Click here for General Assembly coverage

TOP 10 Presbyterian stories from 2011

Exactly how Presbyterians would rank the top news of 2011 in the denomination, and how they would characterize what happened, will depend on their perspective. Here’s an effort to recap some of the biggest developments of the year. Feel free to make your own list.

Amendment 10-A. After years of prayer and politicking, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) changed its ordination standards in 2011 by opening the door for the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians.

The denomination’s presbyteries voted 97-74 to remove from the denomination’s constitution language requiring that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if single. Presbyteries and sessions still must examine candidates for ordination or installation, the standard being that a candidate’s “manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.” With that change, the PC(USA) joins other mainline denominations — including the Evangelical Church in America and the Episcopal Church — that have made their ordination policies more inclusive of gays and lesbians.

Fellowship of Presbyterians. Even before the 10-A vote was final, a group of evangelical “tall-steeple” pastors (senior clergy members in high-membership churches) sent out in February what became known as the “White Paper.” It proclaimed the PC(USA) to be “deathly ill” and announced the signers’ intention to create new possibilities for evangelicals. The group convened in Minneapolis in August, drawing a crowd of 1,900. The Fellowship’s proposals included four tiers of possible actions, one of which was creating a new Reformed body to which PC(USA) congregations could be dismissed or with which they could affiliate. The Fellowship is at work drafting essential tenets and other proposals, and it will hold what it calls a “constitutional convention” in Orlando Jan. 18-20 to formally create that new Reformed body. Already, some congregations have begun the process of leaving the PC(USA) for other denominations — not waiting to see what the Fellowship might do.

New Form of Government. The presbyteries also approved, by a vote of 90-81, a new Form of Government for the PC(USA), which is intended to provide fewer rules and more local flexibility for doing mission. The change has some folks confused and others happy, and it has brought with it some changes in Presbyterian vernacular. “Governing bodies” are now “councils.” Ministers are now referred to as “teaching elders” and elders as “ruling elders,” to emphasize the theological parity of those ministries. Cindy Bolbach, moderator of the PC(USA)’s 219th General Assembly and a member of the task force that drafted the new Form of Government, recently encouraged Presbyterians to live into the new system for a while — to get used to it and give it a chance to work — before they start trying to amend it.

Middle Governing Bodies Commission. This commission, which some have started calling the Mid-Councils Commission, will report to the General Assembly in 2012. While the commission is still working on its report, it has already made some decisions. It plans to recommend, for example, that the PC(USA) eliminate synods as councils, and that it create five regional administrative commissions to take over the ecclesiastical tasks now performed by synods. It has voted not to ask the assembly to change the denomination’s constitution to allow non-geographic presbyteries (although the commission might revisit that question at its next meeting, Feb. 2-4 in Dallas). And the commission’s moderator, Tod Bolsinger, says it won’t recommend just one model for how mid-councils can organize and do their work, but will highlight a variety of approaches.

Belhar Confession. An effort to add the Belhar Confession from South Africa to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions failed. The presbyteries voted 108-63 for approval, but that fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed for such a confessional change. Advocates for the change contended that the Belhar Confession, written in the 1980s by a multi-racial group in response to apartheid, had much to say to a divided PC(USA) today about reconciliation, justice and repentance. Opponents said Belhar placed too much emphasis on unity, and they raised other theological concerns.

Next Church. Another group of Presbyterians, also concerned about the future of the church, convened what it called the Next Church gathering in Indianapolis in February 2011 and will hold a second meeting in Dallas Feb. 27-28. Next Church drew about 350 people to Indianapolis, where the talk was not of schism but of forming new ministry networks and being alert to the ways in which God may be transforming the PC(USA). Next Church leaders issued a letter in September, following the Fellowship gathering, calling this “a reformation moment” for American Presbyterians, and saying that the idea of a new Reformed body “seems to us to be the church we once were, rather than the church God is calling us to be.”

New worshiping communities. All around the church — among both evangelicals and progressives — there is a new enthusiasm for establishing worshiping communities. The PC(USA) has not been particularly energetic in recent years in planting new churches. This conversation, however, is not only about creating what someday may become formally chartered PC(USA) congregations, but about ministry possibilities in many contexts. These include immigrant communities and multicultural contexts, among young adults and in places where people are not building connections with the institutional church. Denominational leaders have set a goal of establishing 1,001 new worshiping communities over the next 10 years.

Breaking relations. Unhappy about change in ordination standards, an assembly of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico voted 116-22 in August to sever its 139-year mission relationship with the PC(USA). Since then, representatives of specific ministry projects have been in conversation to determine what work spanning the U.S.-Mexico border might continue. That work has included more than two dozen presbytery and synod partnerships.

Scott Anderson. On Oct. 8, John Knox Presbytery ordained as a teaching elder Scott Anderson, an openly gay man who lives in a committed relationship with his longtime partner, Ian MacAllister. Anderson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, had previously been a PC(USA) minister in California. He set aside his ordination in 1990 after two people from the congregation he then was serving revealed his sexual orientation. In July 2011, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission cleared the way for Anderson’s ordination when it dismissed a challenge, ruling that the change in the denomination’s ordination standards made the case moot. Those seeking to prevent his ordination had cited the “fidelity and chastity” language that was removed from the PC(USA)’s constitution. The church’s definitive judicial position on gay ordination remains a work in progress, however. A challenge to the ordination of Lisa Larges, a lesbian who has tried for decades to be ordained, is still pending. And the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission has not yet ruled in any cases involving the new ordination standard.

Demographics. Presbyterian congregations are, as a group, older and whiter than the rest of the population, and more than half of PC(USA) congregations have 100 or fewer members. The number of seminary graduates seeking calls to work in a church exceeds the number of Presbyterian congregations looking to hire ministers. In some places, the fastest-growing Presbyterian communities are new immigrant fellowships.

These sobering demographic realities typify today’s mainline Protestant world. They are part of the drive behind a number of Presbyterian initiatives, including programs to support new pastors willing to take calls in small rural churches, and to encourage congregations that are shutting down to devote their financial and other assets to new ministry initiatives.