(The following letter was written by Richard M. Sherman, Ph.D. to the Rev. Kevin Stainton. It explains why Sherman resigned his membership in the local church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is published here with Sherman’s permission.)
19 March 2013
Rev. Kevin Stainton
Heritage Presbyterian Church
Thank you for your phone call on 27 February. I had not expected to hear from you and was a bit taken aback when you did call. I probably did not sound quite compos mentis in what I had to say as I had several other rather significant matters (other than church concerns) on my mind at that moment.
As I told you then, it is with regret that I ask that my name be removed from the membership roll of Heritage Presbyterian Church. This has not been an easy decision; I probably should have acted on it finally a year ago. So, you well might ask, what has indeed led to my decision? I do hope the following “essay” will clarify my reasons for doing so.
As you may recall my telling you at some point, I am a fourth-generation Presbyterian. When all four of my Mother’s grandparents, maternal and paternal (i.e., my maternal great-grandparents), emigrated to Zanesville, Ohio, from Germany in the 1850’s, there was no evangelisch congregation in Zanesville (they had all been evangelisch – Lutheran – in Germany), so they chose to join the local German-speaking (!) Presbyterian church. (It has since become strictly English-speaking; I still have a second cousin in that congregation.) In 1898, their offspring, my newly married maternal grandparents, moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they became very active (my grandfather as an elder) in Central Presbyterian Church, at the time the largest Presbyterian church in that city. My Mother and her three siblings were all raised in the CPC congregation and were all very active in its youth programs as they grew up. Eventually in 1933, in Chattanooga’s 3rd Presbyterian Church, my Mother married my Dad (at the time a disenchanted Southern Baptist); in due course he opted to become a Presbyterian.
Shortly after their wedding, Dad lost his job (middle of the Depression) and they had perforce to move to Akron, Ohio, where he had found a new position. There in 1939 I was born, and subsequently baptized at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The year after the end of World War Two in 1946, however, Dad was offered a better position in Cincinnati and we moved here where, soon afterwards, we began to attend Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church. Several years later Dad was elected to its board of deacons.
I became very much immersed in the children’s and youth programs at PRPC – attended Sunday school regularly, sang in its children’s and youth choirs, very active in its Boy Scout troop, as a teenager became active in what we called the youth church, participated in several Bible-study classes, etc. – and was confirmed in April of 1952. PRPC was central to my life as I grew up and during my undergraduate days at the University of Cincinnati. (My closest friend to this day, Lou Mellinger, I first met when we were in his mother’s second-grade Sunday school class at “P Ridge Presby”.) What made PRPC so central to my life in my high-school and college years, however, was its senior pastor, Dr. Clyde O. York (father of the current senior pastor, I believe, at Knox Presbyterian). Dr. York was without doubt the most intellectually challenging, astute cleric I have ever known. (At the time, he was also chairman, I believe, of UC’s Biblical Literature Department. I always felt I should be taking copious notes during his sermons – what he said on Sunday might well be on the next “exam”!) I owe a lot to him – e.g., at one time when I hit a “rough patch” in graduate school, he talked me out of quitting; e.g., the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1971, he baptized our daughter Elisabeth Ruth at PRPC.
In September of 1961, I went on to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to pursue a PhD in Medieval Studies. My very first day at Penn I met Carolyn who, four years later, would become my beloved wife. Her grandfather, a retired Presbyterian minister, married us on Thanksgiving Day 1965 in Cleveland, Ohio. Like her mother, her mother’s three brothers, and six of her first cousins, Carolyn herself had taken her BA at the College of Wooster, at that time very much a Presbyterian school. After our marriage, Carolyn and I first lived in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania, where we soon became members of the nearby Presbyterian church, Wayne Presbyterian, one of the larger congregations in the Philadelphia Presbytery.
We remained members of WPC for the rest of our married lives. Carolyn in particular became very active, singing in the WPC choir and in the community Oratorio Society which WPC sponsored. In due course, she was elected to the session on which she served, off and on, for the rest of her life on various and sundry committees including twice on pastoral search committees. When my Carolyn passed away in May of 2003, she was Assistant Clerk of Session. Several weeks after her passing, the Oratorio Society performed Mozart’s Requiem Mass in her memory.
