Category Archives: RCA

Top Ten Presbyterian News Topics Of 2015

Once again, as I think back on the year and review what has happened I decided to make a list of the different themes that stood out to me from different Presbyterian branches. Here, in no particular order, is my list. Your list may vary.

Racial Reconciliation

One of the more dramatic moments in a Presbyterian General Assembly this year occurred at the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. A good narration of the action comes from Travis Hutchinson’s blog. He begins his post with this description of the personal resolution offered from the floor of the Assembly:

Mississippi Teaching Elders, Drs Sean Lucas and Ligon Duncan entered a personal resolution at the beginning of the Assembly which acknowledged the involvement of our denomination (and our predecessor denomination) in promoting racism and failing to act to support the goals of the Civil Rights movement. It encouraged us to seek repentance and carry this message to our local churches. The resolution was referred to our Overtures Committee for a recommendation.

The Overtures Committee recommended referring it to the next GA to allow for it to be perfected but when it returned to the floor it was clear that many commissioners felt making the statement at the current Assembly was a more important action than waiting for refinement. But in that parallel universe that is Standing Rules and Parliamentary Procedure the choice before the Assembly was not to adopt the original motion but to refer it back to the Overtures Committee or refer it to the next GA. After much debate, a couple of votes and not a small amount of prayer the Assembly voted to send it to the next Assembly. Then a protest was filed “expressing [personal] confession of sin and hope for repentance.” Over 200 of the commissioners signed onto the protest according to the official news item. Another detailed description of the Assembly action on this item can be found on TE Timothy R. LeCroy’s blog.

Other news in this topic includes the continued work of the Reformed African American Network, the formation of the African American Presbyterian Fellowship within the PCA’s Mission to North America ministries, and the PC(USA) has launched an anti-racism campaign.

In the PC(USA) the presbyteries approved the addition of the Confession of Belhar to the Book of Confessions leaving only the final approval of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016.

Finally, in Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been working with the indigenous peoples and at the release of their final report the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada made a statement that acknowledged the pain of the past while expressing hope for the future.


Mass Shootings and Gun Violence

With several high-profile mass shootings in the U.S. this year it may be impossible to chronicle every Presbyterian connection. But two in particular caught my attention. The first was the shootings at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church in June. Among many connections, the church has had a long and close connection to Second Presbyterian next door. I chronicled some of the many connections in a headlines piece at the time. The other tragedy was the recent San Bernardino shootings close to where I live and several friends were mentioned in local news stories about responses and pastoral care. The PC(USA) issued both a pastoral letter as well as an initial and then a follow-up news article.

In addition, the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia, issued her own personal statement about the situation and asking the denomination to seek ways to respond to gun violence in general. In addition, in light of all the shootings it was a year in which the PC(USA) film about gun violence, “Trigger“, was highlighted.

As I said above, there were multiple incidents world-wide and that same June Headlines piece also contained links to several stories about a terrorist attack in Tunisia that killed adherents from the Church of Scotland.


Presbyterian denominations and same-gender relationships

This was an issue across many Presbyterian branches this year with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada beginning a study process to consider making their standards more inclusive and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland debating and sending to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act the proposed changes to their governing documents. For the Canadian church the study documents have been released. In the case of the Kirk the indication is the changes to the Acts and Proceedings have been approved by a majority of the presbyteries but the results will not be certified until next year.

In the American Presbyterian church, the PC(USA) presbyteries approved a change in the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship in the Book of Order. That change went into effect at the end of June and in early September the chapel at the PC(USA) national offices hosted its first same-gender wedding ceremony.


Reaction within the Presbyterian family to same-sex marriage decisions

The reaction to these decisions is worthy of its own item in the list with the reaction to the PC(USA) decision being swift and wide-spread. Within two weeks of the vote total being reached the National Black Church Initiative cut ties with the PC(USA) over the vote. A couple of months later the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru (IEPRP) ended mission partnerships on the national level. The PC(USA) has issued a news article acknowledging these breaks but also saying that other mission partners have decided to continue the partnerships.

Elsewhere, the decision by the Church of Scotland was a concern in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which initially expressed “deep sorrow” at the decision and during their General Assembly decided that they would not send a representative to the Kirk’s 2016 General Assembly. Outside the Presbyterian family the Russian Orthodox Church has broken off ecumenical discussions with the Church of Scotland over this.


Shifting between Reformed branches

The movement of churches between different Presbyterian and Reformed branches continues unabated. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians announced that their membership had grown to over 240 churches, most are congregations that have departed the PC(USA). In Scotland the Free Church continues to see a few congregations and ministers wishing to move from the Church of Scotland. In addition, a few churches completed the process of transferring from the Reformed Church in America to the PCA.



With shifts in Reformed branches comes the question of taking or leaving property. Those moving from the Church of Scotland to the Free Church typically do not get to take it. University Reformed Church was assessed about $300,000 to take their campus to the PCA.

But bigger and more plentiful property disputes came from churches departing the PC(USA) including congregations that walked away, were graciously dismissed with a payment, kept their property in civil suits, lost their property in civil suits, and one of the more unusual cases where the court awarded the property to the PC(USA) faction of the congregation but not on behalf of the presbytery.

Other interesting property cases include a very convoluted property case in California with the KAPC and a case in Malawi where the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) “sued itself” over property.


