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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Catholics, PCUSA and Two Other Churches Mutually Recognize Baptisms

From the National Council of Churches:

Catholic Church and four Reformed churches recognize validity of one another's baptism

New York, July 14, 2011 – The general secretary of the National Council of Churches today celebrated an historic agreement among the Roman Catholic Church and four historic Protestant reformed churches to recognize the validity of one another's baptism.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, staff head of the nation’s leading ecumenical body, said, "these five churches have taken a significant step on this road to unity."

The United Church of Christ was the most recent church to adopt the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” during its synod earlier this month in Tampa, Fla.

The agreement was approved by the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 2008, the United States Council of Catholic Bishops in November of last year, and the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church at their denominational meetings last month.

Check out the full article.

Friday, July 22, 2011

New Book of Order Available for Free, Online

The new Book of Order, 2011-2013, including the new Form of Government (nFOG), is now available in PDF format as a free download from The Church Store, part of the PCUSA web page.

If you don't have an account with The Church Store already, they're going to make you go through the process of registering with your contact information and submitting a credit card number, but don't worry, the bill will come out to "0.00" in the end, so you won't be charged anything.

Print copies are of course still available, for $10 plus shipping, but this electronic version (searchable through Adobe Reader or whatever other software you use to read pdf files) is a convenience.

Please spread the word.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where to Get the New Book of Order

This information arrived today from the PC(USA) Office of the General Assembly:

The Book of Order (2011-2013) is available in print. Item #OGA-11-001. Price: $10 for 1-9 copies, 10% discount for 10-24 copies; 15% discount for 25-49 copies; 20% discount for 50+ copies. Order from the Church Store or call (800) 524-2612.

Here are the many electronic formats of the Book of Order (2011-2013) that are or will be available:

· Available now: A downloadable PDF version of Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, the new first section of the Book of Order.

· By July 20: a CD-ROM with both the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order (2011-2013) in PDF formats. Item #OGA-11-007. Price: $15. Order from the Church Store or call (800) 524-2612.

· By August 1: the Book of Order (2011-2013) will be in the Kindle bookstore (for Kindle and PC users) and in the iBookstore (for Mac and iPad users). Price: $9.99.

· This fall (date subject to the work of the Special Committee on Authoritative Interpretations): A free annotated, online, searchable version of the Book of Order (2011-2013) will be added to the PC(USA) Document Library. The library currently contains the most recent version of the Book of Order, the Book of Confessions, General Assembly Minutes (1986-2008), Social Policy Compilation, and Selected Theological Statements.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What's a Church's Economic Worth?

From time to time, we all hear complaints about certain benefits churches receive from the government - most notably, our exemption from property taxes and the income-tax deductions our members can receive for their contributions. Critics of these benefits tend to see churches as freeloaders, living high on the hog at the public's expense.

A recently-published research study, if its results are generally accepted, will go a long way towards putting such objections to rest.

The "Halo Effect" Study conducted by the non-profit group, Partners for Sacred Places, examined historic churches in Philadelphia. As reported in a February 1, 2011 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the positive economic impact of churches on their surrounding community - both in terms of direct spending and services provided cheaply or at no cost to their recipients - is massive:

"They added up the money generated by weddings and funerals, festivals, counseling programs, preschools, elder care. They tallied the salaries of staff and the wages of roofers, plumbers, even snow shovelers. They put dollar signs on intangibles, too, such as helping people find work and teaching children to be socially responsible.

They even measured the diameter of trees on church campuses.

The grand total for the 12 congregations: $50,577,098 in annual economic benefits.

The valuation for 300-member Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Episcopal Church in Queen Village, for instance, was a middle-of-the-road $1.65 million. By contrast, the figure for Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic parish in Kensington, with 7,000 congregants, a parochial school, and a community center, was $22.44 million.

The numbers, culled from clergy and staff interviews, 'just blew us away,' said Robert Jaeger, executive director of the research group Partners for Sacred Places."

The report has also been mentioned in a May 20, 2011 BBC News story.

As the article makes clear, there will certainly be challenges to some of the calculations included in the report. Pricing intangibles is always a tricky business, in some respects more of an art than a science.

