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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Court Arguments Reveal Deep Divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem

(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). Arguments in court Friday [2/17/17] painted a picture of tension and emotion at the sprawling campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.

Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta said he’s not looking forward to handing down a decision in what’s shaping up to be a complicated church property dispute dividing the congregation.

With lawyers appearing before him for the first time since legal filings last summer over ownership of the 31.5-acre property, Baratta didn’t seem convinced that the case could end without going to trial.

“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 massive Bethlehem church at 2344 Center St., with roughly 2,600 members, is in the midst of upheaval.

The majority of members who cast ballots June 26 voted to switch affiliations, leaving the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) in favor of the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians denomination. The majority of the membership, leaders say, left the national branch because its theological views no longer aligned with their own as the Presbyterian Church (USA) took increasingly progressive stances on same-sex marriage and gay ministers.

But the Lehigh Presbytery, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s regional authority, disputed the split and claims ownership of the church property. The denomination’s Book of Order, revised and adopted in the mid-1980s, included a clause that indicates church property is “held in trust” for the denomination. The Lehigh Presbytery said that means the membership cannot unilaterally break away and take all the assets with it.

But Forrest Norman, attorney for the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, argued the deed for the property names only the church and there’s no indication that in adopting the new Book of Order rules in the 1980s, the membership also took on the trust clause.

“It is strictly held by the local church for the local church as any corporate entity would do,” Norman said of the property.


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Documentary Follows Trials and Triumphs of LGBTQ Presbyterian Leaders

(By Gregg Brekke, Presbyterian News Service). “For decades, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pastors could face judicial charges within the church.” These words are part of the opening screens of the recently released documentary, Out of OrderThe title sequence describes the years-long debate within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that ultimately led the denomination’s highest governing body—the General Assembly—to approve an official path to ordination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons at its 2010 gathering. The decision was affirmed by a majority of the church’s regional presbyteries in 2011.

Filmmaker Amanda Bluglass heard about the struggle through the wife of one of the film’s subjects, the Rev. Mieke Vandersall, founding pastor of the Not So Churchy worshiping community in New York City. Bluglass was intrigued by why, after so many years of struggling to be fully accepted as a gay minister in the PCUSA, she chose to remain.

“I found the determination of these pastors inspiring and bewildering—that people who had been so rejected would even want to stay in the church,” says Bluglass. “As the years of filming unfolded I began to realize the courage to stay was deeply rooted in the Christian values they shared. This was their home and they belonged here. This is that story of love and acceptance.”

Vandersall, one of the first openly gay persons to be ordained in the PCUSA, is co-founder of the LGBT Community of Future Pastors and former executive director of Parity (previously known as Presbyterian Welcome), an organization that offered training and connection opportunities for other LGBTQ clergy as they navigated the former restrictions on their ordination to ministry.

“It’s a film of hope and a film of the beauty and strength of community,” she says. “To see these people that I’ve loved so dearly come together on screen like that [lets] others see that they are beautiful people too. It’s a testimony to what can happen in communities that are being marginalized when they come together to find their strength and find their voice—no matter what that community is.”

The Rev. John Russell Stanger, a current Marriage and Family Therapy student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and former director of Parity, was the first openly gay person ordained in Texas. His involvement in the film came through his longtime friendship with Vandersall. He says the filmmaker was interested in telling the story of the family support he received, having grown up on a cattle ranch in Texas.

“I come from these country people who you never see affirming their gay children,” he says. “We agreed it was important for [my part in the film] to be about my family and the people I come from—to show that kind of affirmation and closeness and loving was still possible. I grew up so isolated and didn’t have any idea that actual gay people existed—that they lived any kind of healthy life… It was important that we could put up a truly positive story from an isolated place that might reach some isolated kid somewhere.”

While the official position of the church is one of acceptance for LGBTQ pastors, not all presbyteries or churches have fully embraced this welcome. Congregations and presbyteries are free to call pastors of their choosing and Vandersall believes discrimination based on sexual orientation still happens broadly. Yet she’s hopeful a new generation of leaders will find a different approach.”

“We’re not really good at leadership transitions, and letting new generations take flight,” says Vandersall. “The film shows that transition happening.

Even as gains are made for many, she believes transgender inclusion in the ordination process is the next milestone for the LGBTQ community.

“There’s so much lack of understanding,” she says. “Trans people are more visible in the world today. Trans folks are on television more than they used to be. But we don’t really understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. We have so much more educational work to do. When you educate yourself on trans issues and the things trans folks encounter on a daily basis, it changes how we have to have church. Like, can they go to the bathroom here? And when we talk about ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ is that excluding for some?”

Bluglass didn’t shy away from approaching those who disagree with the General Assembly’s decision, even inviting Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, to have a part in the film. Fowler LaBerge, a former pastor in the PC(USA), says she “set [her] ordination aside” in 2011 when the denomination declared itself open to gay clergy.

“[My ordination’s] value had completely disappeared,” she says in the film, after being asked if it was “awful” to renounce her ordination. “It was not a difficult decision at all.”

Fowler LaBerge appealed to the authority of the Bible and called public opinion regarding the acceptance of LGBTQ clergy “a horrible barometer of what the church ought to be doing in terms of moral leadership.”

Vandersall is appreciative Fowler LaBerge’s perspective was offered in the film—not only for context, but because of her understanding of the connectional nature of Presbyterianism.

