Protestantism predicates its strategy of ministry on the sacrosanct idea that the local congregation is the primary unit of mission, and the judicatory hardly dares suggest a larger overall strategy. As a result, whole inner city areas are abandoned, crucial churches beside university campuses are permitted ultra conservative ministries.—The Rev. Graydon McClellan, general presbyter of the New York City Presbytery, in New Frontiers of Christianity (1962).
For Presbyterians in New York, the frontiers of 1962 are the battle lines of 1964. Officials of the New York City Presbytery, which embraces 119 churches having a membership of 47,000, see the battle as one to keep the Protestant church alive in the inner city. Some Presbyterian churchmen, however, see it in terms of creeping centralization.
Last month thirteen members of the Rutgers Presbyterian Church announced that they were dissociating themselves from both their local church and the parent denomination, the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. It was reported that they were followed by over a score of other members.
In an open letter to all Presbyterians, the thirteen charged the presbytery with “totalitarian practices” and protested “an accumulation of intolerable conditions.” The presbytery replied that under church law the “valued members” of Rutgers were still Presbyterians until they joined another denomination.
The “intolerable conditions” extend over a period of two years, during which the presbytery:
—Removed the pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church, Dr. Stuart Merriam, after “long and prayerful consideration,” against the wishes of session and congregation. (Some of the presbytery’s critics interpreted Mr. McClellan’s phrase, “ultra conservative ministries,” as a reference to Dr. Merriam. Mr. McClellan denies this.)
—Removed the session at Broadway, charging it with “uncritical support” of Dr. Merriam (the General Assembly later upheld the ouster of Dr. Merriam but reinstated the session).
—Banned the services that the Broadway congregation held in the basement of the church while the presbytery’s supply minister was preaching upstairs.
—Accused Rutgers Presbyterian Church of giving improper support to the Broadway congregation by adding services to its schedule and allowing Dr. Merriam to conduct them. (For previous stories on Broadway and Rutgers see Christianity Today, May 25, 1962; June 8, 1962; and October 26, 1963.)
The pastor of Rutgers, Dr. George Nicholson, resigned in protest last year and is now back in his native Scotland. The church was not permitted to invite him back as a guest speaker.
Dr. Merriam, former pastor of Broadway, is in New Guinea, where he has just started a mission on his own. What support he has received so far has come from friends.
Back in New York, the presbytery is continuing to carry out overall strategy. Last December it closed down the Spring Street Presbyterian Church in lower Manhattan, against the wishes of its congregation, which was dwindling but fighting to stay alive. One member called the presbytery’s action “ecclesiastical euthanasia.”
Spring Street is a historic church. Beloved of Fanny Crosby, it had been a church of evangelism, revival, and missions since its founding in 1811. During the last half-century, however, it had gone steadily downhill. Membership in 1913 was 700; in 1962 it was 50. The building was deteriorating.
The presbytery felt that a restoration program would involve poor stewardship of available resources inasmuch as the commercial and industrial Spring Street area was not a viable situation. Selling the property, on the other hand, is expected to net up to $400,000.
“There was a vague hope on the part of the members that a ‘miracle’ of some sort would save them and give them new life,” ran one report.
The congregation says that one hundred years ago the church did experience just such new life. At that time both congregation and presbytery had abandoned hope when a prayer meeting was started in a Negro woman’s basement, and for much of its subsequent history, the church prospered greatly.
One informed observer said that there was a “fair prospect” that large apartment houses would be built in the area. (A City Planning Commission official put the chances of future residential development at about 50–50.)
A presbytery official said that the church was closed with the specific aim of scattering its congregation, and that after, say, two years, it might be reopened with a congregation more in line with overall strategy. Both the moderator of the presbytery, the Rev. Eugene S. Callender, and the general presbyter denied this.
“That is ridiculous—completely untrue, false, and malicious,” said Mr. Callender. “There was no congregation—that’s the point.”
Mr. McClellan said that closing a church is always regrettable, but that Presbyterian law gives the presbytery the right to dissolve a church without the consent of its congregation, since “people never give up who love their churches.”
The presbytery’s critics are worried about what they consider clear evidence of centralization. “The Presbyteries have gradually grabbed, little by little, more and more power …,” wrote Dr. Nicholson.
According to Mr. McClellan, the presbytery’s view is that population shifts, race problems, and language problems require a tight rein. “Protestantism has a hard time staying in this city. We do all we can to help the churches get the right leadership.” He sees no creeping centralization and no issue. “Some people are waking up to the fact they are Presbyterians,” he said.
Examining Mission Hospitals
Mission boards and administrators of mission hospitals are constantly confronted with new and changing problems, among these being any appearance of competition with government or private hospitals where they exist. Another is the type of hospital to be maintained—teaching institutions where national interns and residents are trained and general hospitals run primarily to meet the needs of a particular locality. And at all times they must strive to uphold the high professional and Christian standards that commend the institution to the people of the land in which it operates.
This month, in a move to determine how their money might best be used, Presbyterians dispatched a fact-finding team of medical experts to scrutinize their seven hospitals in Japan and Korea.
The team consists of Dr. L. Nelson Bell, veteran of twenty-five years’ service as a missionary surgeon in China and a member of the Presbyterian (U. S.) Board of World Missions; Dr. Warfield Firor, president of the American Surgical Association, who recently retired as head of the surgery department of Johns Hopkins University’s Medical School; and Dr. Theodore Stevenson, medical director of the United Presbyterian Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations. Dr. Bell is executive editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
Keeping In Step
A report presented to the second assembly of the East Asia Christian Conference asked world confessional groups to avoid acting unilaterally in dealings with Asian churches. The ecumenically oriented report cited a need for world confessional bodies to keep “in step with plans already made as a result of ecumenical consultation on both national and world levels.” The report was passed along to EACC member churches for “study.”
About 150 Protestant and Orthodox churchmen attended the assembly, held in Bangkok, Thailand. It was the first meeting of the EACC since the organizational conclave in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, in 1959.
A Racial Pilgrimage
Methodists for Church Renewal, a newly organized group of Methodist ministers and laymen in Detroit, is planning “freedom rides” and other demonstrations to impress on the church’s General Conference the “urgency of racial justice and fellowship within the Church.” Special buses bearing integration banners and slogans will make a “Pilgrimage to Pittsburgh,” where the quadrennial General Conference opens April 26. The renewal group, which a denominational spokesman described as “totally unofficial,” will charter buses from Southern cities as well as from Northern metropolitan areas. An all-night rally is planned in Pittsburgh.
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