Presbyterian branches working together

Particularly in light of very recent developments this might qualify as the most interesting topic of the year.

Let me begin with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America whose Unification Task Force is on track to bring a proposed set of bylaws to the 2016 General Assembly. This would put the two denominations on track to make final approvals in 2017 and unite in a single general assembly in 2018.

While not a move with unification in sight, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church held their General Synods jointly in a move to strengthen the ties between these two streams of American Presbyterianism. For those not aware, each of these branches traces their heritage back to Scotland separately and apart from the mainstream branch of American Presbyterianism.

Finally, in a move that is not between two Presbyterian branches but between two national churches, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England just formally announced their intent to be more intentional in their joint work in what they are calling the Columba Declaration. This was followed by the Church of England’s Anglican partner in Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, issuing something of a “what about us” statement.



In putting this list together it seemed at times that I could have filled it with humanitarian crises. But if there is one that that Presbyterians world-wide seemed not just outspoken about but responsive to it would be the Middle East refugee crisis.

Regarding statements, these came from all quarters including the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Free Church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and the PC(USA), and many others.

In terms of action, there are accounts of relief and resettlement efforts all over the news. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is partnering with the Hungarian Reformed Church. Presbyterian churches are among those across Canada ready to help resettle refugees. Similar things can be said for the U.S. where, among many towns and churches, Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta is ready to sponsor two families. And in Princeton, NJ, Nassau Presbyterian Church and the Seminary are working together to help resettle a family.

And we also have the account of a PC(USA) group traveling to Turkey and seeing relief efforts first hand as they worked in a local soup kitchen and food pantry to help feed Syrian refugees.

In another refugee story, the final Central American individual who found sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson was able to go home after 15 months under a confidential agreement. However, with an announced round of deportations coming up the church, with others, has responded that they are ready to offer sanctuary to more refugees who fear for their lives if they are deported.


Membership trends continue

Not much new to say here. As with all the mainstream churches in the U.S., the PC(USA) membership decline continues with a loss of 2.1% in the number of congregations and a 5.3% decline in the total membership. What is interesting, at least to me, is that when normalized and compared the membership decline in the PC(USA) over the last decade is very similar to the decline in the Church of Scotland.


Publications and Media

Not sure what it was this year but publications and media, particularly those recognized with awards and honors, seemed to catch my attention more than most years.

Let me begin with the Learn resources from the Church of Scotland, particularly the Learn Eldership book that I reviewed last spring. It has been joined by two additional pieces – hard to call the relatively short How Will Our Children Have Faith? a book – that I might get time to review in the future.

But the series in general, and the Learn Eldership in particular, have been recognized by different organizations. In addition to being a best seller, Eldership was a finalist in the Publications category of the Scottish Creative Awards. It was also recognized in the Innovation category as being among the crème-de-la crème of Scottish magazines in the Scottish Magazine Awards.

From Westminster John Knox Press we have a winner of the 2015 Christianity Today Book Awards in the Theology/Ethics category. It is Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. (Yes, technically announced in 2014 but awarded in 2015)

I would also include in this topic the just-released book by Dr. Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The roots of the Presbyterian Church in America. It is described as the “first full scholarly account of the theological and social forces that brought about [the PCA’s] creation.”

Finally, two films directed by PC(USA) Presbyterian Disaster Assistance agency photojournalist David Barnhart have been invited to the Beaufort International Film Festival in February. The films are “Kepulihan: When the Waters Recede” about the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian Tsunami and “Locked in a Box” about immigration detention facilities.


So there you have my list of what caught my attention.

Some of you may be wondering where all the issues that were happening in Louisville are? In my list above I tried to capture more broad themes and those are more denomination specific. But, to add them here the news out of Louisville included: an outside audit of cost overruns at the last Presbyterian Youth Triennium; continued investigation, dismissals and lawsuits related to the New Church Initiative fiscal management; the departure of Linda Valentine and hiring of Tony de la Rosa in the Executive Director position; the search for a new Stated Clerk and Gradye Parsons announcing he would not apply again; and the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s own budget crisis.

For more information specific to the PC(USA) you can check out the Presbyterian Outlook’s list of top stories. For that matter, the Free Church of Scotland has their own year in review, and the Church of Scotland Mission and Discipleship agency has one as well.

And so I hope that 2015 was a good year for you and my prayers for all of you for a good 2016. My year will start out on a very high note, so stay tuned for that. Until then

Happy New Year and a Joyful Hogmanay

A First-Order Quantitative Analysis Of Two New Hymnals: Glory To God and Lift Up Your Hearts

This year has seen the release of two new hymnals for mainstream Presbyterian and Reformed churches.

Last week my copy of the new hymnal Glory To God arrived in the mail. Now having a copy in my hands I did what I always do when I acquire a new hymnal, new or old… I analyze it. I will get to the numerical analysis in a moment but let me make a couple of prefatory comments.

First, I purchased the red pew PC(USA) edition published by Westminster John Knox Press, one imprint of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation of the PC(USA). I don’t think that having the purple edition or the ecumenical edition will make a difference for this analysis because, as I understand it, the PC(USA) versus the ecumenical only makes a difference in the liturgical bits, not the musical. (But that is not to imply that the musical stuff is mutually exclusive from the liturgical.) In the narrative discussion below I will refer to this as the “New Hymnal.”

