Despite a dwindling membership, a $2.2 million deficit, a proposed new confession, and the annual discussion on Presbyterian union, last month’s 115th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. (Southern), held in Charlotte, North Carolina, was characterized by long-time observers as a “caretaker” assembly.
The 411 commissioners (delegates) of the 900,000-member denomination heard progress reports about the proposed new confession. Because of a flood of suggestions from individuals and congregations the committee did not finish writing the confession in time for this year’s assembly. It will be ready this fall and should come up for a vote at next June’s General Assembly, scheduled to be held at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The committee told delegates that some changes of wording were being made in an early draft. For example, the section dealing with the Virgin Birth, which some conservatives thought denied that doctrine, will include the traditional words “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary the Virgin.” But other language that disturbed conservatives—“He came as a child born of woman as is every child”—remains. Some also complained that Christ is nowhere spoken of as Saviour, and a statement describing him as the “Saviour who died in our place” will be inserted. However, the committee refused to change the assertion “His knowledge was limited by his time and place in history.” To deny that, the committee argued, is to deny Christ’s humanity.
Final decision on the proposed plan of union with the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. (UPCUSA) has been postponed until 1977. The PCUS first wants to decide the confessional issue. Resolutions to pull out of union discussions were soundly defeated, as were those to postpone union until an official membership poll could be taken on the issue. The question of union with other Presbyterian bodies caused more debate. Mention of the Presbyterian Church in America aroused special feeling. The PCA now includes about 370 congregations, many of which severed ties with the PCUS. Charges of conspiracy, proselytizing, and membership stealing flew across the floor as commissioners debated a resolution on the PCA that looked forward “to our walking together in mutual respect and love.” Later in a more conciliatory mood the commissioners said, “We look forward to our eventual union or reunion with all these now separated denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in America.”
Newly elected moderator Paul M. Edris, retired pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Daytona Beach, Florida, said before his election that he would vote for union with the UPCUSA, and that he would “welcome back” any PCA congregations, though he would not actively seek reunion with them. In a press conference he added that he had heard some congregations were making discreet inquiries about that possibility.
In a late-night session commissioners approved reports of the General Executive Board (GEB) that would tighten the lines of authority and change budgeting and management procedures. The GEB has been under heavy fire since last February, when a $2.2 million deficit was discovered. Last year’s proposed $9.4 million budget was cut to $7.6 by salary and personnel reductions and by a cutback in overseas missions giving. A last-minute effort to restore missions funds failed. The General Assembly, in a light wrist-slapping statement, expressed concern over “an apparent laxity of sound business management and finance principles that have resulted in deficit spending.…” A $7.4 million budget was approved for the coming year.
The liveliest debate of the week-long assembly occurred during a discussion on “The Problem of a Personal Devil and Demons,” a paper written by the theology and culture council in response to a resolution last year. Council member Harrison Taylor said that the film The Exorcist was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Many commissioners told of young people from their churches who were involved with the occult and Satan worship.
After discussing the literal and the symbolic interpretations of Satan and demons and what is meant by “personal,” the paper comes out for a symbolic interpretation of Satan as “the absence or negation of the good which God is.… It concludes: “In answer to the question whether we believe in a personal devil and demons, we can only answer with a flat, ‘Of course not!’ ”
One commissioner summed up the reaction against the paper by describing the statement as “a flimsy, hasty, inadequate, perhaps even flippant response to society on these matters.… We are left to imagine what the writers meant and are thus in a position of denying the existence of we know not what. This is indefensibly sloppy.…” If the paper had been adopted, as was recommended by the standing committee on Interpreting the Faith, the views expressed would have become an official PCUS position. By a vote of 207 to 167 the General Assembly decided to receive the paper as “information only.”
During debate of the standing committee, a member asked theologian Shirley Guthrie of Columbia Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, who wrote the original draft of the paper, if this was “the first demythologizing and symbolizing paper” to be presented to the laity, to which Guthrie replied, “Yes.” Taylor also conceded that “some people do not feel that this paper is in keeping with our doctrinal standards, as contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and that it’s not an adequate interpretation of Scripture.” As a follow-up to the demons paper, the commissioners asked the council on theology and culture to answer a question about the propriety of exorcism. Next year’s assembly will get the council’s reply.
