Gradye Parsons and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Apology

By Mateen Elass, on his personal blog.

gradye apologyTwo days ago I reported on the travesty which occurred last Saturday in Portland at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons had asked some of his denominational employees to fashion a short worship service to commemorate the lives of shooting victims in Charleston and Orlando, and it was the first agenda item on the docket for Saturday afternoon. The leadership deliberately designed this service not simply as an ecumenical affair (inviting leaders from other Christian denominations to help lead) but also as an interfaith event (inviting one leader from an anti-Christian religion — Islam).

Not surprisingly, the Muslim man, Wajdi Said, led the assembly  in a prayer in Arabic from the Qur’an,  and then proceeded to speak a prayer to Allah in English seeking the conversion of all there to Islam, and demoting Jesus to a status equal to other prophets, including non-biblical ones (Ishmael and Muhammad). The final part of the liturgy he read was something he, together with the denominational designers, must have created — it was a prayer based on four passages from the Qur’an (there was nothing recognizable from the Bible), and was in printed form as well as projected on screen for the assembly.

There was no visible negative reaction from the assembly, but a few days later the Stated Clerk received a protest letter written by a Korean Presbyterian and signed by 25 Assembly commissioners ( just under 5% of the 594 registered commissioners), drawing attention to the disgraceful judgment of those who had planned and permitted this act of casual blasphemy.

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Watch the apology here. It begins at the 2:44:53 mark.

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J. Herbert Nelson elected Stated Clerk of the PCUSA

J Herbert Nelson portrait2

J. Herbert Nelson

By a vote of 447 to 112, the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) elected the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson as its new Stated Clerk for a four-year term.

Touted as a historical moment, Nelson became the first person of color in the 300-year history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States to hold the highest ecclesial office of the church.

In response, Nelson said, “This is a powerful day – not only in my life – but for many people of color who did not envision the possibility of this ever happening.”

Nelson has a rich Presbyterian history, following in the path of his father, James Herbert Nelson; grandfather, Warren Julius Nelson; and two uncles who were all Presbyterian pastors. His mother, Johnalee B. Nelson, was a ruling elder and active at the national level of Presbyterian Women.

“My mother and father believed in a faith that would not let them go. They were a model of justice and mercy, and my father was a model of evangelism in campus ministry. Today, they stand in heaven, and if it rains, it is their tears – tears of joy,” Nelson reflected. More than once Nelson held together the tension between evangelism and justice. “It is not an either/or but a both/and relationship.”

nelson-installedNelson, director of the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, was the pick of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee. Rev. David M. Baker, stated clerk and communications director for the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, was the challenger after he was placed in nomination by Ruling Elder Dan Johnson from Tampa Bay Presbytery.

Baker campaigned on a populist platform, saying, “It is evident from the voting yesterday that we need to do more to be transparent as a national body. We need to resource the local presbyteries and congregations. If you are going to be a leader and serve others, the leaders should be helping. Many congregations have a sense that the national body could be doing more. We need to reorient to focus on the local – the stronger we are at the local level the stronger we will be at the national level. We need to solve problems at the grassroots level.”

Quickly capitalizing on this idea, Nelson spoke to the upcoming General Assemblies scheduled in St. Louis (2018) and Baltimore (2020), saying,

“Those communities feel alienated. I live almost down the street from Baltimore, and I’ve traveled to St. Louis.  Those communities are broken. What would happen if we worked together and went into St. Louis not just a few days before but for 18 months to work together – to build houses, facilitate Self Development of People development projects, create new opportunities for economic growth, and took our hunger program and other programs within the PGA and OGA. And, rather than looking at the demarcation, we would look at the place. Perhaps we could have a community worship service bringing everyone together where we are celebrated for coming – not in a commerce way but not leaving it the same way. This would bridge the gap between local and national. We could work in the midst of those communities, and they would know that the Presbyterians have been there. We would build partnerships and relationships at both the national and local level.”

Perhaps it is no wonder that Nelson told a story about his daughter, Alycia Yvette Nelson, saying that she believed he should stand for the position of Stated Clerk, “Because, Daddy, you are a fixer.”

