,” but in looking at the history of that branch I have seen few points where they have relaxed their standards like they did today.  If you look at their lineage, their strong standards are one of the reasons they still exist as a Presbyterian branch — This is the part of the church formed in the Disruption of 1843 that did not unite with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1900, a union that eventually led to that branch merging back into the national Church of Scotland.  But I at least thought it was important enough that I made it my “Today in Presbyterian History” post on Twitter today.

Well, in the Plenary Assembly today the commissioners adopted by a vote of 98-84 an amendment to the Trustees report on worship that relaxes the church’s standards on what music is sung in worship and whether instruments may be used.  One important section reads:

The General Assembly ordain that, with regard to the sung praise of congregations in worship, each Kirk Session shall have freedom, either to restrict the sung praise to the Psalms, or to include paraphrases of Scripture, and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the doctrine of the Confession of Faith; that each Kirk Session shall have freedom whether to permit musical accompaniment to the sung praise in worship, or not.

Dare I use the phrase “local option?”  OK, maybe I’m being a bit too snarky here.  On Twitter @Tribonian expresses the view that “it was a momentous moment, and one which gives protection and liberty to each side of the discussion. Praise the Lord”

Anyway, I still am reading through the live updates for more of the nuances of the Assembly and to answer some questions I have.  As far as I can tell there were no further amendments to the amendment.  And thanks to @BryanInScotland on Twitter for confirming that the Assembly decided this does not need to be sent  down to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  Once I have better confirmation on the final text I’ll discuss it in detail.

I will conclude by saying that the live updates indicate a wide-ranging debate with commissioners of differing views both referring to scripture and desiring unity.  Interestingly, that unity included over-seas congregations and groups that were interested in partnering with them but found it difficult with the strict understanding of worship music.  It should also be pointed out that the flexibility applies only on the congregation level and the amendment makes clear that higher courts of the church are still bound to use unaccompanied inspired music.  Another provision is that public congregational worship must still include some singing of Psalms.

A very interesting development and I’ll have more to say when final details are published.

The “Worship Issue” And The Plenary Assembly Of The Free Church Of Scotland

Later today the Free Church of Scotland will gather in a special Plenary Assembly to consider the Report of the Board of Trustees concerning worship .  I think the best summary of the requested action comes from the brief news item on the Free Church web site and so I reproduce the core of it here:

The Free Church Board of Trustees have published their report with recommendations to come before the Plenary Assembly in Edinburgh on 18th and 19th November. The report recommends the following:

  • The rescinding of the 1932 Act, which requires our form of worship to be read out at inductions
  • The rescinding of the 1910 Act, which requires that ministers speak against “innovations”
  • The affirmation of our current practice, which is to avoid the use of uninspired materials of praise, as well as musical instruments.
  • The adjustment of the 1905 Act to stipulate that the form of worship in the Free Church of 1843 was as above.
  • That public worship occurs when a Kirk Session or superior court calls for worship.

So now that you have the basic information let’s start to unpack it.

First, a brief history of the recent developments related to this issue, taken mostly from the 2010 Assembly report and the Trustees report for this Plenary Assembly.  This began with the General Assembly meeting in 2009 when a proposal was brought to study whether the church should continue to restrict worship singing to unaccompanied “inspired materials of praise,” usually interpreted to mean Psalms.  The Assembly endorsed this proposal for the church to, as a whole, consider this topic and had the Trustees bring a proposal to the next Assembly and to send the request to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act.  The presbyteries approved the concept by a vote of 6-2.

One advocate of the introduction of more flexibility in worship music is the editor of the Free Church’s periodical The Monthly Record, the Rev. David Robertson, who wrote an editorial with comments in favor of the changes in the July 2009 edition (see point 3 at the end in the section “What about the Free Church?.”)

The Trustees returned to the 2010 Assembly with a proposal that included 1) “recognising the divisive nature of the worship issue and the desire on all sides not to be rushed prematurely into a conclusion” 2) that a special Plenary Assembly be called before the end of 2010, 3) that a Plenary Conference be called before the Assembly, and 4) “The General Assembly instruct Presbyteries to organise a day of prayer… focused on the issues pertaining to worship… and also on the necessity to maintain the unity of the Church.”

