(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call, Bethlehem, PA). The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem is getting the strongest show of solidarity yet from the national denomination with a Sunday visit from the highest elected leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson will lead the 11:30 a.m. service for the Presbyterians for Unity, the portion of the church’s congregation seeking to stay under the umbrella of the mainline denomination. His visit will mark the first time a sitting stated clerk of the general assembly has led a service in the region overseen by the Lehigh Presbytery in memory, according to Presbytery Teaching Elder Rev. David Duquette. He called the stop “unprecedented.”
Nelson, speaking during a Thursday interview between his cross-country travels, said his goal is ensure the Presbyterians for Unity feel the support of the rest of the denomination.
“They are not alone in this struggle,” Nelson said. “They’re certainly setting a tone and an example for others looking at similar struggles.”
In June, the majority of the 2,600-member congregation voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join a more conservative denomination, the Covenant Order of Evangelical, or ECO, which is said to better reflect the group’s theological views.
But the Presbyterian Church (USA) said the vote violated church rules on how such separations should take place, setting off a contentious legal battle over which side will keep the 31.5-acre Center Street property.
Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta is hearing the case and could decide to hold a full trial before issuing a ruling. In the meantime, Baratta ordered both congregations to coexist within the church, holding separate services if they desired.
At a fall conference in Louisville, Ky., where the denomination is based, Duquette told national officials that a visit from leadership could lift morale. Duquette said he was told “help is coming.”
“Having him there will be an incredible boost,” Duquette said. “And I think it really shows… that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a vision of being a church that’s opening and welcoming and not restrictive and judgmental. This is a tremendous affirmation for us.”