Nelson concluded his remarks by saying, “We can build a vibrant and powerful denomination. We are not dying. We are reforming. We are alive and well and will transform this world, one person at a time.”

Retiring Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, gave a blessing to the newly elected Stated Clerk.  “May you go to bed each night knowing that you have accomplished great things for God’s Kingdom, but when you can’t, know that you have another morning coming when you can do again.”

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Prayers to Allah offered at PCUSA’s General Assembly plenary session (updated)

w said at portland“Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad,” and so went the prayer offered up by Wajidi Said, from the Portland Muslim Community, as part of the “first order of business” during the opening plenary session of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Wajidi was taking part in the assembly’s scheduled time of remembrance for those killed in the recent Orlando terrorist attack and those killed last year in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C.

“In the days leading up to this assembly we all know that our nation’s peace has once again been ripped apart by an act of mass violence,” said Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly, when introducing it.

The violence, he said, “tore at each of our hearts as it reminded us of too many tragedies and too many victims. We are all touched by the tragedy of violence in some way. Being from North Carolina, I am reminded of the Chapel Hill shooting of Muslims, and I am concerned of course as I recognize that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the shootings at AME church in Charleston.”

woods-and-williamsRada said that Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons requested the staff leadership of the PCUSA’s ecumenical and interfaith ministries — Robina Winbush, Laurie Anderson, Rick Ufford-Chase and Laurie Kraus, — “ to provide for us as a first order of business an opportunity to lift up these tragedies that are so much on our minds.”

Taking part in the time of remembrance was Donnie Woods, general presbyter of Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery, Dan Williams, general presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery, Terry McCrae Hill of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Portland, and Eliana Maxim of Seattle Presbytery.

praying to AllahBeginning in Arabic, Said then switched to English and prayed:

“Allah bless us and bless our families and bless our Lord. Lead us on the straight path – the path of all the prophets: Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Peace be upon them all Amen.

“In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful, let us praise the Lord. The creator of the universe, the most merciful, the most compassionate and the Lord of the universe who has created us and made us into nations and tribes, from male and females that we may know each other, not that we might despise each other, or may despise each other. Incline towards peace and justice and trust in God, for the Lord is one that hears and knows everything and the servants of God, the most compassionate, the most merciful, gracious are those who walk in the earth in humility and when bigots and hateful and Islamaphobes address them, they say peace. Peace be upon them and peace be upon Allah.”

The video of the time of first plenary session can be viewed here. The time of remembrance begins at the 6:45 mark and the prayer to Allah starts at the 14:04 mark.

UPDATE: At the conclusion of the afternoon plenary on Wednesday, June 22, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Rev. Gradye Parsons, offered an apology. He said that he had become aware that some had found the prayer on Saturday offensive. Parsons said that sometimes mistakes can be made in ecumenical relationships and stated it was not intentional. “It was never the intention to offend anyone, and we offer an apology to those who were offended.”

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David M. Baker Challenges Stated Clerk Nomination

By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook.

Dave M. Baker

A candidate has emerged to challenge the nomination of J. Herbert Nelson to be the next stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

David M. Baker, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay and its director of communications, has announced that he will challenge Nelson’s nomination. Baker was one of 13 people who formally applied for the nomination – so that makes him eligible to be a challenger.

Baker also met the deadline of informing the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee of his intention to stand for the office by May 4 – which is 45 days before the 2016 General Assembly convenes in Portland on June 18.

Baker, 39, is a teaching elder who earned a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and an undergraduate degree in psychology as a Monroe Scholar at the College of William and Mary. He is also the founder of a firm called Internet Outreach Experts, which helps churches create websites and an online presence.

From 2013 to 2015, Baker served as stated supply pastor for Woodlawn Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, and from 2008 to 2013 as associate pastor of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church in Tampa, Florida. From 2005 to 2007, he was the organizing pastor of Living Peace Church, a new church development in Ladysmith, Virginia.

On April 19, the committee had announced that it would nominate Nelson, director of the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness, to succeed Gradye Parsons. Parsons, 63, announced last fall that he would not seek seen a third four-year term as stated clerk.


Editor’s note: The Layman reached out to Baker for an interview, but he failed to respond to our requests.