It is of standard hymnal dimensions and I found it to be only 34 mm thick. Since it is a full 7 mm thinner than the current The Presbyterian Hymnal (which I will refer to at the “Old Hymnal”) it is replacing you can be assured that it will fit nicely into your pew racks. But don’t worry, this is not at the loss of material as the New Hymnal has 1018 pages, a 42% increase over the Old Hymnal. The difference is of course in the weight of the paper it is published on so if your congregation makes heavy use of the hymnal, as opposed to using them as a decorative feature of the pew racks as you sing off the projection screen, you might want to think about a shorter replacement cycle.

The other thing I had to laugh at is that the New Hymnal has the subtitle “The Presbyterian Hymnal,” as it seems a bit presumptuous that there is one Presbyterian hymnal. But this is nothing new. That was the title of the Old Hymnal and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland names theirs The Irish Presbyterian Hymnbook. But if both the Old Hymnal and the New Hymnal are both “The” Presbyterian hymnal, is that a contradiction or does the new automatically supersede the old?

The second new hymnal of the year is Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs published by Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publishing ministry of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. If you ignore the subtitle this is a popular title for worship books and should not be confused with another collection of music issued a few years ago.

This edition is about 3 mm thicker than Glory to God but published on what feels like only slightly heavier weight of paper. It also comes in a nice red binding but with silver lettering, no denominational seal or logo and lightly printed gray wheat pattern on the front. That same wheat pattern is used inside the hymnal on title pages before each section. It has no complete liturgy printed in it but numerous prayers, responses and other liturgical pieces scattered throughout it.

OK, if you are only here for the discussion you will probably want to skip down below the table now. But for the hymnal geeks, as the title suggests, here is an analytical breakdown and comparison of the contents of these two new hymnals with a few others.

I want to clarify at this point that this is a first-order technique that I use that allows me to get a feeling for the content and tone of a hymnal within three to five minutes. It uses particular markers (sources) as indicators of larger trends. For a more detailed, and time consuming, analysis there is a second-order analysis which would do component analysis on the full contents. A third-order analysis that drills down into the words of the hymns themselves – included or omitted verses and altered words – as well as the musical settings of each is even more enlightening but much more time consuming.

As I said, I have picked out certain authors and translators whose inclusion or exclusion provides a quick guide to the particular bent of a hymnal. Some of them will be immediately obvious, like heavy inclusion of Martin Luther for the Lutherans and of Charles Wesley for the Methodists. For Presbyterians the ratio of Isaac Watts to Charles Wesley is usually greater than one. Also for Presbyterians, the heritage of exclusive Psalm singing shows through in generous inclusion of pieces from earlier Psalters.

The recognition of translators is also important and John Mason Neale is an indicator of the inclusion of earlier songs in Greek and Latin (e.g. All Glory, Laud and Honor) while Catherine Winkworth was a translator of German language works (e.g. Now Thank We All Our God).

For music from the Revival tradition the lead indicator is the number of songs by Fanny Crosby, but I also include those by Philip Bliss. And modern hymn writers are important and there are some subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences in styles that lean towards one tradition or another.

So here is a breakdown of the hymnals Glory To God and Lift Up Your Hearts in comparison to a number of past and present Presbyterian hymnals as well as The Hymnal For Worship and Celebration which is frequently cited as the most popular non-denominational hymnal in the US today and its revision the Celebration Hymnal.  The two hymnals of focus in this piece are highlighted to help you track the variations. The nicknames “The Green Hymnal” and “The Red Hymnal” are included as I have found that will immediately identify them to Presbyterians of a certain age.

The Hymnal
“The Green Hymnal”

The Hymnbook
“The Red Hymnal”

The Worship
The Presbyterian Hymnal
Glory to God


Lift Up Your Hearts


Trinity Hymnal
The Irish Presbyterian Hymnbook
The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration
Celebration Hymnal


John Mason Neale
15 16 12 15 12 6 15 10 6 5
Martin Luther
4 2 6 6 5 3 5 0 1 1
Catharine Winkworth
10 14 22 19 11 9 19 4 4 3
Isaac Watts
23 20 10 13 14 12 36 9 15 13
Charles Wesley
15 15 10 13 14 15 21 17 16 16
Psalters 13 60 12 21 35 63 78 26 6 2
John Newton
6 7 2 2 2 4 13 7 4 3
Fanny Crosby
0 5 0 2 2 3 10 2 16 16
Philip Bliss
0 1 0 0 1 3 6 3 6 7
Spirituals 0 3 8 20 27 24 5 0 6 5
Brian Wren
0 0 0 11 11 9 0 5 0 0
Thomas Troeger
0 0 0 8 9 4 0 0 0 0
Ruth Duck
0 0 0 2 16 8 0 2 0 0
Edith Margaret Clarkson
0 0 0 0 0 2 6 1 7 3
William Gaither
0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 15 17
Keith Getty
0 0 0 0 0 9 0 5 0 0
Total musical selections
608 600 646 605 853 879 742 669 plus full psalter 628 818

First, a couple descriptive comments:

1. Yes, A Mighty Fortress is our God does not appear in the Irish Hymnbook

2. In looking at the new hymnals I find that going forward I need to include Taizé music/prayer as a category. While it has not been included in hymnals I have looked at before, Glory to God has 21 pieces and Lift Up Your Hearts has 18. None of the other hymnals I include in this analysis has any pieces from the Taizé Community but the Irish Hymnbook has 10 from the Iona Community I mention below.

