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Way Forward Commission Discusses Interagency Cooperation, Structure, Next Steps

(By Leslie Scanlon, Presbyterian Outlook). Members of the Way Forward Commission are beginning to turn their thoughts to what sort of changes the commission might recommend for the Presbyterian Church (USA) – not discussing any specifics yet, but considering whether the commission might be ready to start moving in that direction when it meets next at McCormick Theological Seminary May 15-17.

Commission members agreed to think in the next few weeks about what Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York and the commission’s moderator, described as “common elements” they would want included in a denominational structure based on the research they have done so far; the feedback they’ve received about what Presbyterians at the grass roots want; and their theological sense of what a church is called to be.

Commission member Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina, put it this way: commission members should consider, in very broad terms, “if nothing existed today, what would you build?”

The commission met via video conference call April 18, discussing both its progress so far and next steps. Here are some highlights.

Limits to the Commission’s Power

The commission met for about 40 minutes in closed session with J. Herbert Nelson, the PCUSA’s stated clerk, giving as the reason for closing the meeting a discussion of personnel matters. When the meeting resumed again in open session, Hostetter said Nelson earlier had provided a written advisory opinion to a question asking him to clarify the commission’s powers.

In that opinion, Nelson wrote that the action of the 2016 General Assembly creating the commission “did limit the powers of the Commission” so that “recommendations for any missional and structural changes will be brought to the 223rd General Assembly” in 2018. (Read the full Advisory Opinion.)

Nelson’s opinion also states that recommendations from the commission involving “any amendments, replacement or setting aside of the Standing Rules of the General Assembly or the Book of Order necessary to accomplish its vision” would need approval from the 2018 General Assembly as well.

So “there is an edge to our power,” Hostetter said – meaning a limit to what the commission can do on its own.

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Presbytery Demands $120,000 from 35-Member Church While Deciding How to Spend $1.5 Million Settlement

A 35-member church has agreed to pay Mission Presbytery $120,000 so that it could be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The First Presbyterian Church of Ingram, Texas and pastor Rev. Raymond M. Tear were dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, after the presbytery approved the settlement agreement at its March 3-4 meeting.

According to an article in the local newspaper, church leaders said “that it has been a long process to reach this point, but now has the congregation situated to not only continue its various ministries, but to be part of a growing denomination with which the congregation’s theological views are much more compatible.”

At the meeting, the Stated Clerk reported that two other churches are participating in the presbytery’s Gracious Separation Process. Both, the 45-member First Presbyterian, San Saba, and the 180-member First Presbyterian, Corpus Christi are in the resolution phase of the dismissal process.

How to Spend $1.5 Million

At the same meeting, commissioners received a report on how the Mission Presbytery would use the $1.5 million settlement it received from First Presbyterian Church, San Antonio, which included investing $606,598 in the Texas Presbyterian Foundation for a “Better Together Fund.”

On Jan. 31, 2016, First-San Antonio voted to approve the settlement with Mission Presbytery to end a civil lawsuit between the two entities. The church had disaffiliated with the PCUSA on Nov. 1, 2015, and then in May, filed a petition in civil court asking it to declare whether the trust clause in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s constitution was valid under Texas law and if it had any legal effect on the church’s property.

The settlement ended the lawsuit and allowed the church to retain sole use, control and ownership of its name and property.

According to the report, the total settlement agreement was $1,525,000. Of that amount, $114,802 was used to pay legal expenses, and $100,000 was used to balance the 2016 operating expenses budget.

The presbytery also made a one-time grant of $125,000 to John Knox Ranch Summer Camp, a Christian camp on the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas, to help rebuild a dining hall destroyed by the 2015 Memorial Day floods. The grant part of the settlement agreement with First-San Antonio. The church matched the contribution for a combined gift of $250,000 to the camp.