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PCUSA Becomes the First Major Christian Denomination to Endorse the Wendy’s Boycott

We stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their longstanding struggle for fair labor practices in the agriculture industry …”

Posted by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

pcusa_endorse_In an historic act of support, the Presbyterian Church (USA) moved last week to endorse the boycott of Wendy’s, becoming the first major Christian denomination to formally commit to carry forward the boycott until Wendy’s joins the CIW’s Fair Food Program!

Representing nearly 2 million Christians nationwide, the church has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the CIW since the earliest days of the Campaign for Fair Food.  Over the past several months as the CIW’s Wendy’s campaign evolved into a national boycott, the PCUSA has worked to marshal its power and massive constituency to send an unmistakable message to Wendy’s: Fleeing from human rights is unacceptable.  And just two days ago, on May 11th, the church announced that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board had made the PCUSA’s support for the Wendy’s Boycott official.  From the Presbyterian News Service:

“Rather than support Florida growers who uphold human rights under the Fair Food Program, Wendy’s switched its tomato purchases to Mexico, where the denial of human rights in the produce industry was well-documented in last year’s Los Angeles Times exposé,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) “This is unacceptable, especially from a company that has prided itself on using U.S.-made products. Therefore, the PCUSA joins the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in calling on Wendy’s to sign a Fair Food agreement.”

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J. Herbert Nelson selected as nominee for PCUSA Stated Clerk

News Release from the Presbyterian News Service.

nelsonThe Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson is the nominee to become the next Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA), the committee charged with bringing a candidate to the 222nd General Assembly (2016) announced today.

“We, the committee, believe J. Herbert Nelson will be both priest and prophet to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and to our ecumenical and interreligious sisters and brothers,” said the Reverend Carol McDonald, moderator of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee (SCNC).

“He has the heart and soul of a pastor; when he asks, ‘how are you doing?’ he really wants to know. His prophetic voice will call us as a denomination to do ‘kingdom work’ — to reclaim the biblical and theological foundations of who we are, to forge again community that unites rather than divides, and to step boldly into the world to speak the message of Jesus,” she said.

Nelson is a teaching elder and member of National Capital Presbytery who has served since 2010 as director of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. From 1986 to 1997 he served as pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, and from 1998 to 2010 he was the organizing pastor for Liberation Community Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He also has served as associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis in Tennessee.


J. Herbert Nelson

“I feel both heartened and humbled to be selected as the nominee for the office of Stated Clerk by the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee,” Nelson said. “It is my belief that our future opportunities as a denomination outweigh our challenges. We must collectively commit to serving the Kingdom of God and not simply the Church.”

Nelson’s name will be placed in nomination on Sunday, June 19, during a plenary session of the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon. If elected, he will be the first African American Stated Clerk of the PCUSA. The General Assembly runs June 18–25.

“I think the committee has made a wise and exciting choice,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, current PCUSA Stated Clerk. “I look forward to working with the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson in the transition and supporting his ministry as Stated Clerk.”

McDonald said the committee’s decision on the nominee was “very clear.”

“Our process involved a substantial written application, a video presentation, a phone conversation, and two face-to-face interviews,” McDonald said. “In addition, we spoke with a significant number of primary and secondary references about Nelson’s gifts for this office, all of whom said they believed he is the right person for this time in the life of our church.”

Nelson, 56, holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Johnson C. Smith University, a master of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and a doctor of ministry degree from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is married to the Reverend Gail Porter Nelson, pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. They have one adult daughter.

McDonald said a detailed report of the work and process of the Stated Clerk Nomination Committee will be shared with the PCUSA as soon as it is available.


Related stories:

Carol McDonald on the selection of J. Herbert Nelson as nominee for Stated Clerk of the PC(USA)

J. Herbert Nelson as Stated Clerk of the PC (USA) — a Match Made in Liberal Utopia?

Survey finds most want next PCUSA stated clerk to be a committed follower of Christ

Cowards cannot do this work, J. Herbert Nelson addresses Covenant Network


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The Man of La Mainline

By Mateen Elass, on his personal blog.

quixote2Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is our very own reincarnation of the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote.

