While Presbyterians continued to struggle in 2010 with perennially troublesome issues such as membership decline, Middle East peace and human sexuality, they also reached out in unprecedented ways to their communities, other faith groups and the world. This summary of the year’s top 10 Presbyterian news stories was compiled with thanks to Presbyterians Today magazine, which has published a summary of top stories since 1986.
1. Disaster response — Haiti, Pakistan, Tennessee: Presbyterian Disaster Assistance responded immediately to the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 200,000 and left more than 2 million homeless. Working with ecumenical partners Church World Service and the ACT Alliance, PDA helped establish water and food distribution sites, and furnished 35,000 hygiene and baby kits and thousands of temporary tarps and shelters. Presbyterians have contributed more than $11.1 million to the ongoing relief and recovery effort. Presbyterians also reached out to western Pakistan and middle Tennessee when those regions were inundated with flood waters this summer.
2. Ordination standards: In July, the 219th General Assembly voted to send a proposed amendment to the denomination’s 173 presbyteries to delete the current G-6.0106b — which requires of church officers “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” — from the PC(USA)’s constitution and replace it with language that leaves to ordaining bodies determination of individual candidates’ suitability for ordination. This marks the fourth time presbyteries have voted on G-6.0106b since it was placed in the church’s Book of Order following the 1996 General Assembly.
3. New Form of Government: The 219th General Assembly approved a massive revision of the PC(USA)’s constitutional polity that has been worked and reworked over the last four years. The Form of Government has been amended more than 300 times since it was adopted at Presbyterian reunion in 1983. The revisions are intended to make Presbyterian polity more missional and less regulatory. The new FOG is currently before the presbyteries for ratification.
4. Gay marriage/ domestic partner benefits: With more and more states legalizing same-sex marriage, the 219th General Assembly affirmed the church’s definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman,” turning back attempts to redefine it as between “two people.” It approved a report calling for further discussion of issues around the church’s understanding of marriage and same-sex unions and included a minority report that defends what its supporters call a more “traditionalist” stance against any sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage.
At the same time, the Assembly urged the church’s Board of Pensions to extend the same spousal and dependent benefits to same-gender domestic partners as it does to married plan members. Even though the proposal includes a “relief of conscience” provision to segregate dues of employers who are conscientiously opposed to same-gender benefits, debate around the church has been heated.
5. Victory in the Florida farmworker struggle: In November, the PC(USA)-backed Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange on improvements in wages and working conditions for farmworkers who pick Florida’s tomatoes. The Coalition, which boycotted Taco Bell for four years before reaching an agreement with the fast-food giant’s parent company, Yum! Brands, in 2005, has now achieved better human rights for workers in 90 percent of Florida’s fields.
6. Middle East peace: Contentious debate swirled around a 150-page paper on the Middle East entitled “Breaking Down the Walls” in the months leading up to the 219th General Assembly. Yet the Assembly adopted a revised report of its Middle East Study Committee by an 82%-17% margin. The report affirms Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders and for the right of Palestinians to their own secure state.
7. “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide”: With PC(USA) membership continuing its decades-long decline, the church is continuing its church growth emphasis entitled “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” Adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed in 2010, “Deep and Wide” encourages congregations to grow in four areas: evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity.
And the numbers weren’t all bad. While membership declined by 63,000 (2.9%) last year, 20 new Presbyterian churches were started; Asian Presbyterian membership increased as did the number of Asian Presbyterian elders and deacons; the number of racial ethnic candidates for ministry grew; the number of women pastors, including those serving as head-of-staff increased; the number of congregations without pastoral leadership decreased; and 13 presbyteries reported membership growth.
8. The Belhar Confession: PC(USA) presbyteries are currently voting on whether to include the Belhar Confession as the 12th doctrinal statement in the denomination’s Book of Confessions. Belhar — which would be the first PC(USA) confession to originate in the global South — was written in the mid-1980s by South African churches as their response to the sin of apartheid. The confession is valuable, proponents say, because it addresses issues of racial justice and reconciliation that are still relevant today.
9. Sexual abuse of children uncovered: In October leaders of the PC(USA)'s General Assembly Mission Council apologized to 30 people who were physically or sexually abused between 1950 and 1990 in church-sponsored overseas boarding schools. The abuse findings were contained in a 546-page report by the council’s Independent Abuse Review Panel (IARP). Working since 2003, the three-member IARP investigated 131 reports involving 81 possible victims and 47 alleged offenders at mission schools in Cameroon, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Kenya, Zambia and Thailand. The panel concluded that 30 incidents of abuse occurred in eight countries and named nine offenders. Seventeen other offenders were not named in the public report, most because they were minors at the time the abuse occurred. None of the offenders are currently active in the mission field. In December, one alleged victim, Sean Coppedge, filed suit against the PC(USA), saying the church needs to be held accountable for its failure to protect the children of overseas missionaries.
10. Ecumenical milestones: In June, Presbyterians celebrated the creation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, a merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. The new organization represents nearly all the Presbyterian-Reformed churches around the world. Earlier in the month, Christians from around the world gathered in Edinburgh to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference, which many mark as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.
In November the PC(USA) — along with three other Reformed churches — and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced agreement on mutual recognition of each other’s baptisms. The historic Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism marks the first formal ecumenical agreement the U.S. Catholics have entered with any other church. The pact also includes the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the United Church of Christ. A joint worship service of thanksgiving for the Common Agreement and renewal of baptismal vows will be held sometime in late 2011.
Editor’s note: this story is being published simultaneously by PNS and “The Presbyterian Outlook.”