The Changing Face of Presbyterianism

The past few months have brought some significant changes and re-alignments within the Presbyterian community on both sides of the Atlantic. The withdrawal of a significant number of congregations from the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), as well as the withdrawal of ministers and congregations from the Church of Scotland, has not only depleted these denominations, but has resulted in new alignments and associations.

Over the last decade, more than 130 PC(USA) congregations have either left or began the dismissal process from the denomination. Since the 1960’s, where the two churches that later merged into PC(USA) reported a peak membership of 4.25 million, more than 2 million Presbyterians have decided to find their church home elsewhere.

A majority of the groups leaving the PC(USA) have joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), a conservative group that began in 1981, which now has 115,000 members in nearly 300 churches. Others have joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) or the recently formed Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. The PC(USA)’s “gracious dismissal” policy requires that congregations join “another Reformed body” upon leaving the group.

One congregation which has left PC(USA) is the Presbyterian Church of Kennett Square in Pennsylvania where Rev Andrew Smith, formerly of Ballywillan and Dun Laoghaire, is now minister. As with many other former PC(USA) congregations, there was a growing unease with the theological standards and direction of the denomination which led to their withdrawal.

When asked about the move, Andrew said,

“The Presbyterian Church of Kennett Square’s decision to leave the PC(USA) and join the EPC was based on our perception that the PC(USA)’s adherence to the authority of Scripture continues to weaken, as demonstrated in its position on issues of sexuality and in its practice of ordaining ministers who profess some form of universalism. We do not feel we were the schismatics in this process. Our conviction is that we are seeking to continue on the path of historical biblical orthodoxy, a path from which the PC(USA) has departed.”

A new association of Presbyterian churches in the US emerged in January 2012 known as the “Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians” or ECO for short. “ECO is a denominational entity under the umbrella of The Fellowship of Presbyterians that is committed to growing and planting flourishing churches and nurturing leaders,” reads a Fellowship statement.

“The distinctives of ECO include an emphasis on connecting leaders in accountable relationships, peer review systems for churches, leadership training, and a flatter polity structure than the PCUSA.” The meeting at which the new group was launched was attended by 2,100 Presbyterians from over 500 PC(USA) congregations.

The main reason for the creation of the ECO was their opposition to the approval of an amendment to the rules of ordination for the PC(USA). This amendment allowed individual presbyteries of the PC(USA) to approve the ordination of people who are involved in homosexual relationships

The most recent report from ECO is that a further 13 PCUSA congregations have been dismissed by the denomination to join ECO and that ECO will seek membership of the World Council of Reformed Churches towards the end of 2012 when they will be in a position to give exact details of the number of congregations and members in their fellowship.

The issue of the ordination and installation of practising homosexuals is also causing much concern within the Church of Scotland. Even though the Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships set up by their General Assembly does not report until next year, a number of ministers and some congregations have already taken steps to leave the denomination. Most notable among those moving out is St George’s Tron congregation, based in Glasgow’s city centre.

The Rev Dr William Philip, minister of the 500 strong congregation said that their decision to separate from the Church of Scotland was the culmination of careful thought, sincere discussion and prayer for over 12 months.

“Last year, despite having had the clear opportunity, the General Assembly failed to reverse the stance taken in 2009 approving the appointment of ordained ministers in same-sex relationships. Instead, it clearly and deliberately chose to set an opposite trajectory towards normalising such relationships.  In doing so the highest court of the Kirk has marginalised the Bible, the written Word of God. We believe the Church of Scotland is choosing to walk away from the biblical gospel, and to walk apart from the faith of the worldwide Christian Church. This year, the General Assembly refused to affirm that its churches be marked out as for the unique and exclusive worship of Jesus Christ. We are saddened that the Church of Scotland has departed so dramatically and decisively from its moorings in the historic, reformed and biblical faith.”

If the leadership and congregation at the Tron needed any additional reason to quit the Church of Scotland, then the decision by the denomination’s General Assembly in May to allow other faith groups to hold services in Kirk buildings has provided a further prompt. The question was brought to the floor of the most recent Assembly largely because of the actions of Rev. Scott Rennie – the Aberdeen minister at the heart of the gay clergy issue – who has given permission to Hindu groups to use the Queen’s Cross church premises for worship.

Although some media headlines have stated that the Tron’s departure represents the first local church to leave the denomination, in a de facto sense the bulk of the congregation of High Hilton church in Aberdeen quit the Kirk last October. On that occasion, however, those involved moved out of the church building.

In the case of the Tron church, the congregation most recently raised millions of pounds to cover a major refurbishment. One church member who was at the heart of the very substantial upgrade to the building has commented:

“Regardless of the risks and the fact that many members provided substantial sacrificial offerings for the development of the building as a gospel station in the city centre, the membership have put biblical priorities in first place ahead of buildings.”

In the event, the overall total expenditure was close to £3 million, most of which was paid for by the membership. It seems that the situation will not be resolved without legal proceedings.

There is still much discussion taking place among those ministers and congregations who feel disaffected with the trends within the Church of Scotland with regard to their alignment with other Presbyterians and other Presbyterian denominations. Clearly many will wait to see what decisions the Church of Scotland takes following the report of its Theological Commission on Same-Sex Relationships in May 2013.

