The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
has the feel of a denomination in transition —
with congregations leaving
and others reinventing themselves;
with financial struggles and innovation;
with both hope and uncertainty about the future.
Here are some of the big stories of the year.
Week by week, the list of congregations leaving the PC(USA) for other denominations grows — including some particularly large and influential churches. In 2012, the PC(USA) dismissed 110 congregations to other denominations, many to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians and to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Large congregations now considering departure include St. Andrews and Menlo Park churches in California; Highland Park in Dallas; Christ Presbyterian in Edina, Minn.; and First Presbyterian in Houston.
With 15 states already having approved same-gender marriage and overtures in the works, there’s no question the 2014 General Assembly (meeting June 14-21 in Detroit) will consider whether Presbyterian ministers should be allowed to perform same-gender marriages. That discussion will take place against a dramatic backdrop of change in the secular world, with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act last June and with public opinion tilting increasingly in favor of legalizing same-gender marriage. That leaves a tough question: in states where same-sex marriage is legal, what are Presbyterian pastors to do?
Many church departures have proceeded with pain but a minimum of rancor under gracious separation policies that some presbyteries have adopted. But there has also been litigation over property as well — with a major case pending between Highland Park in Dallas, which wants control of its $30 million campus and which filed suit against Grace Presbytery in September to keep the presbytery from taking any action involving the property. A trial is scheduled for March.
The new ECO denomination is up and running. With more than 60 congregations having formally joined, and others on the way, ECO has created two presbyteries, begun ordaining ministers and will hold a national meeting August 18-20 in Dallas. Other congregations have aligned with the Fellowship of Presbyterians, seeking to build tighter relationships with other evangelicals within the PC(USA) but not to switch denominations — at least not yet.
1001 New Worshipping Communities.
One source of excitement for the PC(USA) has been a push to start new worshipping communities, some supported by denominational seed grants. The new communities reach out to college students, immigrants, inner-city residents and more; taking root everywhere from cafes to trailer parks. Other congregations use the New Beginnings program to give prayerful discernment to reinvention and faithful use of assets and energy.
World Council of Churches.
The 10th assembly of the World Council of Churches drew delegates representing the council’s 345 member denominations to Busan, South Korea, in November. The ecumenical assembly, reflecting the concerns of global Christianity, bore in on peace and justice issues around the globe, including climate change; the suffering arising from conflict in the Middle East; human trafficking; and AIDS. The assembly typically meets every seven years.
With great celebration, the PC(USA) released “Glory to God,” its first new hymnal since 1990. Available with both red and purple covers, the new hymnal includes more than 850 songs (up from about 600 in the last version) and is the culmination of work begun when the 2004 General Assembly asked that research on the project begin. The new hymnal is being launched with six national celebrations, including three still to come — in Fort Worth Jan. 9-10; Atlanta Feb. 21-22; and Louisville March 14-15.
The Board of Pensions first considered, then decided to hold off on, a revision of its medical dues structure, following an outcry over whether the proposed changes would have been too expensive, particularly for young pastors with families. The proposal under discussion would have required higher dues for ministers and other church workers and would have provided optional coverage for dependents — with individual congregations choosing to either bear that cost or pass it on to the employees. Responding to concerns voiced both privately and via social media, the board decided to keep the existing dues structure in place through 2014 but to increase dues on January 1.
Two seminaries welcomed Presbyterian teaching elders as their new presidents in 2013. Fuller Theological Seminary inaugurated Mark Labberton as its 5th president in November, and Princeton Theological Seminary installed M. Craig Barnes as its 7th president a few weeks before that.
One of the biggest religion stories of the year isn’t directly Presbyterian — but involves the way Christians around the world have embraced Pope Francis. His humble ways — greeting children, embracing a man disfigured by facial tumors, eschewing lavish quarters at the Vatican — along with his gestures of welcome across dividing lines have got people of faith thinking. What does it mean to really follow Jesus after all?
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