So as you can see, Kevin, through heritage, upbringing, and marriage, I have very much of a Presbyterian background – perhaps more so than many (most?) of the membership of Heritage Presbyterian Church.
Beginnings of Disenchantment
As for me, through the years of our membership at WPC, I was nonetheless becoming gradually dubious about what appeared to be non-Christian directions of some policies that the national PCUSA seem to be promoting and subsequently adopting. In consequence, much to Carolyn’s chagrin, I became over the years less and less involved in WPC activities. I did, however, continue for some years as chairman of its Job Search Committee, a group endeavoring to assist unemployed church members in their job hunts. (At the time I was vice-president of Drake Beam Morin, an international human-resources/outplacement-consulting firm.)
(At this point I should relate that my maternal grandmother had a neighbor and dear friend at Central Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, Mrs. Mary R. Jones, who was for many years superintendent of its Sunday school. I was raised to think of her as my third “grandmother”, Grandma Sugar. She was undoubtedly the most deeply religious, sincerely devout Presbyterian I have ever known; visiting with her was often like going to a non-stop prayer meeting. At some point during my undergraduate days in the late ’50s, I recall a long conversation with her about the approaching union of the Southern and Northern Presbyterian churches. She feared that the union would be a disaster in that much of the Southern Church’s theology and what it believed and taught would be eliminated on the grounds of “political correctness” – long before, of course, that expression had even come into being. How prescient I think she was!)
Several years before Carolyn passed away and shortly after she had been elected Assistant Clerk of Session, one Sunday the senior pastor of WPC at the time gave a very politically slanted, inappropriate sermon with which I absolutely did not agree. (Even had I agreed with him, it was still inappropriate as a sermon!) I composed a letter to him in which I castigated him for using a Presbyterian pulpit to promote his particular political point of view. As I said to him in my letter, he had every right to whatever political position he wished to espouse, but he had no right to use his position as a minister of the Gospel and a teaching elder to promote it from the pulpit. I commented further that as one of his congregants I should acquire absolutely no clue to his political views from the pulpit – liberal or conservative, right or left, Democrat or Republican, etc. From the pulpit, I should be made aware only of what his religious views (presumably Presbyterian and Christian) were.
As was right and proper, before sending my letter to him I shared it with my Carolyn. Although agreeing with much of what I had written, she asked nonetheless that I not send it. As the recently elected Assistant Clerk (and likely, had she lived, as the next Clerk of Session), she felt that should the senior pastor choose to share my letter with certain other members of the session, it would undoubtedly cause her quite some difficulty. I agreed, albeit reluctantly, not to send it. Subsequently at her encouragement, however, I did have a lengthy conversation with the senior pastor about my concerns. He flatly refused to understand what my problem or my objections were. Talk about being deliberately, obstinately, and wantonly obtuse!
Although I loved the University of Pennsylvania (and still do), other than Penn I never developed much affection for the Philadelphia area (hated the Phillies and the Eagles!) and always hoped that eventually we would return to the Cincinnati area. Carolyn and I both retired from our respective jobs in 1999 with the intention, firstly, of going off to see the world. Two years later in Madrid, she became quite ill. On our return to the US, we learned that she had “the big C”; a year later she passed away. Thanks to Steven Harberts, associate pastor for pastoral care at WPC, he got me through what was undoubtedly the most depressing, utterly debilitating, most profoundly sad period in my life that I had ever experienced, truly my “Valley of the Shadow”. Nonetheless, ironically but sadly, the passing of my beloved Carolyn made it possible for me indeed to pursue finally my hope of returning “home” to Cincinnati. Which is precisely what I did.
Thomas Wolfe’s comment, that one can never go “home” again, to the contrary, I did so, knowing full well that “home” and Cincinnati would not be the same (after 42 years) as when I left. Still, it was a good decision. Through a convoluted series of circumstances I became reacquainted with Annette (I had not seen her in 25 years), a neighbor and childhood/high-school girlfriend of my sister Marguerite. In due course, Annette and I were married by Steven Harberts. (God was surely with me – and with us.)