3. If you are not familiar with it, the Trinity Hymnal, as well as the Trinity Psalter, are published by Great Commission Publications, the publishing house of the OPC and the PCA.

4. I will admit that Psalters are a pain in the neck to tally in this first-order model. Unlike authors where you look in one place, Psalters have a variety of names and in some cases the pieces are listed by author and not the Psalter.

5. It is worth noting that the Old Hymnal contains a section of about 100 Psalms, some of which are metrical Psalms taken from Psalters and some of which are Psalm paraphrases. That explicit section has been eliminated in the New Hymnal.

As I look at the table above the thing that jumps out at me first is the increase in the content of the hymnals. You can see that most of the 20th Century hymnals I track above tended to have just a bit more than 600 musical numbers. However, in the last couple of decades the musical content has increased up into the 800’s. Doing a quick calculation this means that there is enough material to go about five and one-half years with three hymns per Lord’s Day without repeating one. (This ignores the fact that there are only 76 hymns in the Advent and Christmas categories in the New Hymnal which at three hymns per worship service and seven days of celebration in each cycle would last you only three years without repeating.)

However, while the total size has increased dramatically the indicators that I have tracked have only changed slightly with some of the older sources declining slightly and some of the more recent increasing slightly. The one exception is the recent decline in works translated by Catherine Winkworth suggesting that works from non-English European traditions are being displaced, possibly by works from other traditions. The appearance is that in general hymns which have stood the test of time are being retained while new material is being added. This is noted in the appearance of the Taizé music I mention above. In addition, Lift Up Your Hearts has 21 pieces by John Bell of the Iona Community and Glory to God has 18.

It has struck me that some of this added content is specific to the hymnals. For example, in Glory to God at least two members of the editorial board have multiple numbers in the hymnal — Alfred Fedak has 25 pieces and David Gambrell has 14. It is worth noting that Fedak has 13 in Lift Up Your Hearts along with 11 by their editorial board member Martin Tel and seven by another board member, Joel Navarro. In fact, several of the board members and an editorial assistant have at least one contribution to the hymnal. (And one board member has his name spelled differently on the board list and in the index of authors, but I digress.)

The point is not that this is a problem with conflict of interest, and this is not a new occurrence as Isaac Watts and John Newton each published collections of their own works. But it will be interesting to see if, like Watts and Newton, some of the contributions from the “in house” writers stand the test of time. (And yes, I do realize that the total output by Watts that is in any of these hymnals is less than 2% and that it will take a long time to see if the new works “stand the test of time.”)

But, relative to the markers that I have been using, these two hymnals have retained much of the tone of Protestant and Reformed hymnals with the use of early and Reformation era music to a degree that the popular non-denominational hymnals do not. The non-denominational works are also much lighter on Psalter works, pieces from other racial ethnic traditions and works of traditional modern hymn writers (e.g. Duck and Wren). The new hymnals also continue the trend of sparingly using the revival era hymns that the non-denominational hymnals heavily use as well as music that might be categorized as praise songs. The praise style pieces are not completely missing and where these two hymnals show the greatest divergence is that Lift Up Your Hearts appears to have a slightly more contemporary praise feel than Glory to God with a piece by William Gaither, if this marker is indicative of the hymnal as a whole. In addition Lift Up Your Hearts has a solid number of works by contemporary-style modern hymn writer Keith Getty. (And no, I am not going to go there today.)

As I indicated above, the real story here does not appear to be significant abandonment of the pieces, or at least the sources, that have appeared in previous hymnals. Rather, it is first a broadening to include alternative and diverse sources and traditions of music. Second, it is a selective inclusion of more modern works with Glory to God leaning towards the traditional modern and Lift Up Your Hearts leaning towards the contemporary modern.

Let me conclude by noting that the editorial boards for hymnals live in the same tension that all who are concerned with the future of the church are in. On the one hand is tradition and doctrine and a denominational hymnal says something – it is carefully put together to reflect the theological stance and values of the denomination, at least to the extent the editorial board reflects it. On the other hand, there is societal expectation and there are certain hymns that have stood the test of time and the audience expects to see them in the hymnal and, to some extent, with a particular set of words. My favorite example of this is the hymn Rock of Ages by Augustus Toplady. Toplady was, as one paper puts it, an “extreme Calvinist” who first published the poem in his Gospel Magazine in one of his regular articles strongly arguing against the Arminian theology of John Wesley. Yet today it is regularly found in Methodist hymnals as it has become part of the standard set of hymns people expect to find in a hymnal.

It is clear that the editorial boards of each of these hymnals made specific choices to reflect the underlying doctrine of their respective denominations. Choices were not made to include popular hymns just to boost sales. But it should be remembered, at least in the case of Glory to God, that the final product did not have the explicit approval of the General Assembly. That body only approved the creation of a committee that would create the hymnal. So does it really reflect the denomination at this moment, especially if there is an ecumenical edition?

