Mounting concern nettled some of the 2,000 delegates attending the Chicago-area meeting of United Presbyterian Men as signs appeared that the denomination is ailing theologically, dying evangelistically, and interested in social action and stewardship more than in other priorities.

The emergence of a concerned, committed, and courageous laity has been a standing objective of the movement since its founding in 1947, when Topeka supermarket owner Paul Moser was induced to serve as executive secretary. Moser, who is retiring this month with Phil Hitchcock as successor, received a thundering ovation and was hailed as “Mr. Presbyterian.” Under his leadership the movement has enlisted 400,000 laymen—about half the adult males in the denomination.

One in four or five members of United Presbyterian Men is held to share a growing anxiety over the deteriorating Presbyterian witness. Moser refused comment on the accuracy of such an analysis by leaders who consider themselves informed of lay dispositions at grass roots, but he will not gainsay the presence of unrest.

Part of the concern rises from the fact that denominational activity has proliferated at the expense of evangelistic engagement. The 9,500 congregations of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. averaged a membership gain of only 1½ persons last year. To make things worse, delegates were reminded by the Rev. Louis H. Evans, Jr., of the La Jolla (California) Presbyterian Church that “for every Presbyterian that walks into the church by the front door, we lose two by the back door.” Evans pointedly asked: “Did they join the church on confession of faith or on confusion of faith?”

Of such confusion there was evidence among the laymen themselves. In the Palmer House participants divided into fifty-eight discussion groups that were subdivided into cells of five or six persons. One such cell discussed how and when one becomes a member of the church, and the Presbyterian perspective was remarkably blurred. In discussing how one becomes a member of the church, all agreed that the church is not a building but a community of believers. But one delegate held that “belief in God” is the distinctive, and conceded that Buddhists and Moslems as well as Jews could form churches. All agreed that a Christian context requires belief in Jesus Christ. “But not,” insisted one delegate, “belief that Jesus is divine, for that would deny his manhood. Only fundamentalists take the Bible literally and accept the miracles and myths.” Another demurred: “Jesus is truly God as well as man in his life and work; many Presbyterian ministers disbelieve the Virgin Birth, but that doesn’t give this license.” The doctrinal dialogue closed happily when another participant assured the group that “what is doctrinally right for one person is not necessarily right for another; after all, Presbyterians and Methodists, Christians and Jews, hold sincerely different views.”

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The discussion about when one becomes a member of the church was almost as elusive. In summary: Baptism makes one an “unconfirmed” member of the household of God; one is “really” a member when he accepts Jesus Christ as Saviour; but he is not “ideally” a member unless he is received by the session and publicly identifies himself with other Christians; yet he can be “officially” affiliated without being “experientially” a member; to be “truly” a member his works must attest his faith (one delegate insisted that salvation depends partly upon works). In conclusion, one delegate reminded the others that “it’s not for us to decide who is or is not a member of the church.”

In this ineffective theological climate, differences ranged wide over the probable reaction of laymen to the denominational proposal of a contemporary statement of faith. But none could doubt the emergence of a phalanx of concerned laymen increasingly prone to serve notice that they will no longer consider themselves Presbyterian it the denomination abandons the full authority of the Bible and alters its historic constitution.

While United Presbyterian Men has maintained relative denominational independence, cooperative liaison has existed between its leaders and those of the denomination. Subtle ecclesiastical pressures have been exerted on some lay officers, however, and resentment has increased over the denominational leadership’s tendency to disparage and discredit prominent laymen who have sincerely assailed the institutional church’s mounting involvement in political programs. Some lay leaders feel that many laymen are ready to rally behind a courageous call to doctrinal fidelity and evangelistic priorities, and that on this basis lay leadership could again become influential and decisive in denominational life.

But even in the Chicago meeting stewardship issues bulked large as suggested discussion topics, and the only decision cards distributed were for monetary pledges toward the organization’s $107,000 budget.

Most of the $300,000,000 received annually by the 9,500 United Presbyterian churches defrays operating expenses of the local churches; only 9 per cent or $27,000,000 goes to the corporate church. This is inadequate to handle its extraordinary activity of education, missions, pensions, and so on. But the corporate church also has permanent assets estimated at between $250,000,000 and $300,000,000 in addition to real estate holdings, and the annual yield on these reserves is estimated at another $10,000,000. Noting the church’s dilution of theological and evangelistic fidelity, some critics contend that excessive endowment becomes a means of denominational self-destruction.

