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Confessing Church folk gather at Montreat

250 attend forum on Confessing Church Movement

"Scripture is our authority ... and we're not willing to compromise"

by John Filiatreau, Presbyterian News Service


MONTREAT, NC - 13-September-2001 - More than 250 earnest Presbyterians strolled through rain-washed rhododendrons Sept. 9 to Gaither Chapel of Montreat Presbyterian Church for a Sunday-afternoon forum on the Confessing Church Movement (CCM).

Most participants seemed already committed to the movement, a fast-growing Presbyterian renewal campaign that in six months has won the endorsements of 867 Presbyterian Church (USA) sessions in 45 states and Puerto Rico. The atmosphere was vaguely subversive, celebratory if not triumphal.

An announcement from the host pastor, the Rev. Richard White, that "this is not a presbytery-sponsored event" brought laughter and applause. Most of those on hand were aware of the pre-forum squabble that ensued after pastors and clerks of session of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina received letters of invitation printed on the letterhead of the presbytery's Evangelism Division, suggesting that the event was organized and supported by the presbytery.

That letter was written and dispatched by two members of the Evangelism Division who also are supporters of the movement. They said any confusion they may have caused about the sponsorship of the event was inadvertent.

A presbytery source who asked not to be identified said there was "no doubt whatsoever" that organizers of the forum intentionally misled people about whether it had presbytery support.

The presbytery responded with a letter of its own, in which Executive Presbyter/Stated Clerk J. William Taber III pointed out in headline type that the forum "is NOT a Presbytery sponsored event," and went on to specify that it was "not sponsored by, designed by, supervised by, or financially supported by any division or committee" of the presbytery. Taber wrote that the presbytery is planning "a future event ... designed to offer different points of view and a time for questions and answers."

During the Sept. 9 forum, White was straightforward, telling his audience: "(The forum) is sponsored by pastors of our presbytery, representatives of the movement we've come to know as the Confessing Church Movement. We're part of this movement; we're not unbiased. ... (But) we're not here to sign you up today. This is not a strategy session."

White said organizers of the event "did not want the intensity of a debate."

This "dueling letters" exchange - which dramatizes the mutual suspicions of supporters of the campaign (don't call them leaders; they say their movement has none, except the Holy Spirit) and non-supporters (don't call them opponents; they say they aren't against the movement, but have concerns about how it may affect the denomination) - relates to one ambiguity among many:

The panelists in Montreat talked about the risk and fear of a schism in the PC(USA), but called their movement a "positive" grass-roots campaign whose supporters are loyal to the denomination and determined to "call the church back home."

They said the movement has no "political" aims, but acknowledged that it would be "naïve" to think it isn't political in some respects, or that it won't play a role in deciding "who controls the money" in the PC(USA).

They said there is no consensus among member churches about withholding per-capita and mission funds from the denomination, but some congregations are very likely to do so.

They said they don't presume to judge other people's morality or accuse them of sin, but do believe that Scripture makes clear that homosexual behavior and other forms of sexual activity outside of marriage are sinful.

They said their movement is not "organized" - "not yet," in any case - although "leadership is emerging" spontaneously.

And they denied that their movement has been "shanghaied" by the Presbyterian Lay Committee and its publication, The Presbyterian Layman, while admitting that that stridently conservative group has become the CCM's principal supporter and operates "the best (online) site for getting up-to-date information on the movement."

One panelist said: "I don't see any way the Layman can not be behind this movement. Of course the Layman is going to support this."

Jack Adams, a writer/editor at The Presbyterian Layman, rose to say that the Lay Committee and its publications support the movement because "we love the Lord and we love his church." He quoted Lay Committee Chairman Bob Howard as having said of the nascent movement, "I wish I'd thought of that!" Adams said The Layman isn't leading the movement, and added, "We'd like to know where it's going, too."

"We are not saluting any renewal organization," White said. "We are not getting our marching orders from any renewal group right now."