The marked expansion of the contents of the hymnal may have an interesting consequence, intended or unintended. Studies have shown that a typical congregation has a standard pool of only about 150 pieces that they sing outside of special seasons like Advent and Christmas. With a hymnal that is expanded by upwards of 30% it is more likely that any given congregation will find their special 150 hymns in the hymnal and may be more likely to buy it. It could be that the expansion of the contents, which was partly intended by the editorial board to give any particular congregation a greater range to sing from, will actually do more to increase the number of congregations that buy the book.

Finally, I was a bit tongue in cheek at the beginning where I commented about the hymnal being a nice pew rack decoration but never used if the Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are always projected on a screen in front of the congregation. But more and more this is becoming the case and where a congregation does this they create their own virtual hymnbook which can be subjected to the first through third-order analyses I talk about above. The use of projection particularly allows for the type of modifications that a third-order analysis highlights with eliminated verses and different musical settings easily accomplished. This takes us into the realm of not only every church having its own specific musical reflection of its doctrine, but one that can be tweaked at a moment’s notice. Not only is the landscape different for each congregation but it can be a constantly shifting landscape as well.

It will be interesting to see how widely each of these hymnals finds acceptance. Early in the pre-order period that was a comment that about 600 congregations had already ordered their new copies. That is about a 6% market penetration in the PC(USA). Given all the options today in terms of hymnals on the market as well as the option of dispensing with hymnals all together when the words are projected I would be interested in what sort of adoption ratio there is by GA next summer.

So that is what I see at a first-order level here. As I get into it more it will be interesting to see what other trends I find.

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Week Ending June 22, 2013

With the numerous Assemblies and Synods that have been happening over the last few weeks I have pushed the news headlines off to the side in favor of my following and commenting on the meetings. Having gotten a bit caught up, let me offer a few of the headlines that caught my attention last week and maybe I will later do an omnibus to cover a couple of interesting items that transpired in the earlier weeks.

First, a few interesting items not from a Presbyterian body but other Reformed bodies that have parallels or application to Presbyterians.

From the Christian Reformed Church General Synod:

Join a Faraway Classis If You Must, Synod Tells Churches – The Banner. CRC Churches allowed to join a non-adjoining classis for theological affinity.

Synod Approves New Study on Ministry to Those Who Are Gay – The Banner

And so far from the Reformed Church in America (The meeting is still going on):

Reformed Church Removes ‘Conscience’ Exemption for Women’s Ordination – Christian Post

Problems at the Presbyterian University of East Africa with financial and academic scandals:

Presbyterian University of East Africa given six months to comply with law – Standard Digital News: Need to get a charter or else license will expire

Students expose more rot at troubled Presbyterian University of East Africa University – Standard Digital News

Uhuru Kenyatta’s principal secretary nominee caught in varsity scandals – Standard Digital News: Political nominee was chair of the University Council

From the Mizoram, India, Synod:

Marriage should be between man and woman only: Mizo church – Times of India

Mizoram Presbyterian Church issues dress code for women –

In other news…

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance receives grant from Red Cross
Disaster News Network: To coordinate housing for Sandy relief workers

Obituary: Elizabeth Anne Cameron ‘Betty’ Walls, former general secretary of the Overseas Council of the Church of Scotland – The Scotsman

Affinity Classes In The Reformed Churches

A news article caught my eye earlier this week and the parallels to some discussions in Presbyterian branches induced me to write about it here. But before I dive into this a very short polity note.

This discussion involves a couple of Reformed churches who are very close cousins to the Presbyterian family. Their levels of governing bodies are parallel to those found in Presbyterian branches but with slightly different names: At the congregational level the church is governed by the consistory which is like the session. At the local level the classis is similar to a presbytery. There are regional synods like those in some Presbyterian branches. And at the highest level is a General Synod.

Regarding the classis a couple of details. The first is important for this discussion – the plural of classis is classes, as in the title of this piece. The term classis comes from the Latin where classis means a military group invoking the image of churches as boats journeying together in one fleet. A polity point that is not as important here but is interesting is that unlike a presbytery which continues to exist between meetings a classis only exists during the meeting. And finally, if you have a Google alert set for “classis” what you mostly get are misspellings of “classic/classics” or a typo of “class is” – In case you care.

But, I did got a hit on this interesting news item…

The Christian Reformed Church in North America has had a bit of a discussion going about women as officers of the church. While they are included at the national level and in most classes there are a few churches and classes that believe that women holding ordained offices in the church is contrary to Scripture. This past week the CRC released a news story saying that the Classis of Kalamazoo and the Classis of Grand Rapids North have overtured the 2013 Synod to “allow the formation of a new classis for congregations that exclude women from holding ordained office.” This would be an affinity classis that is non-geographic in structure.

The full text of the two overtures can be found in the Synod 2013 Agenda beginning on page 398. They each give the background, a small portion of which I recount below. The overtures themselves are similar – Overture 3 reads:

Therefore, Classis Grand Rapids North overtures Synod 2013 to direct the Board of Trustees to help establish a new classis in the Michigan area in accordance with Church Order Article 39. The purpose for this would be to create a classis in which churches whose convictions do not allow women to serve in the offices of the church to participate freely.

Each overture is followed by the Grounds section. As part of this the grounds for Overture 3 – the one from Classis Grand Rapids North – it says, in part:

4. We realize that starting a new classis on the ground of theological affinity is weighty and should be done with extreme care, wisdom, and patience. The CRCNA has two opposing positions regarding women serving in the ordained offices, calling for mutual respect and honor.

