Women were thrust a significant step closer toward ordination as deacons, elders, and ministers in the Presbyterian Church in the United States last month. The church’s five-day General Assembly in Huntington, West Virginia, moved to amend the Book of Church Order so that “both men and women shall be eligible to hold Church offices.” The issue generated spirited debate.
McQueen Quattlebaum, elder commissioner from South Carolina, reminded the 456 commissioners of the biblical statement that an elder “must be the husband of one wife” and challenged them to show how women could meet this biblical requirement for office.
The Rev. Archie Davis of Miami ended a fervent speech against the proposal by solemnly admonishing the assembly that there is “a big distinction between the laying on of hands on a man and on a woman.” The remark brought down the house.
In spite of such efforts the motion to send the amendment down to the church’s eighty presbyteries for “advice and consent” passed by a 249–173 vote. Forty-one of the eighty presbyteries must ratify the proposed amendment before it can become effective.
Dr. William H. McCorkle, minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Bristol, Tennessee, was chosen moderator. His nomination was made by Dr. Sherrard Rice of Columbia, South Carolina, and seconded by Dr. L. Nelson Bell of Montreat, North Carolina. McCorkle, a former Marine Corps chaplain, was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and an Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon with four combat stars and is the most decorated chaplain in the history of the United States Navy. Former secretary of the denomination’s evangelism program, McCorkle admits he had strong resistance to entering the Christian ministry during his early years in the insurance business, and vividly recalls the night when he “gave in.” His only opponent for what is regarded as the highest office of his church was the Rev. Frank H. Caldwell, president of the church’s Louisville Theological Seminary, who is known as one of the denomination’s chief ecumenical spirits. McCorkle’s victory by a narrow 229–218 vote was interpreted by many as a triumph of the more conservative forces in the church. Others saw it as a sign that issues in the church are not always determined by extensive and careful planning. Prior to the assembly, pictures of Caldwell—big ones and little ones—had been distributed to the press.
In the opening address of the assembly, retiring Moderator Dr. Edward D. Grant told his audience to keep “eyes front.” Warning them not to play ostrich and bury their heads in the sands of the past, he pointed to profound social changes in the South and to that moving of the Spirit of God throughout the Church which is usually associated with Pentecostalism.
An overture from the Presbytery of Central Mississippi requesting the denomination’s withdrawal from the National Council of Churches was considered by the assembly. Delegates leveled criticism against the council’s general theological climate and its alleged politically leftist posture. The council’s pamphlet “Called to Responsible Freedom: The Meaning of Sex in the Christian Life” was characterized by the Rev. R. C. Duhs of Vicksburg, Mississippi, as “blasphemous.” Proponents of affiliation with the National Council also admitted concern over some of the council’s actions, but urged that the only choice was affiliation or isolation. They also put forth the argument, which the assembly later adopted, that “our representation on the National Council of Churches may serve as a corrective for any excesses that may ever arise.” The perennial battle over withdrawal was settled by a 303–88 vote to remain in the council. Last year the same question was similarly decided by a 294–91 vote.
A decision to continue conversations with the Reformed Church of America looking to negotiations for organic unity passed easily.
A small storm center turned round the question of continuing conversations with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Fear was rampant that continuance of such conversations might chill the ardor of the Reformed Church of America for union with the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The Permanent Committee on Inter-Church Relations proposed that such conversations be continued with the UPUSA and with “other Presbyterian and Reformed communions toward reaching an understanding of the similarities and differences … in order that the Presbyterian Church U.S. may better equip itself for negotiations toward union with any or all of these churches.” When the proposal was amended so as to read: “… any or all of these churches committed to the Reformed Faith,” it passed with one audible dissenting vote.
Fear of unfavorable response in the Reformed Church in America was largely exploded when the assembly rejected various requests that the Committee of Twelve, now carrying on conversations with the RCA with an eye toward merger, be empowered with the consent of the RCA to include the UPUSA in its conversations.
An overture from the Presbytery of Potosi requesting the assembly to seek full participation in the so-called Blake-Pike plan was also rejected.
A record budget of $9,813,180, an increase of 1.7 per cent over the 1963 budget, was adopted for 1964. The assembly voted an increase of $100,000 over the proposed budget for World Missions, the largest increase over any proposed budget item in recent years.
In a Sunday morning worship service held in Huntington’s Keith-Albee Theater, the Rev. William A. Benfield, Jr., delivered a sermon on the topic “We Have Something To Say.” With brilliant style, he preached as though it were true. In obvious reference to the race problem in the South he summoned his church to ignore the warnings, “Be careful. Tensions are tight. Go slow.” He likened the church to an “ambulance in a sin-torn world, dragging along behind the issues, picking up the wounded, making bandages, when the Church of Jesus Christ should be out on the front lines, facing the issues, getting hit in the face.”
Criticism from a white commissioner that Negro commissioners were not allowed equal dining facilities in a local hotel were soon snuffed out. A Negro commissioner declared, “We have been treated royally here … by the local people, and by this great Church.” Another Negro commissioner said, “No discrimination has been shown us,” and added that the Standing Committee on Assembly Operation’s “present way of handling this is sufficient.” The committee’s policy, which the 1963 assembly reaffirmed, is to meet only in cities where it is assured in advance that all its commissioners regardless of color will enjoy equal use of lodging and dining facilities. Word was received the following day that the hotel in question was now making its facilities available to all on an equal basis.
In a decision on capital punishment, the church modified its 1961 report, which it had sent to the churches for study. A statement which asserted that such punishment “should not be retained” was replaced by the declaration that capital punishment “is a form of punishment … which raises serious questions concerning the responsibilities of Christians.”
The 103rd General Assembly was guest of the First Presbyterian Church of Huntington—celebrating its 125th anniversary this year—and its pastor, the Rev. Andrew Reid Bird, Jr. The delegates were cared for superbly.
The assembly’s meeting and discussions were marked by what seems to be a traditional congeniality and Christian goodwill. On occasions when differences were sharply expressed, generous and spontaneous apologies followed. Through all the meetings humor ran rich and deep.
This fine humor, however, may curdle a bit when most needed. In response to a questionnaire sent out by the General Assembly’s Permanent Committee on Christian Relations, 42 out of 1178 responding churches asserted they had received Negro members, 1014 said they had not, and 122 gave no answer. In response to another question: Does the Session make any effort to reach Negroes and other non-whites for membership in your Church?, 61 churches answered Yes, 955 answered No, and 156 did not answer at all. The assembly reaffirmed its ten-year-old stand against segregation and urged that “every Presbyterian institution, whether church, school, orphanage … boards and agencies … abolish all racial barriers and references and that this non-discriminatory policy be made known to the public.”
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