The balance of the settlement – $1,185,198 – will be disbursed as follows:

To partner agencies:

  • $30,000 – General Assembly, Unrestricted
  • $30,000 – Synod of the Sun, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Austin College, Campus Ministry
  • $24,000 – Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Mo Ranch Camp and Conference Center, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Pan American School, Campus Ministry
  • $24,000 – Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Schreiner University, Campus Ministry
  • $24,000 – Trinity University, Campus Ministry

To presbytery committees and regions:

Establish and equip congregations and sessions to carry out their missions:

  • Church Development and Evangelism, $119,000
  • General Council, $1,200
  • Each Geographic Region, $2,000 (Austin, Corpus Christi, Hill Country, San Antonio, Valley, and Victoria – totaling $12,000)
  • Nominations Committee, $1,200
  • Personnel Committee, $1,200
  • Technology Task Force, $48,000

Recruit, receive, ordain, develop and care for those called to serve in the church:

  • Committee on Ministry, $12,000
  • Committee on Preparation for Ministry, $12,000
  • Committee on Representation, $1,200
  • Education and Congregational Nurture Committee, $30,000
  • Pastoral Care Committee, $12,000

Enable mission and witness to the Gospel that congregations cannot accomplish alone:

  • John Knox Ranch, $36,000
  • Mission Outreach and Justice Committee, $36,000
  • Presbyterian Women Coordinating Team, $12,000
  • Youth Connections Committee, $12,000

Steward our resources faithfully and generously:

  • Fiscal Oversight Committee, $1,200
  • HM King Memorial Fund Trustees, $1,200
  • Stewardship Committee, $1,200
  • Trustees, $1,200

The remaining $606,598 will be invested into the Texas Presbyterian Foundation and named the “Better Together Fund.” The fund will be used to further the presbytery’s mission and will be overseen by its General Council. Presbytery committees, groups and congregations will be able to request funding from the account.

In past dismissals approved by Mission Presbytery:

  • Edna Presbyterian Church of Edna, TX, had to pay $80,108.60 to be dismissed with property to the EPC.
  • Faith Presbyterian Church in Brownsville, TX was required to give 10 percent of the proceeds of the sale of church’s property to be dismissed to the EPC
  • El Principe de Paz, in Merceds TX, Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani in San Benito, TX, and San Pablo in Brownsville, TX, all voted to leave the denomination and renounced jurisdiction of the PCUSA in early 2012. Mission Presbytery evicted all three from their property instructing the churches to turn in their church keys “no later than Friday, February 16, 2012.”
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Updated: Kentucky PCUSA Congregation Being Kicked Out of Church Building After Rift Over Marriage Definition

(By Samuel Smith, The Christian Post). A congregation in Kentucky could soon be evicted from its church building by its regional Presbyterian Church (USA) governing body after the congregation voiced disapproval with the denomination’s decision to recognize and allow gay marriage.

The Presbytery of Western Kentucky has given First Presbyterian Church of Calvert City until April 19 to vacate its church building.

Paul Ambler, clerk of session and husband of the church’s pastor, told The Christian Post on Tuesday that the congregation received a notice to vacate the building, which is owned by the presbytery, last week.

The notice, sent on behalf of the presbytery by a local lawyer, comes after the small congregation voted in July 2015 to pursue and negotiate with the presbytery for a gracious dismissal from the PCUSA because they disagreed with an amendment adopted by the denomination in March 2015 defining marriage as a “commitment between two people.”

“We voted on July 26, 2015, and there [were] two members of presbytery there,” Ambler explained. “They told us in that meeting that there were three congregations [that] had already gone through the gracious dismissal process within the presbytery. So, we would actually be the fourth.”

“We were going back and forth for quite a while,” he continued. “We would actually like to take possession of the building and give them money, basically a buy-back agreement. We were negotiating back and forth with presbytery representatives.”

Although Ambler said the congregation never formally submitted a request to be dismissed from the PCUSA, the congregation was informed last November that the presbytery had officially dismissed it from the denomination.

From November until last week when it received the notification to vacate its building on Evergreen Street, the congregation was acting on the assumption that it was going to be allowed to stay in the church building, Ambler said.

