The 176th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. met last month in a spirit sometimes reminiscent of 1776. Below the Mason-Dixon line for the first time in decades, the United Presbyterians announced from Oklahoma City continuing concern with and involvement in the problems of the nation and the world.

For the first time in its history the General Assembly elected a Negro moderator, Dr. Edler G. Hawkins; he was chosen by a 465–368 vote over the Rev. A. Ray Cartlidge. Hawkins, a native New Yorker, has been pastor for twenty-six years of St. Augustine Church in the Bronx, a church which he organized with nine members after graduating from New York’s Union Theological Seminary. The church now has more than 1,000 members. In a nominating speech Attorney J. Vernon Lloyd of Danville, California, said that Hawkins’s election would be “more eloquent than any sermon,” and Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, the denomination’s stated clerk, interpreted Hawkins’s election as indicative of the direction the church wants to go and the measure to which “we have become color blind.”

This diagnosis proved correct. The 841 commissioners of the 3.3-million-member denomination adopted amendments to its form of government that make it a violation of church law for a local congregation to exclude anyone from its membership because of race. Steps were also taken to wipe out racially segregated presbyteries, one all-Indian and some all-Negro, by 1967. The assembly also set a precedent in deciding that its boards and agencies, as well as standing program committees of synods, presbyteries, and sessions, may, after obtaining approval in each instance, become members of non-ecclesiastical agencies to learn from them and work cooperatively with them. This will permit these units of the denomination to participate in and even join various racial organizations and their demonstrations.

The commissioners also issued a call to “all church bodies, pastors, and members of the United Presbyterian Church to re-double their efforts to support and be involved in those groups—church, private, and governmental—that are working to bring about racial freedom and justice.”

The pronouncement of the 172nd General Assembly on civil disobedience—which does not in every instance forbid civil disobedience—was reaffirmed after the assembly was told that in some cases the best way to test the legality of a law was to break it and thereby bring it to the courts for adjudication.

Moderator Hawkins told reporters that he had participated in civil rights demonstrations and would do so again if the necessity arose.

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On the last day of the assembly an overture from the Presbytery of West Tennessee reached the floor requesting that the church “refrain from inviting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and any and all others who share his persuasion to disregard and violate constitutional laws, to speak at its sessions”; the presbytery further requested that the church “remind the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake … to cease and desist from all violations of duly enacted laws of this land.…” The assembly decided to take “no action” on the overture and instead commended “the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake for his courageous action and witness in the area of race relations; … we affirm his right and his duty as Stated Clerk to speak and act in consonance with the pronouncements and actions of the General Assembly.…” A prolonged, dramatic silence greeted the call for the negative vote, indicating the intended rebuke had been turned into a unanimous commendation of Blake for his action in a segregated Maryland park which led to his arrest.

The assembly expressed itself on other social matters: it said that “acute poverty” should be recognized “as a gravely moral issue” in an affluent society where more than five million families live on less than $38 a week, and urged its Board of National Missions “to provide leadership in initiating specific denominational strategies of action against poverty.” The testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere was condemned; hope was expressed for negotiations that will ban underground testings; and a summons was issued to all the governments of the world that are not yet signatories of the nuclear test ban. A call was also issued to the United States government “to stimulate world trade for the benefit of the less-developed areas.” Another call was issued to President Johnson to convene a White House conference on community development and housing in order to “focus national attention on the overlooked and unmet needs of urban areas.”

Despite floor protests that it violated the principle of separation of church and state and was utterly unrealistic in our present world, the assembly adopted a proposal that “urges the President and Congress to make preparations for the conversion of our military economy to a peacetime economy and for the retraining that may be necessary.”

The church reaffirmed its position on prayer and Bible reading in the public schools as unconstitutional. Amid spirited opposition the assembly reaffirmed its support in principle of “federal tax aid to public elementary and secondary school systems”; amid even more spirited opposition it declared support for a “program of federal aid to public school systems that would encourage shared-time arrangements to permit students enrolled in private or parochial schools to obtain a portion of their education in the public schools.”

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In the area of public housing, the assembly urged the various judicatories of the church “to analyze federally assisted low and middle income housing programs in local communities, and to press for adequate administration and creative use of existing programs to achieve housing on an integrated basis.”

A seven-point proposal on smoking presented by the Commission on Church and Society was adopted; the proposal expresses concern about the health hazard of “widespread use of cigarettes” and misleading advertising, and calls for establishment and support of “withdrawal clinics.” Added to the commission’s report was an amendment that provides a program to educate youth on the hazards of smoking. A floor amendment calling on the assembly to summon the church’s membership to “voluntary abstinence” was defeated.

United Presbyterians contributed almost $298 million to their church in 1963, an increase of $9 million over the 1962 figure. Wide concern was expressed over the spiritual condition of the church, which in 1963 experienced a drop in infant baptisms, in adult baptisms, in church school pupils and teachers, and in students for the ministry. The Standing Committee on Theological Education announced that “84 per cent of our churches do not presently have any candidates for church vocations.”