At the same time on my return, I also picked up on my friendship with David Anson. Dave and I had been close friends – “buddies” if you will – during our undergraduate days at the University of Cincinnati where we were both in its honors program in Early European History. Still, our close college friendship had seemed to fade after I left for graduate school at Penn. Nonetheless, after my return to the Cincinnati area, Dave and I picked up once again where we left off, and he and his new (i.e., “new” to me) wife Pat soon became good and valued friends of Annette’s and mine as they continue to be to this day.
At some point, Dave and Pat asked me to come to a Sunday service with them at Heritage Presbyterian Church. Although rather smaller than Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in which I had grown up or Wayne Presbyterian Church of which I had been a member for some 37 years in suburban Philadelphia, I was quite taken with HPC. At that time, although pleased to be “home” once again in Greater Cincinnati, I had given little thought to transferring my WPC membership to a church in the Cincinnati area. After some thought, I decided in fact to transfer my membership to HPC, which, as you perhaps recall, I did in October of 2008.
HPC seemed to me to be a “friendly congregation” (which indeed it still does), one lacking in the unchristian cliques and politics that seemed to bedevil Wayne Presbyterian (Carolyn had complained about these fi:equently!). I made several good friends in the congregation and I was impressed with the many programs (educational, outreach, music, Scouting, etc.) that HPC offered. Still and yet …
As a birth-right (to borrow the Quaker expression) Presbyterian, I became ever more troubled about proposed policies that the national organization (PCUSA), the synods, and the local presbyteries appeared to be advocating. Several of these policies seem to me to be in direct conflict with Presbyterian – and indeed Christian in general – teachings, beliefs, behavior, and (dare I say?) traditions.
Eventually, it became increasingly clear to me that what the PCUSA seemed to be promoting is anything but Presbyterian or even Christian in the very fundamental sense of the word. How can the national organization, in good conscience, justify the elimination of the chastity clause from the Book of Order for its teaching elders and church officers? The chastity clause did not allow for “gay” clergy because, quite obviously, such practices are Scripturally abhorrent. How, then, can the national organization even consider allowing for “gay” clergy? Allowing for it, moreover, can only lead over time to a fundamentally immoral policy permitting, indeed approving, so called same-sex (read “sodomite”) “marriage” which Scriptures clearly teach is an abomination before God and His ordinances. How can I as a Presbyterian (or even as a general believing Christian) continue in good conscience to belong to a denomination that approves practices that are so fundamentally and Scripturally unsound? Indeed, would not my continued membership in a PCUSA congregation seem to indicate that I personally approve and in effect adhere to and might even promote such practices and policies?
Still another issue. How can the national PCUSA organization, regional synods, and local presbyteries institute massive and expensive law-suits (paid for, albeit generally unbeknownst, by every PCUSA member in the pews) against congregations that want to separate themselves from the national organization because of its promotion of policies and practices with which those congregations disagree and/or disapprove? Alternately, how can these bodies, in good conscience, coerce massive, compensatory damage payments from congregations, often small ones, simply wanting to depart the PCUSA, before allowing them to do so? Is that an example of real Christian love and charity? I hardly think so.
And yet another issue: the surreptitious but growing anti-Semitism that seems to be infecting General Assembly votes and PCUSA pronouncements. How Christian is that?
As you recall, Kevin, we had a lengthy conversation some months ago, a conversation in which I voiced many of the issues on which my growing disillusionment was – and continues – to rest. As I also related to you, previous to our conversation I had discussed these points with several other members of the HPC who were also disturbed by them. I have continued to think frequently about what you had to say and I continue to be bothered by it.
To my objection to any portion of my monetary pledge (modest though it may be) going to the PCUSA headquarters in Louisville, the regional synod, or the Cincinnati presbytery, you suggested I could direct that all my pledge-offerings were to go to whatever local HPC activities or funds that I believed worthy of support. (That I have done and continue to do so). You added, however, that were I to do so, I could never expect to be elected an officer (presumably a deacon or an elder) of HPC. The possibility of being a church officer has never been particularly attractive to me. (I observed the aggravations with which my Carolyn as a member of session at WPC had to contend.). It seems to me, additionally, that being required as a church officer to uphold the Book of Order with its chastity clause removed would surely verge on hypocrisy on my part.