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Some Thoughts about Jesus, His Death and Traci Smith’s Posting

(By Viola Larson, Naming His Grace blog). Traci Smith, a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor, who several weeks ago complained that the Reverend Tim Keller should not receive a theological award because of his beliefs about ordaining women and members of the LGBTQ community, is now making some rather confusing remarks about the atonement provided by our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Smith’s posting,Protect Children from the Violence of the Cross and What to Do Instead During Holy Week,” broadens her perspective about Keller’s theology and all evangelical/orthodox Reformed theology. No, she doesn’t mention Keller here but the reader begins to see two faiths emerging in her writings—one is progressive, the other orthodox—and Smith seems to be pushing away from the faith that is orthodox.

In an essay meant to help parents and leaders dealing with children during Easter and Lent, Smith, insists that the cross and suffering of Christ and what that means, put in what she calls a simplistic manner, can frighten and offend children. She writes:

“When we reduce the crucifixion story to a simple soundbite digestible for young children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). … When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not quite so simple. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak.”

And toward the end of her posting, Smith suggests that her readers “re-evaluate” their theology of the atonement. She asks “Did God kill Jesus?” and answers, “I don’t think so.”

Well no, some of the Jewish leaders, the Roman leaders in Jerusalem and all of us because of our sin killed Jesus. But, yes, his death was necessary.  Smith’s question and answer is simplistic in the extreme.

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PCUSA Launches Abuse Prevention Helpline

(By Rick Jones, Presbyterian News Service). The Presbyterian Church (USA), A Corporation, has teamed with the Insurance Board and Praesidium to help PCUSA church councils and members of churches prevent child sexual abuse. The partnership has launched a toll-free Abuse Prevention Helpline (866-607-SAFE) to provide assistance to church councils and church families in their efforts to keep predators away from children.

“Statistics show that one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be abused before the age of 18,” said former Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who worked to make the helpline a reality. “We know that sexual predators seek out trusting environments where children are present and churches are vulnerable because of close relationships and immediate access to children.”

Parsons said the Helpline was established to help victims and church leaders get immediate assistance, while giving churches guidelines plus resources for training and support to prevent predators from targeting their congregations.

Praesidium, the national leader in abuse prevention, is staffing the Helpline, providing expert advice on how to best respond to suspicious behavior and suspected abuse, as well as assist church councils in prevention. Callers will also receive guidance on responding to suspicious interactions between employee and/or volunteer and child, and determining when and how to report suspected abuse to authorities.

“Abuse is not a natural disaster. It is not something that happens with no warning signs or knowledge. It is an event that is preventable with the right resources such as policies, screening procedures and training,” said Aaron Lundberg, president and CEO of Praesidium. “Through our partnership with the PCUSA and Insurance Board, we are able to offer these resources so churches can protect their congregations from the devastating effects of abuse.”

PCUSA churches and individual members can call the Helpline to discuss concerns and incidents of abuse, seek criminal background checks and utilize an online Self-Assessment Tool to identify potential gaps in abuse risk management practices within their organization.

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PMAB and COGA to Meet in San Juan This Week

(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). Both the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly are meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico this week – accepting an invitation from the Presbytery of San Juan.

Over the past year, Presbyterian leadership has been highlighting justice concerns in Puerto Rico – with J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, sending a letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders in February regarding the Puerto Rican economic crisis.

That was done in response to an action of the 2016 General Assembly. The letter states in part:

“Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt, which is more than two-thirds the amount of its GDP, cannot possibly be repaid simply by using spending cuts and tax increases, since those measures will inevitably accelerate the exodus of capital and labor and shrink the economy further. More importantly, this would result in even greater distress on people who are already in dire straits—more than half of the children now live below the poverty line and many families and individuals already struggle to survive.”

The two meetings in San Juan will overlap a bit – with one joint plenary session to discuss the “way forward” and a shared worship service – but for the most part the two groups have separate agendas.