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Some Chicago speakers sounded a plea for “winning men to Christ” as the church’s prime task, in the absence of which she betrays her mission. Dr. L. K. Anderson, former missionary to Africa and now Chicago-arca representative of the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, noted: “There are still vast reaches of the world where the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not penetrated, although there is a Christian witness in almost every nation on earth.” Dr. George Sweazey of Webster Grove, Missouri, former head of the denomination’s evangelism commission, who was called in to fill the spot vacated by ailing evangelist Billy Graham, declared evangelism to be “the church’s most pressing duty.” He warned that the church is “but one generation from extinction, and is daily under attack from the cemeteries and from the maternity hospitals.”

For denominational leaders contending that the church must become involved in modern life by political action and demonstration, J. Howard Pew, president of the United Presbyterian Foundation Trustees of the General Assembly, repeated wise words of counsel: “The church of the past exercised a greater influence for good than the church of our generation. For the decrease of this influence, Christian laymen are largely responsible.… We don’t want to become involved, whereas our forebears were not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.… Our Church Fathers, like their predecessors, believed that every Christian should involve himself, in so far as he was competent and able to do so, in all human activities; but that the church, as a corporate entity, is a spiritual institution, and as such should restrict itself to ecclesiastical subjects.”

Pew also echoed a question laymen increasingly ask as proposals for confessional revision come before the General Assembly. “The two books which are the very crux of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church,” he said, “are the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechism. They are the books which every officer of our church has pledged himself to support. These books specifically state that in the event an issue should develop, such issue must be resolved by referring it directly to the Bible itself. It may well be said that the Bible is the constitution of our great church. Now there are some who would change the true meaning of our constitution. As such a proposal carries with it the implication that the BibleIn advance of Mr. Pew’s dinner meeting address, printed copies of a “Brief Statement of the Reformed Faith” were distributed at each table. Of the Bible it said: “We gratefully receive the Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration to be the faithful record of God’s gracious revelations and the sure witness to Christ, as the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and life” (italics supplied). When reporters asked the monitor at the information desk where the statement originated, he replied: “It’s right out of our church constitution.” is no longer the inspired and infallible Word of God, are we going to become involved?”

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The clergy involvement in the Alabama civil rights march was commended by ministerial speakers. Dr. David Molyneaux of Flint, Michigan, said that Paul’s letter to Philemon was motivated by “a spirit that walks the streets of Selma today.” Dr. David Watermulder of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, declared that “we are the church—when we are at work or entertainment, when we are expressing our viewpoints on all kinds of political issues from nuclear fall-out to civil rights.” The Unitarian minister who lost his life in Alabama, the Rev. James J. Reeb, who had attended Princeton Seminary, was remembered in prayer as “a modern-day martyr for the faith” who in his “willingness to die for a cause” showed himself “one with all the followers of Jesus Christ.” Some laymen commented that Reeb was being made a martyr not simply for the cause of civil liberty but for the sake of Christ.

The entire assembly was shocked by the events in Alabama, and delegates privately expressed themselves without dissent in support of Negro voting rights and in condemnation of police brutality. But many individually doubted the propriety of the clergy’s political involvement and of the encouragement of civil disobedience rather than a reliance on judicial processes. From his Hawaii hospital bed Billy Graham sent his greetings to the delegates and shared an offer to the ministers of Selma to help lead an integrated evangelistic campaign in that beleaguered city. Moments later, United Presbyterian Moderator Edler G. Hawkins, in the preparatory communion service, called for “dedication to a task that involves all of the concerns of God’s children” and urged delegates to “go out and witness to the fact that no group is more committed to love and justice and fellowship than Christians.”

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The “marchers” gave no ground. Pressures were even brought on the Chicago program committee to cancel out speakers who were labeled as “opposed to civil rights” because they disapproved the clergy’s political involvement. To the credit of leaders of United Presbyterian Men, the pressures were ignored.

Relief Via The Churches

Religious groups will receive more than $2.8 million out of $8 million in grants approved by the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity for projects designed to aid migrant workers in the United States. The anti-poverty grants, believed to be the first in the migratory labor field, were announced last month by R. Sargent Shriver, director of the OEO and the Peace Corps.

“These are outright grants not requiring matching funds,” said Shriver. “They are authorized under Title IIIB of the Economic Opportunity Act.” This act regulates the federal government’s anti-poverty war.

Shriver stressed that the religious grants will not be used for “proselytizing or religious training” as this would be illegal. The church-sponsored projects receiving the aid will benefit workers in Michigan, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Arizona.

Michigan Migrant Opportunity, Inc., which will receive $1,338,926, was formed recently by the Michigan Council of Churches and the Michigan Catholic Conference. In North Carolina, the State Council of Churches is getting $270,444 for its project. Catholic Charities of Charleston and the United Church Women of Charleston joined forces in a migratory project and are getting about $37,000.

The Arizona Migrant and Indian Ministry, a group with a broad religious base, will receive $1,231,084.

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