In other action the General Assembly voted to study the necessity of synods in the new PCUS structure, decided to remain in the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, expressed concern over the suppression of freedom in South Korea, rejected unconditional amnesty, reaffirmed its opposition to gambling, and asked Congress to supply a minimum of seven million tons of food aid per year for the next five years. The assembly also called for members to voluntarily restrict meals three times a week and give the money saved to the Task Force on World Hunger.
‘A Call To Reformation’
Meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in mid-June, more than 150 United Presbyterians, disturbed over the outcome of the so-called Kenyon case (see June 6 issue, page 42, and March 28 issue, page 36) concerning the ordination of women, drafted “A Call to Reformation” to be distributed to the denomination at large. (Walter Wyn Kenyon was refused ordination because he said he could not participate in the ordination of women on biblical grounds.)
The group is called Concerned United Presbyterians, and James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, is the chairperson of a new fourteen-member ad hoc committee. Among other committee members are John Gerstner of Pittsburgh Seminary, R. C. Sproul of the Ligonier Valley Study Center outside Pittsburgh, and Frank Kik of Wichita, Kansas, vice-president of Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns.
At the meeting a small but vocal minority favored immediate withdrawal from the denomination. Gerstner wrote I the first draft of the statement and included a twelve-month time limit for withdrawal, to which concerned clergy and congregations would pledge themselves. Others, more moderate, who felt that eventually they would have to leave the denomination or be forced out, hesitated to pledge themselves to leaving in a year, and the one-year pledge was eliminated. In the final vote on the statement, only five opposed it.
The statement says, in part, that “the Kenyon case is but a further aggravation seeming to deny us the privilege to differ on non-essential matters of polity even though we believe the Word of God requires us to do so.” Boice says the statement tries to shift the issue from the ordination of women to conscience. As he sees it, the church is trying to make the judicial courts rule conscience. Although some people who attended the Pittsburgh meeting have no problem with ordaining women, most, Boice says, think it’s unbiblical.
Despite the ruling of the church, the statement adds that “those of his [Kenyon’s] persuasion will continue in the church.” And the paper also calls for ministers and presbyteries to bring charges against any who depart from the church’s stated confessions, a fight-fire-with-fire strategy.
Kik, who remains on the committee and was one of four planners of the meeting, voted against the paper. He thought the method of drafting the statement “too hasty and casual.” “At no time did we have a copy of it. It was read to us twice,” he explained. He also thought the content too confrontational. “It was a shotgun approach when it ought to be a rifle shot,” he said.
Others, such as Frank Moser, another committee member, think the statement is not strong enough. “It wants us to do what we should have been doing all along,” Moser commented. “In the interest of the peace of the United Presbyterian church,” he says, he has resigned his pastorate. Moser, along with some twenty-five families from his former congregation, Bethel United Presbyterian Church in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, is forming a Presbyterian Church in America congregation. He will be one of six ministers in three congregations to be part of the first PCA presbytery in the greater Pittsburgh area (from Akron, Ohio, to Johnstown, Pennsylvania).
One observer thinks that there will be no mass exodus from the UPC but that congregations will quietly withdraw one at a time. For the present, the mood among most who attended the Pittsburgh conclave seems to be: wait and see what strategies the new committee develops for reforming the church.
ABOUT-FACE IN MOSCOW?
Scholars of the Soviet Academy of Sciences reportedly are undertaking a study of American religious life.
Leaders of the Academy’s Institute of U. S. A. and Canada Studies told an interreligious delegation visiting Moscow they had decided their neglect of religon was causing them to overlook an important factor in American life, Religious News Service said. Three scholars reportedly were assigned to the religious study.
News of the development was brought back to the United States by officials of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, organized in 1965 to work on an interreligious basis for religious freedom.
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