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Leader of PCUSA to Visit Divided Bethlehem Church on Sunday

(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.”

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PCUSA Groups, Leaders Support Transgender Student in Supreme Court Case

An amicus curiae brief, filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a transgender teen wishing to use the school bathroom of his gender identity, included references to Presbyterian Church (USA) policy and was signed by two PCUSA affinity groups and approximately 191 Presbyterians.

The Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians, were among the 15 religious organizations and approximately 1,800 people who signed on to the brief filed in the case of Gloucester County School Board vs. G.G.

The case involves a high school senior – Gavin Grimm of Virginia – who was born female, but now identifies as male. He was seeking the right from the court to use the boys’ bathroom in his school.

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court sent the case back to the court of appeals, (FoxNews article; CNN article) citing the Trump Administration’s reversal of federal guidance issued by the Obama administration which required public schools to allow students to use the bathrooms/locker rooms matching their gender identity.

Those from the PCUSA signing the brief in support of Grimm included the Co-Moderators of the PCUSA, Rev. Jan Edmiston and Rev. Denise Anderson; two PCUSA related seminary presidents, Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary and Rev. Dr. James McDonald, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary; several seminary professors; and a host of PCUSA pastors and elders.

Merrian-Webster defines an amicus curiae as a brief filed in a court case by a person or organization that is not a party to the litigation but that is permitted by the court to advise it in respect to some matter of law that directly affects the case in question.

The argument

The brief states that is comes from “faiths that have approached issues related to gender identity in different ways over the years, but are united in believing that the fundamental human dignity shared by all persons requires treating transgender students like Respondent Gavin Grimm (‘Gavin’) in a manner consistent with their gender identity. [They] also believe that, in our diverse and pluralistic society, the civil rights of transgender persons must be addressed according to religiously neutral principles of equal protection under the law.”

It continues that “Faiths embracing the fundamental dignity of transgender persons participate in the mainstream of American religious observance. They include denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the United Church of Christ; portions of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); Judaism’s Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform movements; and countless individual religious believers from faiths ranging from Roman Catholicism to Islam who today celebrate and embrace equal dignity for transgender persons.”

The brief includes denominational statements which it believes bolster its case:

  • The Unitarian Universalist Church “which long as proclaimed a ‘commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, including … transgender individuals.’”
  • The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies “affirmed in an open letter to their church ‘the civil rights and God-given dignity of transgender people.’”
  • United Church of Christ “publicly reaffirmed its own longstanding commitment to transgender inclusion.”
  • The United Methodist Church “deplore[s] acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on … gender identity.”
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America “also has urged respect for gender identity difference.”
  • The Presbyterian Church (USA) “asserted over a decade ago that ‘the love of God is not confined to the people … of one gender or gender orientation.’”
  • One Meeting (among others) of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has formally stated its “understand[ing] that God, who loves all people unconditionally, is leading the Meeting to honor the gender identity of each person, as that person determines it.”
  • Muslims: “… On the basis of the Quranic teaching that ‘God enjoins justice, kindness and generosity toward one’s fellow humankind’ (Qur’an 16:90), Muslims for Progressive Values advocates for ‘a future where Islam is understood as a source of dignity, justice, compassion and love for all humanity and the world,’ and ‘affirm[s] the equal worth of all human beings, regardless of … sex, gender, [or] gender identification.’”

The brief mentioned a study by the University of Cambridge which confirmed how “a growing number of Christian denominations, particularly within Protestant traditions[] are … embracing trans people as congregants and ministers,” with “[m]uch of the progress ha[ving] taken place in the United States.” The study highlighted that, in 1996, Presbyterian Rev. Erin Swenson of Greater Atlanta became the first religious leader of a mainline Christian denomination to retain her post following her gender transition. Since then groups such as the Presbyterian Church USA (in 2010/11) and the Episcopal Church (in 2012) have removed barriers to ordained ministry of transgender persons.”

