When Eugene Carson Blake stepped down as stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. in 1966 to become general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the UPUSA church was at the peak of its growth and prestige. Membership had crested the year before at over 3.3 million. Giving to General Assembly mission causes was at an all-time high. The Consultation on Church Union, proposed by Blake in a speech in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1960, was moving toward an actual plan of union. And the controversial “Confession of 1967” was soon to be adopted by the denomination.

This year, at the 185th General Assembly of the UPUSA Church, held in Omaha, Nebraska, Blake returned to find the church in severe economic difficulties and even to be rejected as a candidate for moderator, the highest elective position within the denomination.

Elected moderator was Omaha clergyman Clinton M. Marsh, the second black moderator in the church’s history. Marsh, who serves on the General Assembly’s Task Force on Southern Africa and who holds several synod and presbytery positions, received 378 out of 726 votes on the crucial ballot. Blake received the lowest number of votes of the five candidates.

The size of the crisis facing the church that Marsh now heads is seen in the church’s statistics, some of which became publicly available for the first time at the assembly. Highlights:

• A membership loss of 104,000, the largest membership decline in one year in the denomination’s history. Membership now stands at fewer than three million.

• Decline of giving to General Assembly causes by nearly $2 million, even though total giving throughout the church has gone up. Giving to General Assembly causes has gone down by $9 million since 1967, necessitating a depletion of the denomination’s capital reserves by $22.8 million during the five years 1968–73.

• Cutback in staff positions at the national level from over 1,000 to 700. Actually, more than 300 will be leaving the staff, some as the result of the concurrent move to consolidate the denominational offices in New York City.

As the budget statistics were presented, many of the 750 commissioners sat in stunned silence. There was almost a gasp as they were also told that denominational restructuring, approved last year by the 184th General Assembly and involving the reorganization of the boards and agencies, reduction of personnel, and the move to New York, will in itself cost $5.6 million. The only figure heard previously was $1.5 million, which last year’s assembly approved and which many delegates apparently considered to be a top figure. The smaller amount, explained Executive Director Leon E. Fanniel of the General Assembly’s powerful Mission Council, was just to get the change-over under way.

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The financial picture is not expected to improve either, as is evidenced by a proposed General Assembly General Mission program budget for 1974 of $32 million, down $8 million from the comparable 1973 figure. The number of United Presbyterian missionaries on the foreign field has been declining since 1958, when there were 1,300, but is expected to bottom out at 550. There are now approximately 580 overseas personnel. A year ago, there were 700.

For the first time in recent years there did not seem to be an emotionally charged issue for the assembly. Even the Consultation on Church Union, from which the church withdrew last year, did not generate much enthusiasm as this year the church voted itself back in. Many commissioners expressed belief that the issues had changed in that COCU had shifted its emphasis from attempting to gain agreement on a formal plan of union to encouraging cooperation among churches at the local level. The Reverend Paul Crow of Princeton, New Jersey, general secretary of COCU, admitted that there had been a “general unreadiness to accept the proposed structures”—indeed, that “nobody bought them.” The vote to return to COCU was 453 to 259.

In related action commissioners expressed renewed commitment to the task of reuniting the Northern church with the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. (Southern), though recent developments affecting the Southern church (see story, page 44) seem to put that possibility a long way off.

At last year’s assembly the denomination’s Committee on the Self-Development of People reported a grant of $75,000 to La Rosca, a small group of Colombian intellectuals dedicated to social research and action among the poor of that country. The action drew a heated protest from the Presbyterian Church of Colombia on the grounds that La Rosca was “composed at its leadership level of men with known Marxist views” and that its objectives called for “the fomenting of class struggle, subversion and agitation among the world population.” The Colombian church also regarded the action of the UPUSA church as an unwarranted intrusion into its own affairs. At this year’s assembly the commissioners approved a report affirming the propriety of the first grant and approving a second in the same amount. Except for a spirited minority report by Rafael Cruz, who had investigated La Rosca literature, the Marxist views of the Colombian group did not seem to trouble members of the denomination’s Self-Development Committee.

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Apparently they trouble church members, however, for the funding drive to raise “$70 million in the 70’s” for self-help projects among minorities has generated only $4 million since 1971.

In further action the delegates:

• Resolved “to join with others of the world in a symbolic Declaration of World Citizenship and Responsibility,” aiming at world peace based on a system of enforceable world law.

• Asked the denomination’s agencies to explore the possibility of contributing massive aid to Indochina through the World Council of Churches and suggested an initial pledge by the denomination of $600,000.

• Recorded “outright opposition” to any attempt by the U. S. government to enforce the Paris Agreements by unilateral means and, in particular, deplored any renewed bombings in North or South Viet Nam as well as the continued bombing in Cambodia and Laos.

• Denounced the reported violation of religious freedom and the denial of human rights in the Soviet Union, and urged that “religious literature of all faiths be allowed to be made available to the people of the U. S. S. R.”

• Called for an immediate on-the-scene study of the Wounded Knee situation by the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and left the door open for granting denominational legal-aid funds to those arrested in the incident.

• Rejected a renewed attempt to involve the denomination officially in the Key 73 evangelistic program.

With the extensive restructuring under way, it is probably not surprising that few new programs were suggested. “We have spent millions and will be in debt for years,” said the Reverend John W. Meister, director of the Council of Theological Seminaries, at an installation service for the six top executives of the denomination, “and that is only the money expense. Hundreds of people have suffered throughout the turmoil of restructuring. We must make our new structures work.”

Perhaps that concern lay behind the theme of this year’s assembly, displayed in large gold letters behind the speaker’s platform: “Can Do All Things.” There might have been more confidence in the outcome if the assembly had also gone on to complete the quotation—“through Christ who strengthens me.”


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