Still and all, the Halo Effect report is a telling reminder that our communities would be poorer places without their churches.

A final note: the photo of the church steeple with the blue-neon halo hanging from it is not Photoshopped. It's the Oran Mor bar and nightclub in Glasgow, Scotland. It's located in a former Church of Scotland sanctuary that once belonged to the now-defunct Kelvinside Church.

Sometimes the message of a church's intangible positive benefits to the community just doesn't get out in time.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Easily-Forgotten Lessons of History

I posted the following text as an online comment to an article on the Presbyterian Outlook website. The editor chose to run it in the July 11, 2011 print edition as a letter to the editor.

(PHOTO: Distinguished Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan: U.S. Senator and frequent Presidential candidate, Moderator of the General Assembly and guest prosecutor at the Scopes Trial, where he promoted a fundamentalist, anti-evolution interpretation of scripture)

I'm dismayed to think that Frank Frieberg's assessment of the reason why some are considering leaving the denomination could be accurate: "What bothers them the most is the departure from viewing scripture as authoritative and instead viewing scripture as merely guidelines."

I hear this a lot. It sounds very satisfying to say, I'm sure. But it's not based on fact.

If it WERE as simple as that, then why are these people still in the PC(USA) after any one of a number of serious, careful reinterpretations of scripture that took place in the 20th Century:
- ordination of women as deacons, elders and ministers;
- toleration of remarriage after divorce; and
- acceptance of miscegenation, or interracial marriage?

(PHOTO: Margaret Towner, ordained in 1956 as the first constitutionally-approved woman minister in the UPCUSA or the PCUS)

At the beginning of the 20th Century, any one of these practices would have horrified most Presbyterians. They would have seen ample biblical reasons for proscribing them.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, few considered them to be any big deal.

(PHOTO: Richard and Mildred Loving, legally married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but arrested after they moved to Virginia, where miscegenation, or inter-racial marriage, was still considered a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1967 landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, unanimously ruled the Virginia state law unconstitutional.)

What happened in the meantime? Did the church cease "viewing scripture as authoritative and instead [start] viewing scripture as merely guidelines"?

No. The church prayed and agonized over the texts. Presbyterians engaged in protracted, strenuous debates, using all the the scholarly gifts and persuasive powers God had given them. Decorum was preserved, for the most part (we ARE Presbyterians, after all), but there were awkward periods of years when believers in the same city or even the same congregation feared they had little in common, and little to say, to one another.

In the end, the Holy Spirit had its way with the church. Presbyterians eventually came to believe God was doing a new thing in their midst. Change came - at first by only the barest majority, but eventually by much larger margins.

Change has never happened any other way, since the Day of Pentecost. Together we struggle to discern God's will in the scriptures. It's a slow, messy, agonizing process that takes a generation or more. Each time there's a major change, some Presbyterians split from the main body, seeking a more holy community, but inevitably most end up deeply disappointed. The wisest among them return, eventually - faithful to Christ's prayer "that they all be one." Many more, in time, give thanks that they didn't heed the call to schism when they were sorely tempted to do so.

I'd love to hear one of these aggrieved parties make a convincing argument why this historical change in biblical interpretation is different from any of the others that have preceded it. So far, I haven't heard any argument that has convinced me.

The argument that this change has been foisted on the church by unbiblical people, who care more for what society thinks than what the scriptures say, is as old as the hills. It has been trotted out, in turn, for each of the 20th Century changes mentioned above. The charge was false then, and it is false now.

Having said that, I can also say I understand how it happens. Change is hard. Very hard. I can sympathize with those who fear they no longer recognize the church of their youth.

This is a tender and vulnerable time for the Body of Christ. The faithful way to live through it is to try extra hard to think well of those on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from ourselves - not to demonize them as either libertine or prejudiced.

We can get through this, folks, if we just take a deep breath, try listening more than speaking, and practice the fine Christian art of mutual forbearance.

That's what's worked for us in the past. It will work for us again, if we but continue to trust Jesus Christ, the one head of the church, to be our guide.