It also cited the PCUSA’s San Francisco Theological Seminary, founded in the late 19th century, which “abides by a Statement of NonDiscrimination that includes protections on the basis of gender identity.”

Another amicus curiae brief was filed on behalf of the Gloucester County School Board by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; National Association of Evangelicals; Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod; and Christian Legal Society.

A list of Presbyterians signing the amicus curiae brief filed in support of transgender student Gavin Grimm can be found here.

 

 

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Florida Church Sees Membership Grow After Leaving PCUSA

(By Michael Gryboski, The Christian Post). A congregation in Florida that voted to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) over theological differences has seen considerable membership growth since their decision.

First Presbyterian Church of Haines City voted 328 to 16 back in April 2015 to leave PCUSA in part over the Mainline denomination’s increased acceptance of homosexuality.

Earlier this month, FPC Haines City had their departure as well as their membership with the theological conservative Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians finalized, according to spokesman Pastor Jeff Winter.

“The vote to be released by the local presbytery happened three months ago in November. After the vote, a church needs to wait three months before they are officially dismissed,” explained Winter.

“During those three months, members of the presbytery have the opportunity to contest the vote if they so choose. No one protested, thank God.”

Winter noted the current membership at 570, with 128 new members having joined since the vote to seek dismissal from the PC(USA).

“For this church, that is a significant number. Generally speaking, our new members are attracted to this church because we stand for biblical truth and seek to apply it to our relationships and in our culture,” added Winter.

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Musings On The News Report Of The First Presbyterian Church Of Bethlehem Property Arguments

(By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie). Once again, in the “where angels fear to tread” territory, I wanted to muse a bit and post some brief comments on the arguments in the Northampton County Court (PA) recently between the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Lehigh Presbytery, and the minority “stay” group.

The article from The Morning Call of Allentown is titledCourt arguments reveal deep divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.”

I am going to cast this in the light of the most recent case law for Presbyterian disputes over property in Pennsylvania right now, the 2014 Peters Creek decision.

And with those two inputs, maybe there is something appropriate to Mark Twain’s quip “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Now, it is worth noting that these were oral arguments to decide if this case needs to go to a full trial. The article quotes Judge Baratta as saying:

“I really would hate to render a decision at some point that’s going to hurt members of the community in matters of faith,” Baratta said. “If you’re getting close to a resolution I will do whatever I can to work with you, to push you over that line. But please, consider, 10 years from now when you look back on this, it may not be as difficult an issue as it is today.”

The argument from the majority of FPC Bethlehem is that the deeds do not mention the denomination and the church never explicitly accepted the PCUSA Trust Clause. The judge responded “So you’re saying they didn’t really mean all of the Book of Order … only the parts they liked?” The majority’s lawyer responded that was an ecclesiastical question and not the scope of the civil courts. The judge replied that it could be looked at under neutral principles.

I must presume the judge has done his homework on this one. Part of the Peters Creek decision was laying out the boundaries of the neutral principles and the trust law related to the church trust clause. Under that decision it seems clear to me (reference Twain quote above) this court can deal with the property issue. Also under the Peters Creek decision a formal acceptance of the trust is not necessary but actions that would acknowledge PCUSA ties and thus by inclusion the trust – like saying you are a PCUSA church in your bylaws and charter and accepting the current Book of Order – are enough to demonstrate implicit acceptance of the trust clause. The decision quotes an earlier Presbyterian property decision that says (p. 19)

“In order for a court to find that a trust has been created, there must exist in the record clear and unambiguous language or conduct evidencing the intent to create a trust. No particular form of words or conduct is required to manifest the intention to create a trust. Such manifestation of intention may be written or spoken words or conduct indicating that settlor intended to create a trust.”

While a final decision in this matter would involve the close examination and history of the church’s bylaws, charter and property documents, the exchange between the judge and the lawyer is telling and may suggest that FPCB has a bit of an uphill battle on this.

But the initial questioning of the Presbytery’s lawyer was no less problematic.

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