Synod 1996 did not accede to an overture for a new classis based on theological affinity because of concerns about further fragmentation within the denomination, impairing effective ministry… Sadly, several congregations have split or left the denomination, which is precisely the fragmentation we don’t want. Because this issue has deep-rooted convictions on both sides, realistic unity and mutual respect can be effectively achieved by providing a theological classis for churches serving in the denomination without having to register a protest for their biblical convictions.

It is also interesting to note that in one of the overtures they note that there are ten to twelve churches who would join such an affinity classis.

We will have to wait for the 2013 Synod to see how that works out for them but this is not the first time an alternate arrangement has been requested for churches that have this issue of conscience. Three years ago at Synod 2010 one church from each of the classes who passed the current overtures requested to be transferred to Classis Minnkota, a classis which does not have women in ecclesiastical office. The request was denied that time, at least in part because Classis Minnkota does not border either of the classes of the requesting churches. At the Synod the majority report did recommend for the transfer but the Synod adopted the minority report that did not recommend it. It is unknown if the request had been for a adjoining classis whether the Synod would have granted the transfer.

As I was researching this issue I was interested to find that an affinity classis of a bit different nature was approved in the Reformed Church of America. Back in 2008 it’s General Synod approved the concept of an affinity classis and the Far West Regional Synod created what was then called the City Center Network Classis, now known simply as City Classis. In that RCA news article the idea was described like this:

“The vision of the Center City Network is to be a missionary classis
that will recruit and train urban church planters, start multiple
churches in unreached cities, and form regional coaching networks that
will lead to new, thriving geographic classes in areas currently not
being served and in great need of churches that proclaim the good news
of the kingdom in word and deed,” says Mike Hayes, one of the pastors at
City Church in San Francisco. “The classis is formed out of a dual
commitment to sound ecclesiology and joining in the mission of God
through the expansion of the church.”

What began with three churches has now expanded to ten in cities across the western US.

The idea of a non-geographic classis was met with concerns from within the church that echos the concerns expressed about non-geographic presbyteries. In one collection of concerned statements on The Chicago Invitation blog there is one from Jim Reid who says, in part:

It defies logic that the RCA, which has devoted so much recent energy
to celebrating our diversity and emphasizing inclusiveness of
difference, would now make an about-face and endorse, or even condone, a
classis structure based on sameness—which is what any “affinity
classis” is.

To give a non-geographic classis voice and vote in the General Synod
is to plop an orange in the midst of a bushel of apples claiming, “
..but they are all round.”   Seating an “affinity classis” at GS 2009
will be the death throes of General Synod as an assembly of peer

In another expression of concern the author of the Credo <–> Oratio blog writes about City Classis and his concerns with affinity classes:

To be fair, even though I’m a polity curmudgeon, I’m not particularly concerned about this particular creation. What concerns me are the potential implications of allowing the creation of affinity Classes. Here are a couple of them:

  • If it’s appropriate to create an affinity Classis, it is possible
    for Regional Synods to “ghetto-ize” congregations that don’t agree with
    something specific.  For example, a Regional Synod could create a
    Classis that didn’t allow the ordination of women or a Classis that only ordained blondies… or elderly people… or ???
  • The concept of an affinity Classis suggests, at least at a certain
    level, that there is little to be gained in the diversity of the greater
    church.  In other words, it implies that congregations from a
    particular affinity (i.e. Urban) don’t need the checks and balances of
    those from another (i.e. rural)… or poor and wealthy… or white and
    black… or ???

I have not found further review of how City Classis is working out but doing a quick check of the ten churches now a part of it there appears that roughly two thirds were established churches that moved into that classis and one third are new church plants.

To wrap up I am sure that many of you have connected the dots here for the similar developments in Presbyterian circles. The one unique item is the formation of City Classis as I am not aware of an affinity presbytery of similar nature having been approved. The CRC’s discussion of possibly allowing congregations to join an adjoining classis is similar to the agreement that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has for membership in adjoining presbyteries for those churches with views that differ from their presbytery practice on women’s ordination. Likewise, affinity presbyteries (even on a provisional basis) and transfer of churches to near-by, but not necessarily adjoining, presbyteries has been proposed but regularly rejected by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

So it will be interesting to see how this proposal turns out in the CRC and what develops out of their discernment process. They will be meeting June 7-14 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Reformed Church In America Approves Adding Belhar Confession As A Standard Of Unity

The Reformed Church in America (RCA) announced this morning that the classes have concurred with the General Synod 2009 to approved the addition of the Belhar Confession to the Standards of Unity of the church.

A two-thirds majority of the RCA’s 46 classes have voted to ratify
adoption of the confession, which General Synod 2009 voted to add as a
fourth standard of unity. 
Each classis has engaged in conversation and discernment around this
decision, which requires an addition to the Book of Church Order.
All votes have been reported to the General Synod office, with 32
classes in favor of ratification and 14 opposed.

Doing the math, two-thirds of the classes would be 31, so the approval was close.  And I should point out that a classis (plural classes) in the Reformed Church is a regional grouping of churches like a presbytery in the Presbyterian tradition although your local polity wonk can tell you about some interesting polity differences.