The Plenary Conference was held the last week of August and the church web site has a brief report that concludes with this:

The Conference was a risky venture. Many delegates feared that it may
have exposed, and indeed exacerbated, division. It turned out, however,
to be the opposite, providing a forum for discussion and fellowship. The
November Assembly will now have to make some kind of decision, which
will hopefully bring this to a conclusion (at least for the time being.)
We continue to pray that God will keep us together. If this week is
anything to go by, there is every indication that He will.

So that brings us to the Plenary Assembly that begins today.  The proposed deliverance has nine points, the one most focused on the issue being number three that says:

The General Assembly, recognising that the majority of Kirk Sessions have not been persuaded by the arguments presented for change and therefore either support the current worship practice or have no desire to move from this practice, affirm that the practice of the Free Church of Scotland in public worship shall be to avoid the use of uninspired materials of praise and of instrumental music.

The Trustees heard from many Kirk sessions with 57 in favour of the status quo, 25 favouring permitting flexibility, and 13 expressing no preference. But as the report describes, a number of issues came out of the Plenary Conference and some of the other points address those.  For example, there was some lack of clarity about what exactly the nature of the vows and instructions to ministers meant, so there is a proposal to strike relevant acts regarding those.  The conference also brought up questions about what the definition of public worship was, so point four clarifies this by stating “The General Assembly stipulate that public worship occurs when a Kirk Session or a superior court of the Church call God’s people to assemble to worship him, in contradistinction to meetings called for testimony, fellowship and other purposes.”

There are five amendments and addenda now listed on the Plenary Assembly web pageOne amendment requests the replacement of the main body of the deliverance with actions that would repeal restrictions and leave the ordering of worship as a matter for the Kirk session. Another amendment goes the opposite direction and strikes points three to seven replacing it with a single paragraph clarifying the action to be taken at Ordinations and Installations.  There is a third that rewrites these points, keeping the exclusive “inspired materials of praise,” but allowing instruments.

The addenda, by their nature, are more limited.  One requests a halt to the discussion, effectively maintaining the current state.  The other presents no action directly related to the discussion but instead requests more and updated material, saying:

The General Assembly instruct the Psalmody Committee to investigate, collect and, if necessary prepare from within the resources of the Church appropriate portions of Scripture, other than the 150 Psalms, in a form which accurately renders the thought of the original and is suitable for singing in public worship. The Committee is empowered to seek the cooperation of others with the requisite linguistic, theological, literary and musical skills and is required to report progress to the 2011 General Assembly.

There are a few bloggers weighing in as well.  David Robertson has a good pre-Assembly post that outlines the issues better than I can since it comes from someone in that branch.  It does have his perspective favouring change which can be seen in his closing:

The Key Question – is, or should be, what does the Scripture say?
And what has become abundantly clear over the past couple of years, as
we have looked at, and examined this subject, is that our current
practice is by no means the only mandated practice in the Bible – and
that few of our Free Church office bearers really believe that. We do
not have the right to bind the Church, or the consciences of Christians,
to that which cannot be clearly demonstrated from the Scriptures.

Given the above it is clear that that vows do not need to be changed,
the constitution does not need to be changed, and even the practice of
individual congregations does not need to be changed. But the Assembly
legislation should be changed to allow sung biblical truth and musical
accompaniment, in those congregations where it is appropriate.
However this must not be a free for all. Our legislation must make
clear that the Free Church is a Reformed church which holds to a
Reformed position of worship. We are not a ‘broadly evangelical’
church. We are The Free Church of Scotland – we will always be a psalm
singing church (though inclusive psalmody rather than exclusive) and a
church that is biblically reformed in doctrine, worship, evangelism,
discipline and government. The plenary assembly will show whether we
have the wisdom, maturity and foresight to ensure that that claim is not
a hollow one.

Hinting at having similar sympathies, but recognizing the current state of the Free Church, John Ross has an interesting article where he outlines a plan of study to go forward so as to preserve the unity of the Kirk. And I found the writing of Ethan Smith informative as he looks at the Free Church and praises their emphasis on unity and their “debating with charity.”

So as we go into the special session I have not seen any particular related activity on Twitter but the Free Church web site will be providing live updates. (And it looks like it might be echoed by David Robertson.)

On a personal note, I would mention that in the last six months I have several times heard Psalms sung in an unaccompanied manner in the context of public worship, usually in connection with the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation, and have found them deeply moving.  The Free Church of Scotland has several examples on their web site and I would also recommend examples from YouTube of  Psalm 33, Psalm 103, and Psalm 147 among others. (Or, for a change of pace check it out in Gaelic.)