Riding on his tired old horse, Rocinante, whom he imagines to be a valiant charger, Don Quixote races into battle against ferocious giants that in reality are windmills. His sidekick, Sancho, tries to help Quixote see the truth, but the crusading knight will have none of it, and so becomes famous for “tilting at windmills.”

Gradye, in his apparent quest to outdo do other mainline religious leaders at curing all manners of social injustice, has been busy this last month, riding the tired nag of the PCUSA and leveling his lance at some of the ferocious giants facing our world.

Notably, he has signed his name to letters seeking to extinguish some monumental evils:

On March 7,  he penned a passionate missive to President Obama, urging him to participate in the signing of the international Paris Agreement on climate change to be held in NYC on April 22. According to Parsons, the PCUSA has been deeply encouraged by the Obama administration’s “…strong commitment to working for climate justice and environmental responsibility,” and the President’s presence is necessary to keep the momentum going in the right direction.

On March 9, he joined an amicus brief filed to support the Obama administration’s appeal to lift a court-ordered injunction against the President’s executive actions on illegal immigration policy.

On March 16, he joined his name (and that of the PCUSA) to a letter urging the House of Representatives to vote to “… end our long-standing and counter-productive embargo on Cuba.”

On March 29, he put out a call to the governor and legislature of North Carolina to repeal a new law which bans people from using bathrooms that don’t match the sex indicated on their birth certificate. While this might seem a common-sense protection to most, in the eyes of social justice crusaders it smacks of discrimination.


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PCUSA Leader Calls on NC to Repeal Law Banning Transgender Bathroom Ordinances

By Michael Gryboski, The Christian Post.

Gradye ParsonsThe head of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has called on North Carolina to repeal its law barring transgender bathroom ordinances.

“We find that the recent legislation approved in North Carolina and signed into law, which bans people from using bathrooms that don’t match the sex indicated on their birth certificate, is discriminatory,” argued PCUSA’s Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons in a statement Tuesday, calling on North Carolina lawmakers to repeal the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act.

“The North Carolina law also prevents cities and counties from establishing ordinances extending protections covering sexual orientation and gender identity to restaurants, hotels, and stores.”

Parsons also stated that the law “is discriminatory both to the LGBT community and everyday employees in North Carolina.”

“It is our hope that the legislature and the governor of North Carolina will listen to the citizens of their state, do factually based analysis, and repeal this discriminatory law,” continued Parsons.

Earlier this month North Carolina’s legislature passed House Bill 2, also known as the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act.

Supported overwhelmingly by both houses of the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, the bill struck down a Charlotte city ordinance that among other things allowed for people to use the public restroom of their choice.

The Act has garnered much controversy, with many claiming the law to be discriminatory against transgender individuals.

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Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons brings greetings to Covenant Network


Gradye Parsons

Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), brought greetings this morning to the 150 gathered at the national conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians meeting at Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo. 

From their website: 
The mission of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is to strengthen the church of Jesus Christ, with the help of God’s grace. We are called to achieve this goal by working for the unity of the church, furthering the inclusion of LGBTQ persons, seeking understanding and reconciliation, and joining with others seeking a still more just and inclusive church.

Receiving a standing ovation, he opened his remarks by noting his perfect attendance at all Covenant Network national conferences. He said, “this is my last time to be here as Stated Clerk but not my last time, I want to be clear about that.” 

“This is a good church and a great church,” he said. “This is a faithful church centered on the Word at work in the world.”

Parsons acknowledged and celebrated the role of the Covenant Network in helping to “shape the PCUSA as a more gracious and generous, fully inclusive church.”

Then he said, “There’s a tendency when we hear something that we don’t want to hear — to tell them to shut up.” Parsons encouraged the Covenant Network to resist that temptation. 

“Think as we go forward, as we pray and think toward the church we want this church to be – that cannot happen if we tell some folks to be silent.” He continued that discerning the mind of Christ must include more than just a memo issued by a small group gathered together which is why, he said, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly(COGA) is inviting everyone to participate in the conversation about the identity and future of the PCUSA. 

Parsons said, “COGA is asking the whole church to put their whole 2 cents.” He assured them that there is no fore-gone conclusion — “there’s no thumb on the scale,” but indeed the process is intentionally open. 