White said the computerized slide presentation used during the forum was taken from the Internet, and "may have been" a creation of Parker Williamson, chief executive officer of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and editor in chief of its publications. (He said he left out about 20 of the original 73 slides that were "inappropriate" and may have offended some viewers.)

"This is not a power grab," White said in a later interview.

The Confessing Church Movement began in April, when the session of Summit Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania's Beaver-Butler Presbytery adopted a three-fold statement - a "confession," in historic Presbyterian parlance - affirming:

  1. the lordship of Jesus
  2. the authority of the Bible and
  3. the sinfulness of same-gender sex and other sexual behavior outside of marriage.

While presenting the slide presentation, White said confessions of faith historically "do not appear in a vacuum, but in response to cultural accommodation." This one, he said, appeared after the PC(USA)'s General Assembly "called for the repeal of our ordination standards."

Sam Hale, the pastor of Cullowhee Presbyterian Church, said his church didn't join the movement in reaction to anything done by the GA: "Our session signed on in May, before the GA met. I thought of it as something exciting and positive I can confirm, and the session passed it almost immediately. Our problem is here today because we have not believed in Jesus. ... I have heard Presbyterians say that Jesus was the Christ 2,000 years ago, but we're not sure who is Christ now."

Hale said Presbyterian ministers and lay people must devote themselves to "greater work, including bringing healing to people, significant emotional healing." He said homosexuals must be helped to repent of their sin and to change their behavior. "We see students all the time who are confused about their sexual identity, but we can't tell them, 'Jesus has blessed your neurosis,'" he said. "We must not bless what the Scriptures call sin."

Tim Meredith, the pastor of Oak Forest Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC, said he supports the CCM because "I want to hold up the cross of Jesus Christ." Laura Long, interim pastor at Clinchfield Presbyterian Church in Black Mountain, NC, said the movement is "a way to express the depth and the joy of our faith, an easy and natural thing to do. ... I don't see it as divisive. I choose to see it as a positive thing."

Bill Campbell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, NC, said: "The real issue, the deeper crisis in our denomination, is not about the ordination of homosexuals (but) ... the standard and norm of our talk about God. It's also an issue about salvation." He said "sexual anarchy" is alienation from God, and by tolerating it, "the church comes under the judgment of God."

Lee Kruse, a pulpit supply pastor in the presbytery, said people at churches she visits "are surprised (that) I preach the Word of God; I preach from the Bible. People often tell me, 'We have not heard the truth preached from the pulpit for years.' ... Scripture on many of these issues is very, very clear."

During a question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion, a woman asked: "Why is it that you had to pick sex as the litmus test for what is a holy life?" Directly addressing her own pastor, the Rev. Richard Burnett, interim pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Waynesville, NC, she added: "I have just recently gotten divorced. I wonder if I meet your litmus test, Richard? Will you ignore whatever I did Friday night?"

"I do want to know about the life that every elder leads," Burnett replied. "... I have to stick to the Word."

Meredith responded that sex is "just the issue that we've decided to take a stand on. … This issue has been forced upon us. I'd prefer not to be talking about sex so much, but others in our denomination have been attacking Christian standards about sexuality."

"I hate talking about sex," said White. "It's embarrassing." He agreed with the questioner that "greed is just as wrong as homosexuality; Jesus said far more about money."

Another questioner noted that the Presbyterian Lay Committee has denounced this year's GA as "an apostate gathering," and added: "If that's not divisive, I don't know what is." He said he doesn't want to be used as "a pawn in a political movement, and concluded: "I'm against this. I don't want my church saying, 'We know what it is to have a holy life.'"

Gerrit Dawson, who succeeded Williamson as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lenoir, NC, responded: "I certainly agree with you that we're all sinners. ... The sins in my heart are enough to stop any 10 trains." Similarly, Kruse identified herself as a former atheist and "chief of sinners."

