One way is to examine how previous individuals served the Presbyterian Church as stated clerks in three areas of their work: ecumenism, social issues and their role at General Assembly.
Three individuals in particular come to mind, all having served as stated clerks in the 20th century. They are William Henry Roberts (18841920), William Barrow Pugh (19381950), and Eugene Carson Blake (1951-1966). While reflecting the times in which lived, they also contributed as clerks to a broad view of the church and its mission.
William Henry Roberts was the American secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for 30 years and its president in 1896. He was acting president of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 and chair of the executive committee from 1908 to 1912. In recognition of his decades of service to the ecumenical movement, Roberts was honored at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in a special way. Among the 20 pillars in the Hall of Religion, on which were placed the statues of outstanding leaders of church union in that century, one depicted Roberts.
William Barrow Pugh attended the first meeting of the Federal Council of Churches while a college student. He later chaired the executive committee for six years. Pugh served on the central committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and sat on the planning committee when the National Council of Churches (NCC) was created. He was a leader in the Restoration Fund of the Presbyterian Churches that aided Reformed churches in Europe after the Second World War.
Eugene Carson Blake was well known for his ecumenical work. Blake was president of the NCC from 1954 to 1957 and served on the central committee of the WCC from 1954 to 1966. He became general secretary of the WCC after his service as stated clerk. With the reputation as a powerful preacher, one of Blake’s sermons, preached in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1960, is credited with beginning the Consultation on Church Union movement. In his sermon, he said,
… our separate organizations, however much we sincerely try to cooperate in councils, present a tragically divided church to a tragically divided world. Our divided state makes almost unbelievable our common Christian claim that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He is the Prince of Peace.
These three stated clerks spoke out in prominent ways on the social issues of their day. Roberts championed First Amendment rights and religious liberty. The “Social Creed” was adopted while he was on the Federal Council of Churches. The creed spoke of the need for equal rights and justice for workers in the emerging industrial world of America. Some of the creed’s provisions were instituting reasonable working hours, abolishing child labor, ensuring a living wage, and releasing workers from their work for one day out of seven. Later General Assemblies adopted various provisions of this creed.
Pugh’s concern for social issues began during his time as pastor of the Beacon church in Kensington, Pa., known as the “Workshop of the World.” He was a minister to both sides in a bitter strike at a nearby shipyard. He intervened on behalf of his working-class congregation with city officials. Pugh went on to serve as a chaplain in World War I, hence his concern for military chaplains which continued throughout his ministry and service as stated clerk. Pugh was also diligent in advocating for the placement of African Americans on denominational committees.
Blake was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. He was jailed in 1963 in Baltimore while participating in an anti-segregation demonstration. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and served on President Johnson’s National Advisory Council on the War on Poverty. In an article in 1966, Blake wrote,
It [the church] should help to formulate the concrete goals of society and the concrete means to reach those goals in light of the Gospel … It should identify itself with the cause of the poor, the alien, the prisoner, the rejected, and the outcast . (The Ecumenical Review, 1966).
Role at General Assemblies
Clerking the General Assembly was a high priority for these three men. The assemblies of their day had controversial issues, such as fundamentalism and biblical criticism, modern industrial expansion and employee rights, civil rights, war, ordination issues, and attempts at church union.
Roberts, Pugh and Blake all served the moderators of the General Assembly as parliamentarians and advisors. They had their own strong opinions, yet knew their role at the Assembly was to be neutral and fair to all. In fact, Pugh was deemed so impartial that he was criticized by his friends. Blake saw to every detail with a careful eye. Roberts became well known for his ability to wrestle discounts on train fares for those traveling to the Assembly. All three demonstrated that a stated clerk who can be actively neutral at General Assembly sessions, while being an active advocate for the General Assembly’s actions, best serves the church.
In addition, these three stated clerks knew their Presbyterian polity. Roberts edited the first Manual for Ruling Elders and its subsequent seven revisions during his tenure. At the General Assembly’s request, he compiled the 600-page tome, Laws Relating to Religious Corporations. Pugh taught classes in ecclesiastical law at Princeton Seminary. His exceeding popularity with students led to their vote to eliminate the 10-minute break in his two-hour class so that they could have more of his time.
One of Blake’s first tasks as stated clerk was to edit and publish a new Manual of Presbyterian Law for Church Officers and Members. In it are these words:
The law of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America presupposes a fellowship of men and women with their children in voluntary covenant relationship with each other and with God through Jesus Christ. The law rests upon the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love.
This statement became G-7.0103 in the reunion of 1983.
Twenty-five functions of the General Assembly Stated Clerk are listed in the Standing Rules of the General Assembly (G-2). The three areas of the stated clerk’s responsibilities discussed in this article introduce the challenge facing commissioners to the 216th General Assembly.
William E. Chapman is stated clerk of Palisades Presbytery, Paramus, N.J.