He invited everyone to visit: www.pcusa.org/identity. From there you can download a paper copy of the discussion questions or answer via online survey

Parsons concluded that the goal must be to “find some common understandings about who we are, what we are and what God is calling us to be about in the 21st century.” 

‘The State of the PCUSA’

In his workshop, “The State of the PCUSA,” Parsons offered a largely statistical look at American religious demographics, but made no mention of congregations departing the PCUSA. 

Parson’s presentation drew heavily upon the Pew Forum on Religion report ending in 2014, which just rolled out another 638 pages of analysis on Tuesday. 

After assuring attendees that the PCUSA membership losses track with other mainline denominations in the United States and exploring the changing U.S. religious landscape, religious affiliation of immigrants, fertility rates, etc., Parsons acknowledged that, “When I was growing up in a little town south of Nashville, whatever church your parents went to you when you were born was your destiny. The only way out was to marry into another church …. Now it’s much more fluid.” 

Parsons then addressed the issue of racial division to a room filled with 100-percent white faces. “The flat out challenge for us as Presbyterians, after all our best efforts, we’re still a 92-percent white church. We have to ask ourselves, my grandson who is 3, when he’s 21, a 92-percent majority white church is going to seem very odd. If we don’t want to become a boutique church, we have to take this seriously. If you really want racial-ethnic people to be a part of your church, you have to really care what’s going on in their lives.”

From race, Parsons turned to the generational challenge.  He said, “34-percent of older millennials self-identify as unaffiliated with a particular religion and 88-percent are not looking. When we consider that the average age for first marriage for men in America is 29 and the average age of a woman in America having her first child is lower than the average age of first marriage, we cannot rely on an old formula wherein we baptize, catechize, confirm our kids, send them off to summer camp and then expect that they’re go off to college and cultivate their testimony – returning to the church after they settle down in marriage and have their first child, is just not realistic. By the time they marry, they are committed to religious non-affiliation.”


Parsons asked, “Do you know the difference between the ‘Do it Yourself culture’ and the ‘Do it Together culture’? We are a church built around DIT. We are in a DIY culture. That is one of our challenges. The 1001 stuff is part of the DIY world. But how do you do that when one of our core values is DIT?”

1106151103Parsons then shared his new favorite number — 815.

He said, “My new favorite number in statistics is 815. Last year on the congregational statistical report we asked churches to tell us how many people their church ministered to beyond themselves. In the 40-percent return, the average was 815 people per congregation.” 

Acknowledging that its a soft statistical number, Parson’s extrapolated the 815 out to “1.67 million people minister to 8 million beyond themselves in 2014.”

Then he asked, “if we start thinking in terms of ministry community and not membership, consider the impact we’re actually having a denomination.” 

Big Conversation

Parsons concluded by challenging workshop attendees to consider a different definition of “success.” He asked, “What does it mean to be successful as a church?” Parsons suggested that the answer is “some measure of faithfulness.” Then asking, “but how do we measure faithfulness?”



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Gradye Parsons concludes role as stated clerk: A conversation with the Outlook


gradye parsons

Gradye Parsons

Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – the denomination’s top ecclesiastical officer – has announced that he won’t seek election to a third four-year term. That means the 2016 General Assembly will be asked to name a new stated clerk. It also means that the PCUSA is facing a clean sweep of leadership at the top, as Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, left that post as of July 10.

The Stated Clerk Nomination Committee, led by retired synod executive Carol McDonald, is expected to post application materials online in October. All applications must be submitted by Dec. 21, and the committee will announce its nominee no later than April 19.

Parsons, a teaching elder first elected stated clerk in 2008, sat down for a conversation with The Outlook about the challenges facing the PCUSA and his hopes for the denomination in the years to come.

The decision
Parsons, 63, said he struggled with the decision not seek another term, as he still enjoys both the work and his colleagues. He and his wife, Kathy, plan to move to Kodak, Tennessee (near Gatlinburg), to help care for their aging mothers and to be closer to the families of their two adult children. Parsons said he might do some consulting, “a little preaching, a little teaching. Nothing that requires a daily alarm clock.”

Read more at the Outlook.


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