In a later interview, White called himself "a recovering Pharisee" and said of any CCM supporters' inclination to a adopt a "holier-than-thou" attitude: "I think this is something we've got to be on our faces before God about. .... If we understand grace, who are we to point a finger?" On the other hand, he said, the faithful are called by God to take "a hard line" and point out "with brutal honesty that God has standards that we must honor."

"Who are we to know what the mind of God is?" Kruse asked hypothetically, adding: "Thank God, he has made some things clear to us."

One of those things made clear in Scripture, Dawson said, is that the church can't go along with homosexuals who demand, "Bless me in this; tell me it's a gift from God."

"We're trying to bring us back to the only real basis on which we're unified," said Campbell. "In love we wish to take a stand. I want to be part of the church. Let's also be willing to take a stand on the truth."

"To stay silent," said Hale, "is to watch the church go down the tubes."

In response to an audience member who asked, "What happens if these amendments pass (referring to Amendment A, which would remove a requirement from the Book of Order that candidates for ministry be "faithful in marriage or chaste in singleness"), Burnett gave his opinion that "it's a real possibility that Amendment A will pass," and Hale said:

"If 285,000 people (a rough estimate of the number of Presbyterians who belong to confessing churches) took prayer seriously, I suspect we could keep this amendment from passing."

One member of the audience identified himself as a retired (Presbyterian) pastor from Gainesville, GA, who "drove up just to be encouraged by this meeting." He added: "I am encouraged to see these young ministers on the platform, young ministers standing tall for Jesus." (White guessed that the panelists' average age was about 40.)

Asked what lay people can do in support of the movement, Burnett advised: "Study the issues. ... Become articulate about these matters. Stand by your pastors because some of them may be targets. ... Also, come to Atlanta."

He was referring to the first national meeting of the confessing churches, scheduled for next February. He said organizers have lined up "a wonderful range of scholars and pastors, including Theresa Latini, a former lesbian." Latini represents an organization called One by One that helps "repentant" homosexuals turn away from sexual sin and become heterosexuals.

Several of the panelists expressed pastoral concern for homosexuals, and nodded in agreement when an audience member said: "This (movement) doesn't have anything to do with hating anybody. ... If Jesus Christ came back today, he would be in the AIDS clinics."

Each participant in the forum received a packet of printed materials that included essays by a number of CCM supporters; directions for joining the movement; a copy of Summit Presbyterian's confessional statement; and a simpler model resolution for sessions to consider.

Asked about the possibility that the CCM will lead to a split of the PC(USA), White said: "I've had more conversations in the last six months than in the 12 years I've been here with people who want us to resign our membership. They say, 'Richard, when are we pulling out?' But we can't just willy-nilly say we're out. We have to ask ourselves, What is God's call in our life."

"Far from being schismatics," he said, "the Confessing Church Movement is what is enabling us to remain in the denomination. ... Scripture is not the on-ramp of Christian life, it's the whole highway. … Scripture is our rule of authority, and we're not willing to compromise. ...

"Is that going to split the church? I hope not. I don't know what the Lord's going to do. My heart just breaks when I think about a schism ... (but) sometimes I'm afraid that two polar opposites are not going to be able to come together on common ground."

White said he was pleased with the turnout for the forum, but would have been happy "even if just five had turned out."


GA actions ratified (or not) by  the presbyteries   

A number of the most important actions of the 219th General Assembly have now been acted upon by the presbyteries, confirming most of them as amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order.

We provided resources to help inform the reflection and debate, along with updates on the voting.

Our three areas of primary interest have been:

bullet Amendment 10-A, which  removes the current ban on lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender persons being considered as possible candidates for ordination as elder or ministers.  Approved!

bullet Amendment 10-2, which would add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions.  Disapproved, because as an amendment to the Book of Confessions it needed a 2/3 vote, and did not receive that.

bullet Amendment 10-1, which  adopts the new Form of Government that was approved by the Assembly.   Approved.

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Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, politics, culture, travel, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


John Shuck’s Shuck and Jive

A Presbyterian minister, currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., blogs about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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