For those in the PC(USA) this is interesting since the Special Committee to Consider Amending the Confessional Documents of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to Include the Belhar Confession in The Book of Confessions is expected to recommend to the 219th General Assembly the inclusion of the confession in the PC(USA) Constitution.  The process in the PC(USA) will be the same as the RCA with GA approval first and then the concurrence of two-thirds of the presbyteries.  If the presbyteries concur there will be a final approval vote by the 220th GA.

Considering the Belhar Confession — The PC(USA), RCA And CRC Are All In The Process

In an inter-denominational synergy (or maybe a cosmic convergence or providential parallel) it turns out that the Belhar Confession is currently under consideration in three Reformed churches in the U.S. — In addition to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) it is also being looked at by the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) for adoption as a confessional standard.

If you have not had a chance to get acquainted with the Belhar Confession yet, it was written by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, under the leadership of the Rev. Allan Boesak, and it spoke to the concern that the concept of apartheid was at odds with the justice and equality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Belhar Confession is now one of the standards of unity of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa.

Of the three denominations the one furthest along in the adoption process is the RCA which has been studying it in the wider church since 2000.  In 2007 it was provisionally adopted by the General Synod and this past summer the General Synod approved the formal adoption process and it must now be approved by 2/3 of the 46 classes (like a Presbyterian presbytery) to become their first new standard in over 300 years.  (OK, the three standards, the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism were written over 300 years ago but adopted by the RCA in 1771.)

As it turns out the process in the CRC is a bit ahead of the PC(USA) but their study period will close at the same time as the PC(USA) in 2012.  The CRC has been in consultation with the RCA about this and their Synod 2009 recommended that the church study the Confession and that it be adopted by Synod 2012 as their fourth confessional standard, the same as the RCA.  For the CRC the approval by Synod 2012 is the final step and no vote of the classes is required under their polity.  (A unique feature in my experience.)

Concerning the PC(USA), if approval is gained at each of the planned steps then it would enter the PC(USA) Book of Confessions following the 220th General Assembly in 2012.  The specific steps are the formation of a study committee by the 218th GA, report back of the study committee recommending adoption to the next GA, the 219th, and approval of the confession by that Assembly.  It would then be sent to the presbyteries for approval requiring an affirmative vote of 2/3 of the presbyteries.  There must then be a final vote of the next GA, the 220th in 2012, to finish the process successfully.  The first and second steps, creation of the study committee and a positive recommendation of that committee have now been completed.  The committee’s work has included consultation with the CRC and the RCA, even holding their first meeting back in June in Grand Rapids, MI, a location chosen to better dialog with the CRC.

While this is not the hottest topic (maybe this, or this, or even this is) in the Reformed circles of the blogosphere, it does have pretty good coverage.  Bloggers from the RCA (e.g. Steve Pierce and Kevin DeYoung) and the CRC (e.g. Algernon Peak) are weighing in on the confession.  And of course, there is plenty of opinion from the PC(USA) as well (e.g. Toby Brown, Byron Wade, Viola Larson, and Mark Koenig).

There is general agreement that the Belhar Confession would bring a couple of new items to the Book of Confessions — its focus on equality and justice as well as its Southern Hemisphere perspective.  Those are aspects that you may or may not agree should be represented in the Book of Confessions.

Regarding the justice aspect there is a concern among many of the bloggers that it comes from the perspective of Liberation Theology.  In the fourth section of the Belhar Confession, the second bullet-point reads “We believe…that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”  The current debates revolve around the phrase “is in a special way” and what that means.  In some varieties of Liberation Theology the scriptures are viewed as saying that God not only comforts the poor and oppressed but is inherently against the rich and powerful.  Algernon Peak comments on this saying:

The first aspect of the Belhar that makes me uncomfortable is that it makes the claim, “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”  While Scripture makes clear that God cares for the poor, and Christ says in Luke 6, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”, we go too far to say that God is in some special way God to those who are impoverished.  According to the Scriptures, God is God in a special way to his chosen people, to go beyond that truth is to say more than the Scriptures do.  This does really concerns me, because that particular portion of the Belhar seems much more indebted to contemporary liberation theology than it does to the Bible.  We are lost if we start allowing our confessions to say that which God’s revealed written testimony does not give us the right to say.

The aspect of the Belhar that is probably the focus of the greatest debate is how the pronouncements about justice and equality regarding racial divisions can be extended to current controversies of gender orientation equality.  That this extension can be made seems
to be acknowledged by all engaged in the debate.  In the case of the Rev. Joseph Small of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship this is a good and legitimate extension.  The official PC(USA) press release says this about his comments to the committee:

Adopting the Belhar also means more than presenting a simple statement against racism, Small said.

“It does speak to the contemporary reality of racial discrimination in our church and the world,” he said. The church can’t ignore the situation of apartheid that led to the Belhar, Small told the committee, but also can’t limit it to that. “Belhar is something that speaks about the diversity of the church but doesn’t restrict it to one dimension.”

That openness to a wide range of social conflicts could also be a barrier to adoption for Belhar, which some could argue opens the door to gay and lesbian ordination. That issue was raised recently when the national governing bodies of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) also considered Belhar.

But the confession mentions only membership in the church — not ordination — and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people have long been welcomed as members in the PC(USA), Small said.