Over the summer David Robertson issued “Psalms Please – A Plea ” that asked why more churches don’t sing Psalms.  One answer is that we do, but frequently in paraphrase form with no education of our congregations as to their origin.  Many of the songs of Isaac Watts are Psalm paraphrases including “O God, Our Help In Ages Past,” (Psalm 90 ) and “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98 – no it was not originally a Christmas song but a paraphrase, admittedly with Watt’s enhancement of messianic overtones.)  But most hymnals contain multiple pieces based on the Psalms, some more literal than others.  It is up to our biblical literacy and worship education to realize the ultimate source of what we are actually singing.

So with that editorial moment over I turn you over to the Plenary Assembly.  I look forward to their deliberations and appreciate that every deliverance related to the worship issue concludes with a call for the Kirk sessions to set aside a day of prayer for the church as it works through this.

Sunday Worship At The PC(USA) 219th General Assembly Catalyzes Global Discussion

To say that the Sunday worship service at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not really follow the Regulative Principle of Worship is probably an understatement.  It is always a major production with the message from the outgoing Moderator, the Lord’s Supper, liturgical dance, massed choirs, commissioning of missionaries, remembrance of those Teaching Elders who have joined the Church Triumphant, and lots of music.

I intentionally use the word “production” in the preceding paragraph because this worship service is one:  It is planned a year in advance, is held in a custom decorated worship space, is carefully choreographed and planned, involves hundreds of people, communion is served to thousands of attendees, and is expected to be culturally sensitive or politically correct, depending on your point of view.  Those years that I have attended GA I have always gone to the worship service but I have friends who, for a variety of reasons, have avoided it and found alternate worship services.

Well this year, in addition to the usual worship elements, at the 219th General Assembly there was an additional element that I don’t remember from any previous year: giant puppets.

Now, before I get into this specific case it is probably helpful to point out that the use of giant puppets in worship has become a hot topic in worship circles recently so the use of puppets by the PC(USA) just fed into this controversy.  This YouTube video set off a round of discussion a couple of years ago that included comments from First Things and Insight Scoop among others.

Well this summer, a couple of videos from the opening Sunday worship went viral with corresponding discussion.  I heard about the puppets from the press release but looking back it was probably Viola Larson’s posting of the video and a second video where I first saw them.  It was then picked up by Bad Vestments with their “Giant Papier-mâché Calvinist Puppets of Doom.”  (And Bad Vestments quickly followed with two more examples from other churches.)  At this point the blogosphere weighed in, most with critical comments, including Ad Dominum, Stand Firm, and Gairney Bridge.  Jody at Quotidian Grace ran a poll and of the 43 readers  that responded, 2/3 answered the question “Are giant puppets appropriate in worship?” with “Hell No!”

I’ll say that considering the discussion about this topic that has been going on none of this current controversy seemed out of the ordinary to me.  But then it crossed the Atlantic…

On August 28th the immediate past Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland weighted in on his personal blog, and he too was critical:

It all looks a bit pagan to me, and certainly out of place in a denomination that claims to be Christian and reformed.

Given the other decisions and proposals of the General Assembly with regard to Christian marriage and the place of practising homosexuals in leadership, it seems that PCUSA has drifted away from its biblical and reformed roots. But some people have been pointing that out for many years.

At the present time there are 16 comments to this post — check them out, there is some good material in there.  Today Will Crawley of the BBC Northern Ireland on his blog Will & Testament highlights Dr. Carson’s blog post and the responses in the comments section.  It turns out that that the commenters are mixed in their opinion and include a brief one saying “Not nearly as silly looking as an Orange or Black parade,” and another that observes “There are children and young people present at the opening of their general assembly. Maybe they do some things better than us.”

One long comment, and most reasoned response in my opinion, comes from the noted Belfast blogger Alan in Belfast.  In the comments he says in part:

Stafford, some might say that the opening procession has a bit more life and colour about it than PCI’s stately procession of ex-moderators! But surely it is difficult – perhaps dangerous – to pick a 5 minute excerpt out of an opening event that took a couple of hours and criticise it. Cherry-picking lacks context, lacks any verbal or written explanation of the significance of what was happening. Surely General Assembly Opening hermeneutics requires a bit more context and material before jumping to conclusions.