The changes that have come about among Presbyterians on both sides of the Atlantic raises key questions for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. How shall we relate to those who have left the established denominations? We recognise them to be our dear friends and close brothers and sisters with whom we share the same deep convictions about key issues like the Bible and the nature of the church. Can we simultaneously support and pray for those who have left while still officially maintaining fraternal relations with the denomination they have abandoned? How would we respond if one of the new conservative groupings sought closer links with PCI?

It is, as the TV news reporter often says, a “developing situation”. But it seems that the ecclesiological landscape is changing for Presbyterians, and Irish Presbyterians cannot remain isolated from those changes.

PC(USA) General Assembly 2012

imgresIt’s been interesting, and sad, to track developments in the mainstream Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) during its recent General Assembly in Pittsburg. Conservative elders and ministers may have been encouraged by the relatively narrow majority vote on same-sex marriage, but they must have been depressed by the much larger vote against restoring the traditional ordination standard for its ministers and elders. It seems that when it comes to sexual ethics, PC(USA) is divided and confused, especially on what constitutes Christian marriage, and that it needs two years to think about it.

One of my former students at Westminster Seminary, Justin Marple, made good use of his 60 seconds at the microphone.

After several hours of debate on Friday, the Assembly defeated a motion from its Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues to propose an amendment to the Book of Order that would change the definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people.” The vote was 308-338. Along the way the Assembly declined to issue an authoritative interpretation that would have allowed ministers at their own discretion to perform same-gender marriages in states where those marriages are legal.

And by a vote of 489-152, the Assembly “in a desire to promote the peace, unity and purity of the church” voted to “move the whole Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage between now and the General Assembly in 2014. The Office of Theology and Worship was asked to prepare educational materials for the effort that include “the relevant Scriptures, key methods of biblical interpretation, current understandings of our Constitution, and some suggested guidance for prayerful and reconnecting ways of listening to one another.”

The Assembly also debated its ordination standards and by a vote of 437-169, the Assembly refused to restore “fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness” to the Book of Order. That language was removed a year ago in voting by the presbyteries. The defeated language would have added the clause “the commitment to live a chaste and disciplined life, whether in holy marriage between a man and a woman or in single life.”

By a vote of 329-275 the Assembly voted to propose an amendment to the ordination standard that the manner of life of church officers should “include repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace.” The Assembly also adopted a statement that “acknowledges that faithful Presbyterians earnestly seeking to follow Jesus Christ hold different views about what the Scriptures teach concerning the morality of committed, same-gender relationships” and that “the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not have one interpretation of Scripture in this matter”.

Engaging with the Doctor

photo1The first books I bought as a student from the Christian Union bookstall were Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount and they had a significant impact on my spiritual development. They cost me 25 shillings, which was a considerable amount of money in 1970! The subsequent publication and purchase of his sermons on Romans were manna to my hungry soul.

This latest reflection on the life and ministry of the Doctor, Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, is a great read. It puts the great man and his ministry in context and helps us to understand in a better way the legacy he has left. In many areas, the Doctor was an outstanding thinker and preacher, but this volume also exposes some of his blind spots, particularly in the area of ecclesiology.

I found the chapter on the charismatic controversy to be particularly insightful. As someone who was raised and nurtured in a classic Pentecostal church, and who came to an understanding of reformed soteriology through Lloyd-Jones’ writings, I was intrigued by his openness to the continuing work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, especially his refusal to accept that the baptism of the Holy Spirit happens to every believer at regeneration. I was aware of his personal friendship with the Pentecostal pastor, W.T.H. Richards, but this chapter helps us to see that his sympathies for charismatic and Pentecostal pioneers ran much wider, and how his views caused considerable controversy and division within the evangelical and reformed community.

Lloyd-Jones was clearly critical of non-experiential Calvinism which he condemned as dead orthodoxy. He longed and prayed for revival conditions when the Word of God would be preached in power and demonstration of the Spirit. Perhaps this is one of the most important legacies he has left us, namely that our preaching should be Spirit-anointed. Exegetical precision and direct application are essential components of good preaching. But we need to admit that much preaching in reformed and evangelical churches is just plain dull. It lacks passion and power.

For the first five or more years of my pastoral ministry I read and re-read Preaching and Preachers, and was enthused and energised by the final paragraph:

“Do you expect anything to happen when you get up to preach in a pulpit? Or do you just say to yourself, “Well, I have prepared my address, I am going to give them this address; some of them will appreciate it and some will not?” Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life? …. Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when the power comes, yield to him. Do not resist. Forget all about the sermon if necessary. Let him loose, let him manifest his power in you and through you. I am certain, as I have said several times before, that nothing but a return of this power of the Spirit on our preaching is going to avail us anything.”

That’s why the comment of J.I. Packer to my friend, Carl Trueman, in a recent conversation is very telling. In spite of their differences, Packer acknowledged that the Doctor “took more of God into the pulpit with him than any other preacher I have ever known”. Now that’s an aspect of preaching that every preacher should seek to emulate.