In response to your question regarding where I get my information or knowledge about what is going on in the PCUSA, I replied that much of it comes from the Presbyterian Lay Committee’s The Layman, a publication for which I gathered you have absolutely no use. In response to my query why you felt as you did about it, you indicated in so many words that it was filled with prevarications, half-truths, etc. Yet, when I asked you to point out such, you refused (or were unable) to do so. On the other hand if I may point out, I certainly don’t see HPC as providing much (if any) information in detail on a regular basis to the congregation as a whole about the national PCUSA organization, its activities, policies, pronouncements, etc.
As we both know, several years ago a member of HPC was chosen by the Cincinnati Presbytery to be a delegate to the PCUSA General Assembly. I had no problem with that. During my conversation with you, however, I did ask you whether there had been any HPC congregational meeting to discuss what was to be on the General Assembly agenda that he attended. You assured me that there had been such a meeting, yet when I subsequently asked several other active HPC members if they recalled a congregational meeting for some preliminary discussion, they had no recollection of such. I cannot believe that such a congregation-wide meeting was ever held where at least some of the issues I raise would have been discussed, no doubt in depth.
In our 27 February phone conversation, Kevin, I asked you how it was that the Cincinnati Presbytery had voted to approve “gay” clergy? You replied that it had not done so. Yet, in an article that I pulled off the internet almost two years ago (18 May 20 II – copy enclosed), it indicated that the Presbytery of Cincinnati had voted to approve it on 8 February 2011 by a vote of 99-72. As you will read, the article goes on to state: “The vote abolishes a celibacy requirement for gay and lesbian clergy.” I think that states it rather clearly and forthrightly. I don’t know how the representative(s) from HPC (you?) voted, but I certainly do not recollect any congregational meeting at which it was even discussed how HPC’s vote should be cast on the issue.
Believe it or not, Kevin, despite what I have just said I have good memories of Heritage Presbyterian Church, but I also have several that continue to irritate and rankle. There are other points as well that have bothered me to varying degrees, locally to nationally, within PCUSA, but I see no point in further beating the proverbial dead horse.
My basic problem: although I remain a committed Presbyterian, the Presbyterian Church USA or the organization that claims to be that Presbyterian Church – appears to be less and less so. I don’t know how my grandfather, as a Presbyterian elder, would have reacted to the current policies of the PCUSA – he died before I was born – but I know my Dad, as a deacon, would have been utterly appalled and would likely (as I am doing) have resigned his membership.
In our 27 February phone conversation, I commented on the PCUSA decline in membership over the last 50 years, a decline from four and a half million to something over one million. In response, you replied, in essence, that such decline was true of all mainline denominations. I don’t disagree with you on that point, but neither do I really care about whether Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran, American Baptist or whatever other denominations are in decline. What I do care about is my denomination, the Presbyterian Church. If it is declining – which it obviously is – it is likely to be doing so, I suspect, because many individual former members feel, increasingly, that the PCUSA no longer represents a form of worship, belief, and order that they view as traditionally, historically, and theologically Presbyterian and even Christian. It seems to them – it certainly does to me – that PCUSA as a denomination no longer stands for much of anything or rather, if it does stand for anything, it stands for and actively promotes only whatever appears to be “politically correct” at the moment. For many would-be church-goers, does the local Presbyterian Church USA remain attractive merely because of its propinquity (i.e., rather like choosing between Walgreens or CVS to patronize because one or the other is nearer and therefore more “convenient”), or the one with the most interesting activities (e.g., has a good music program), or is quite sociable (e.g., great coffee hour after services), or the one whose pastor makes its congregants feel good about themselves, etc., etc.?
I realize, Kevin, that you probably won’t deign to share my thoughts (which you probably see, in any event, as being simply fatuous) with other people in HPC. Yet, my supposition also is that you have received few indications in detail from other former HPC members concerning their reason(s) for leaving. They just quietly and simply stop showing up on Sunday mornings or for Bible study or whatever. I wonder how many other people, Presbyterian down to the quick, feel as I do – many, I should hope.
I am a Presbyterian and I will remain a Presbyterian; I am not leaving the Presbyterian Church. What I question is why the Presbyterian Church – or what calls itself by that name – has left me.
Richard M. Sherman
West Chester, Ohio
Cc: Amy Duiker
David & Patricia Anson
Carmen Fowler LaBerge