Later he continues:

The second video – the puppets – has no connection with PCUSA as far as I can tell. It might have helped in the post if you’d made that clear. Maybe it’s because I spent a very pleasant half hour recently talking to Oscar the Grouch, but I do note that puppets seem to have a place in NI Christian teaching. My daughter attended a holiday Bible club a few weeks ago which featured a pair of camels that could be accused of helping spread the Gospel. And the same puppets (or is the puppeteers) have taught children from PCI at more than one Kid’s Praise Party.

And Alan concludes with:

Is there no light to be had at all in either of these situations? As the “standards of the church” that get read out at PCI ordinations and installations say:

“In exercising the inalienable right of private judgement the Christian is not to set his reason above the Word of God, or to refuse light from any quarter.”

Dr. Carson responded:

Alan, you are absolutely right about the importance of context, and nowhere is this more important than in your last statement. “Not refusing light from any quarter” does not mean that anything goes or that all opinions are equally valid for reformed Christians. The statement comes in the context of affirming the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the inadequacy of human reason. The statement goes on to say that conscience is free from “the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word or beside it, in matters of faith and worship.” It is for that reason that traditionally reformed churches have opted for only those elements in worship which are commanded or recognised in the Bible. No one’s conscience should be bound by being required to participate in worship which includes other elements not prescribed by Scripture.

Peter, another commenter, also has a long and thoughtful response to Alan where he talks about children wanting to know “what is real.”  He concludes with “Real sins, like exclusion, are dealt with by participating in real dramas, real dramas like eating and drinking with people, real dramas like words, words of kindness and grace, real dramas like offering, again, the hand of friendship even after it has been spurned. Real dramas like the Cross.  And that, to my mind, is what is pagan about such events in the church, it is the replacing of the real drama with a made up one of our own, one behind which we hide… and the really disturbing thing is that we can hide behind the most orthodox of doctrine.”

But the real zinger in this discussion, and thanks to Will Crowley for pointing this one out, is from a “Bemused Parent” who was at Dr. Carson’s church, First Portadown.

Truth is stranger than fiction ! ! !

At First Presby’ Portadown, on Sunday, our children’s address consisted of one man dressed all in black, he was the Dark Destroyer(Satan) and the other, dressed in white, was Jesus. They had a tug of war! Go(o)d v’s evil. First time evil won then Jesus with the help of his “friends”, won.

We were all encouraged to cheer and boo the appropriate “hero”.

Stafford, your children’s address was different, are you taking your led from PCUSA? You obviously do not reject light from any quarter. What are you planning next week?

Maybe the best summary of all this is a phrase that Peter and Alan have been discussing back and forth in the comments — “Where do you draw the line?”

Liturgy — One Reason We Have It

On Friday I was one of many bloggers that linked to a video that, in my opinion, provided a very insightful parody of contemporary worship and demonstrated so clearly the liturgy inherent in the worship style.

Last Sunday I had an experience that very clearly points out one of the reasons and values of a liturgy.

Last Sunday for the first time in quite a while I helped take communion to one of our members who has trouble making it to church on Sunday morning for medical reasons.  A while back I was regularly part of the team that took communion to them and then, with a change in their circumstances, they were able to attend regularly for a period.  Unfortunately, they have again had their mobility restricted.

During the earlier period of visitation I would regularly use the worship/communion liturgy from the Book of Common Worship and my preferred Great Thanksgiving that has as the core of its central portion the Sanctus.  As we were setting up for communion last Sunday our friend specifically referenced the earlier period and how meaningful it was to them to have the section with the “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the communion service.

Liturgy serves many purposes among which is the repetition that works its way into our memory to provide a sense of reverence, remembrance, and familiarity.  It really is a “Do this in Remembrance of Me” sort of thing.

Liturgy — Don’t Deny It, You Probably Have It

One of the things I regularly hear from people who attend contemporary worship services is that they like the fact that there is no liturgy.  Now, it may not be “high church,” it may not have a printed order of worship, it may not have unison prayers or much congregational participation beyond the singing of the contemporary Christian music.  But at the heart there is an unwritten order of worship that these services follow whether anyone wants to admit it or not.  I have been to enough of these services to know, there is a very specific order to them that in my understanding of worship qualifies as its own particular liturgy.

And now, the folks at North Point Media have NAILED IT!  Have a look at their video parody movie trailer “Sunday’s Coming.”