“Through the process of this film—partially because of this film—I was encouraged to have conversations with people who didn’t agree with me,” she says of her time with Fowler LaBerge. “I really did enjoy spending time with her and getting to know her, and finding places where we actually have similarities.”


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Lawsuit Over Ownership of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem to be Heard Today

(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). The Lehigh Presbytery and the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA, will appear in Northampton County Court on Friday (2/17/17) in hopes of settling a dispute over ownership that has led opposing congregants to hold separate Sunday services at 31-acre property on Center Street.

The hearing is over a lawsuit the church filed in June asking to be declared the sole owner of the property at 2344 Center St. and seeking an injunction to stop the Lehigh Presbytery from establishing new leadership as the denomination rules dictate. Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta will rule on both requests. 

The dispute arose over the church’s desire to leave the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians — a denomination church leadership said better reflected members’ theological beliefs.

The Lehigh Presbytery, the regional authority for the Presbyterian Church (USA), informed the church that it could not move forward with the dismissal process because a poll showed it fell 9 points below the required support of 66 percent of the congregants.

First Presbyterian argues that the majority of members want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and that it should retain ownership because its members have donated the money needed to build and maintain the facilities.

The Presbytery argues the church is obliged to follow the bylaws of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and as a member of the denomination, it had placed the church property “in trust” with with the national entity. The Presbytery also insists the congregation’s June vote, where 76 percent of the 1,048 ballots cast were in favor of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA), was invalid since it violated the church’s own charter.

Jackson Eaton, counsel representing the Lehigh Presbytery, said the last several months have been filled with discovery and depositions. Both sides, he said, are prepared to make final arguments Friday to Baratta, though the chances of the judge issuing an immediate ruling are slim.

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The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study “Who is Jesus? – a continuing review- According to the Other Abrahamic Faiths

(By Viola Larson, Naming His Grace).  Judy Yates Siker, author of the Presbyterian Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? : What a Difference a Lens Makes., in the eighth lesson focuses on Islam and Judaism and their views about Jesus’ identity. Siker’s focuses is meant as a means of understanding and dialogue with the two other Abrahamic faiths. She writes:

“It may seem at first to be an unusual excursion for a Christian Bible study, but as Christian women of faith, we should be informed about how these two traditions view Jesus and be willing to engage in dialogue with our sisters and brothers of other faiths.”

At the end of the lesson, Siker also lifts up the importance of not only understanding other faiths but of also not misrepresenting them. She writes:

“… We are painfully aware of the possibilities for tragedy that arise when we abuse our Bibles at the expense of another group. We are also painfully aware of how much misinformation is spread when we do not take the time to learn anything about others who may have more in common with us then we are willing to recognize. In this ever shrinking world of ours, we encounter many people whose faith traditions are not our own, so we have the opportunity, privilege, and responsibility to learn from one another. …”

Siker is right, Christians should have knowledge of these two religions and they should be in dialogue with their adherents, but there is a greater reason why Christians should have such knowledge. And there is a dimension to that knowledge which Siker does not address.

Jesus’ commandment to go and make disciples of all nations is the greatest reason for knowing about the beliefs of other faiths. And the dimension that is missing in Siker’s lesson is how differing faiths, in one way or another, contradict the biblical understanding of sin, repentance and redemption, thereby eliminating the need for a suffering savior—a God whose compassion takes on humanity and makes the ultimate sacrifice.  The good news of the gospel is the ultimate good news. There is no other.


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PCUSA Stated Clerk Opposes Order Banning Refugees’ Entry into U.S.

By J. Herbert Nelson II, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

{January 27, 2017]  President Donald Trump signed an executive order to allegedly protect the nation from terrorists entering the United States. In practice, however, this order serves to further harm those who are the very victims of terrorism, genocide, religious and gender-based persecution, and civil war.

J. Herbert Nelson II

Right now, across the globe, there are families grabbing their bags and clinging to each other as they tearfully flee the home they love, the home they never wanted to leave, because home is no longer safe. And many, after being fully vetted by a legal refugee entry process, are not being allowed to enter the U.S. and are being wrongfully detained at airports across the country.

This is a miscarriage of justice and goes against everything we stand for as a country shaped and formed by people who emanated from other lands.

As the top ecclesial officer of the nation’s largest Reformed body, I urge the president and his administration to reverse this very harmful decision regarding refugees. Presbyterians are not afraid of this so-called terror threat. We are not afraid because we profess a faith in Jesus, who entered the world a refugee.

We are not afraid because, just as we welcome Jesus every advent, we have chosen to welcome our brothers and sisters into this nation from across the globe. Presbyterians chose welcome after World War II when we, as a denomination, demanded that the U.S. allow more refugees to enter then. We chose welcome when our very congregations served as the host sites to refugees in the years before resettlement agencies. And, Presbyterians choose welcome now as we co-sponsor families resettling to the U.S. from Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and other countries.

With every choice of welcome we enter into relationship with people who become neighbors, friends, and family. No administration can convince us to fear.

We oppose this administration’s decision to prolong each and every refugee’s wait for a place to call home under the false pretense of security. We stand ready to welcome our new neighbors, friends, and family of all faiths and nations.

The article was originally posted here. 

Learn more about PCUSA policies on refugees and asylees.

Related articles

About Refugees and the Church, by Viola Larson, Naming His Grace blog.

Evangelical Experts Oppose Trump’s Refugee Ban, By Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today

The FAQs: President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigrants and Refugees, by Joe Carter, The Gospel Coalition

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