Bells that sounded — and some that didn’t
A recap of 2012’s top stories in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Compiled by The Presbyterian Outlook’s award-winning national reporter, the stories that made the most news for Presbyterians last year:
Divestment: By a thread-thin measure, the 2012 General Assembly pulled away from what certainly would have been a controversial and yet some say prophetic move — to divest from three companies found to be involved in “non-peaceful” pursuits in Israel. The assembly, hoping not to alienate its Jewish partners in interfaith discussions, voted 333-331 against divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. Relations with Jewish partners still took an abrasive turn later in the year, however, after Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, was among Christian leaders who sent a letter to Congress early in October, asking that U.S. aid to Israel be reconsidered in light of Israel’s track record in human rights. That letter was sent before the November outbreak of violence in Gaza and Israel.
Same-gender marriage: The General Assembly said no — at least for now — to taking a stand on same-gender marriage. The assembly voted not to send to the presbyteries a proposed amendment to change the definition of marriage in the PC(USA) constitution from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” Instead, the assembly directed the Office of Theology and Worship to develop study materials on marriage and same-gender relationships to facilitate discussion on the subject. Most recently, an October ruling from the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission said “it would be beneficial for the church to provide a definitive position regarding participation of officers in same-gender ceremonies, whether civil or religious.” No question: this issue will rise again at the 2014 General Assembly.
Getting smaller: The exodus of conservative congregations from the PC(USA) continues, with congregations leaving both for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and for ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. PC(USA) membership dropped below 2 million in 2011, with 96 fewer churches. These losses represented a combination of departures to other denominations and congregations becoming too small to survive.
ECO: ECO, a new denomination, was formally launched in 2012 and will hold its first synod meeting Jan. 30-Feb. 1 in Orlando, Fla. Last June, ECO named Dana Allin of Florida as its president, and it has created some of the infrastructure of a denomination — including setting up retirement and medical benefits plans and establishing two presbyteries. The 2013 meeting also will bring, ECO leaders say, a clarification of the statement of essential tenets to which ECO will require adherence and more detailed documents involving ECO’s polity and system of discipline.
Fellowship of Presbyterians: The Fellowship, an umbrella organization of like-minded evangelicals, including some who have chosen at least for now to stay inside the PC(USA), met concurrently with ECO at a national convocation early in 2012 and at two regional gatherings in August. The Fellowship will gather again with ECO in Orlando in 2013.
Mid Councils: Scuttling a series of recommendations from the Commission on Mid Councils, the 2012 General Assembly voted against creating nongeographic presbyteries during a “season of experimentation” in the PC(USA) — a move some had hoped might give evangelicals more options for staying in the denomination. A new commission on mid councils has begun meeting to consider options and to review the nature and function of the General Assembly Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly as they interact with mid councils.
1,001 New Worshiping Communities movement: Hoping to ignite a culture of creativity, church-planting and entrepreneurship, the PC(USA) is working to create 1,001 new worshipping communities over the next decade. The 1,001 movement includes online sharing and a series of regional gatherings to jump-start such initiatives. Still taking shape is exactly what constitutes a “new worshipping community,” and a means for tracking and supporting the new endeavors.
Court rulings: The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the PC(USA)’s highest court, issued a series of significant decisions in 2012, including:
- Ruling in February that minister Jane Adams Spahr had violated the denomination’s constitution by performing same-gender weddings. The court instructed Presbyterian ministers not to perform such weddings, and upheld an instruction from a lower court that the Presbytery of the Redwoods should rebuke Spahr (which the presbytery in May declined to do).
- Ruling in October that Laurie McNeill, also a pastor, had not violated the constitution when she was married outside the church to another woman.
- Ruling that presbyteries must exercise “due diligence” in evaluating the value of the property of congregations wanting to leave the PC(USA) — a decision with potentially significant implications for the “gracious dismissal” policies some presbyteries have adopted.
Ordination exams: Those seeking ordination as teaching elders in the PC(USA) are now being allowed to take the five ordination exams online. As part of a series of changes the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates approved in 2012, the exam readers will also work online, logging into secure servers both at designated reading sites and by working remotely. The change should save money in reduced travel costs for the readers, and should allow seminary students taking the tests faster access to the results and to the readers’ comments.
Special offerings: A special committee recommended significant changes to the denomination’s four major special offerings, with the goal of increasing giving by 50 percent by 2020. But the assembly rejected the proposal, which among other changes would have discontinued the Peacemaking Offering and added a new offering to support world mission.