One of the people raising concerns about the extension of the Belhar Confession to this current debate is Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.  His is an interesting voice in this discussion because, as he describes in his recent piece about it, he has significant experience with all three of these Reformed branches as well as the individuals and denomination that wrote the Belhar.  (He has an earlier article from last Spring raising concerns as well.)  In the article from last week he wrote:

So why am I opposed to our—the CRC, RCA, and PC(USA)— adopting Belhar as a confessional document? When I wrote about this earlier I mentioned that Allan Boesak, also one of the gifted anti-apartheid spokespersons in South Africa’s Reformed community, had recently appealed to Belhar in support of including active gays and lesbians in the church’s ministerial ranks. I might also have mentioned that many fear that Belhar will now be used to reinforce an unnuanced anti-Israeli stance.

I think those worries are real. But my critics, many of whom share my views about same-sex issues and Middle East matters, rightly insist that this is no reason to oppose Belhar as such. What we must do, they rightly argue, is to make sure that Belhar is understood as a prophetic word against racial and ethnic discrimination within the Christian community.

We will see to what extent Belhar is held up as a “particular stance” in particular circumstances at a particular time versus how it is applied as applicable today to any perceived injustice or inequality.

But Dr. Mouw continues on from there to express an even greater concern on his part — the nature of confessional standards in general and how this one fits into that framework.  The nature of confessional standards is something I have discussed before and this is of concern to me as well.  I encourage you to read the whole discussion, but here are some excerpts that I hope gives you the basics of what seems to me to be the strong case that Dr. Mouw makes:

My real concern about adopting Belhar has to do with the broader issue of the nature of confessional integrity in our Reformed and Presbyterian churches. I think I know all three denominations very well. I was raised in an RCA pastor’s home, and attended two of that denomination’s colleges and one of its seminaries. I was an active member of the CRC for 17 years. And for two decades now I have been similarly active in the PC(USA).

When I was studying at an RCA seminary in the 1960s, one of my more conservative professors explained the differing views on the status of the Reformed “Standards of Unity”—Heidelberg, Belgic, and Dort—in this way. The CRC, he said, takes them very seriously. If you are Christian Reformed you are expected really to believe what is in them. […] Some people in the RCA, on the other hand, said the professor, tend to see the book of confessions as a kind of museum. […]

I think the professor had it right at the time. But today all three of the aforementioned denominations basically endorse the museum approach. Or it may be a little more like a “Great Books” approach. The documents from the past are all there up on the shelf, and we all acknowledge their importance, but some of us really like James Baldwin and others of us prefer Jane Austen.


These days it is rather common for people—CRC folks included—who have taken ordination vows publicly to express their disagreements with what I take to be essential Reformed doctrines. Indeed, I am often treated as a curiosity of sorts when I make it clear that I still subscribe to the actual doctrinal content of the Reformed “Great Books”—predestination, individual election, substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, Christ as the only Way.

So, let me put it bluntly. If we—for all practical purposes—don’t care about genuinely subscribing to the actual content of, say, the Belgic or the Westminster confessions, why would we think that adopting Belhar would be in any way binding on the consciences of persons who take ordination vows? When detached from the content of the rest of Reformed thought, many of Belhar’s formulations—as stand-alone theological declarations—are dangerously vague. Belhar deserves confessional status only in a community that takes the rest of its confessions with utmost seriousness.

To sum up this whole issue his concluding paragraph is concise and to the point.  I leave you with that:

The most compelling case being made for adopting Belhar is for me the pleas of underrepresented racial-ethnic minority groups in our denominations. They have a right to ask us to declare our firm conviction that racism and ethno-centrism are not only unjust, they are theological heresies. But I fear they are assuming that we are more committed to confessional integrity than we actually are. When all of this debate is over and Belhar—as is very likely—is on the confessional shelf, I hope they will push us hard on whether we really take that whole shelf seriously.

General Synod of the Reformed Church In America Adopts The Belhar Confession

Earlier this week the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, by a vote of 166-65, adopted the Belhar Confession for inclusion as a confessional standard along side the historic Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort and the historic Nicene, Apostles, and Athanasian Creeds.  It will now require the concurrence of two-thirds of their local bodies, the classes.

The PC(USA), which is currently studying the adoption of the Belhar Confession, is a “collector” of confessions and writer of new ones so their acceptance of the Belhar would not be as unusual.  For the RCA, if the classes concur, this would be the first new document in their standards in almost 400 years since the 1619 Canons of Dort.

The RCA has an official story on the Synod action and the blog Embarking has a great two-part rundown on the points made in the Synod debate (Part 1, Part 2). There is a good story about the debate and the Synod action from  I did puzzle at one paragraph where they say

One of the Belhar’s authors last year claimed in a report on
homosexuality to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa that
the confession supports gays in church. Though the South African church
dispelled that idea, the concern remains.

What I found interesting was the vague reference to “One of the Belhar’s authors…”  I am still trying to figure out why the author did not just name the Rev. Allan Boesak as the author.  Was the story written too quickly and it could not be researched?  Did they not think the information relevant?  Was it not essential to the story?  I don’t know, but for more on Allan Boesak, his roll in the Belhar Confession, and where his thinking is now you can check out a post by Dr. Richard Mouw on his blog.

So we will see whether the classes agree and the Belhar is adopted by the RCA.  And it will be interesting if their debate and process will be a factor in any way in the PC(USA) process.