The Rev. Robert H. Stephens of Summit, New Jersey, retiring chairman of the Commission on Evangelism, declared that the “slipping statistics” might have something to do with the fact that the church, having done all kinds of good things for people, has perhaps “done everything for them except offering them Christ.” He called for an evangelism that pleads for decisions, conversion, and nurture in the Church. Against the claim that “everything we do is evangelism,” he countered, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

United Presbyterians have been conducting a study of the nature of the ministry, including the matter of ordination, for the past six years. A special committee assigned to this study reported that its proposals were “not as radical as the times and the Gospel demand.” Its report also declared that “anyone who has followed” its “interim reports must realize that it intends to recommend to the General Assembly and to the presbyteries a change in the confessional standards of the Church which will modify the legal authority of the West-minister Confession and Catechisms. But at present our Form of Government is basically dependent on those confessional standards and could not be thoroughly revised without revising the Confession as well.”

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The report declared, “It is now quite obvious that a congregation-centered parish as an institutional pattern cannot fully meet the needs of an urban society.” To meet the need of a more diversified ministry, the committee suggested only two ordinations: one for the “ministers of the church catholic” and one for “ruling elders.” The ordination of deacons would be eliminated, and ministers who served in “administrative” functions would be called “deacons.” This would make, for example, the church’s stated clerk, Eugene Carson Blake, a deacon.

The whole matter was referred for further study, but it serves to point up the massive theological fermentation going on, not only in the United Presbyterian Church but in many other American churches as well, concerning the nature of the ministry and the Church.

For the first time in its history, the assembly received a Roman Catholic prelate, Bishop Victor Reed of the Oklahoma City-Tulsa Diocese, who greeted the commissioners as “brothers in Christ” and commended the church for its contributions to Christian unity.

In a press conference in which Moderator Hawkins told reporters that the civil rights bill was a “good package of minimums,” he also expressed his desire, as moderator, to see the Roman Pope. He thought it would promote a “climate of spirit, contact, and knowledge of each other” and would be a “tremendous experience.”

The assembly authorized its Committee of Nine to participate in drawing up a plan of union with the Consultation on Church Union. This consultation grew out of the so-called Blake-Pike proposal of 1960 for a united Protestant church, “truly catholic, truly reformed and truly evangelical”: it now includes six denominations, which comprise one-third of American Protestants. In making the authorization, the assembly retained the right to reject the plan “if the bases of the consultation’s proposed plan were later judged unsatisfactory.”

The assembly noted that the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. (Southern) has put to the Reformed Church of America, with whom it is discussing union, the question of “advisability” of expanding this discussion to include the United Presbyterians and other Reformed churches. In view of this development, the assembly decided to select a committee of twelve, if the Reformed Church of America is willing to include the United Presbyterians in its current discussions with the Southern Presbyterians.

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In a letter to Southern Presbyterians the 176th General Assembly declared that it has “directed its Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations to cooperate with your Commission on Inter-Church Relations and to give fullest attention to these conversations throughout this year and to report back to our 177th General Assembly the conditions conducive to union and that make union imperative now.”

Methodist Merger

The African Methodist Episcopal Church, in a resolution adopted at its quadrennial General Conference in Cincinnati last month, called for speedy completion of plans for merger with two other Methodist Negro bodies. They are the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME Church, with some 1,500,000 members, is the largest of the three. The Zion Church has 770,000 communicants and the CME, about 450,000. Present union plans have a target date of 1968.

Meanwhile in Indianapolis, where the Zion Church was holding its quadrennial session, an invitation to merge with the Evangelical United Brethren Church and The Methodist Church was extended by Bishop Reuben H. Mueller, EUB president. The EUB Church has 758,000 members, and The Methodist Church has 10.2 million.

Toward ‘A Brighter Sunday’

A disgusted commissioner at last month’s Church of Scotland General Assembly was heard to lament: “Fancy spending two hours discussing a piffling subject like the Sabbath when there are far more important things on the agenda.” To which could have been made the crushing retort of the small boy told that millions of people in China would be glad to have those prunes: “Name one!”

With perhaps one exception, no other item during the assembly’s nine-day deliberations raised as much interest as the Christian use of Sunday, included in the report of the Church and Nation Committee. The convener, the Rev. John R. Gray, is always good value, and as usual he went straight to the heart of the matter. His committee had again been widely misunderstood. The report (published in advance) did not advocate a continental Sunday, nor did it seek to revise the Westminster Confession. Mr. Gray then made an extraordinary attack on Britain’s most popular daily, which is owned by an aged peer of Canadian origin. “I would not wish to spoil anyone’s eighty-fifth birthday,” he cried, “but that man’s newspaper has grossly and persistently misrepresented the report.” (Next morning that man’s newspaper unrepentantly said that if it owed Mr. Gray an apology it was “for being too slow in catching up with his shifting attitudes.”)

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The convener said his committee could find no warrant in Scripture for the prohibition on any day of the week of quiet and healthful recreation involving no labor for other people, nor for the transfer of regulations applicable to the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Lord’s Day.

Evangelicalism is not always happy in its spokesmen on such occasions, but in this case what was said from that viewpoint was said cogently, winsomely, and with biblical authority behind it. The significant feature was that the speakers were not (as might have been expected) from the more conservative Highlands, but were Lowlanders, and of the younger generation. They pointed out that what Mr. Gray’s report dealt with was a strict legalistic Sabbath which simply does not exist in Scotland. Whatever church and nation were suffering from, said the Rev. George M. Philip of Glasgow, it was not a rigid Sabbatarianism that was strangling true religious life. The committee, he alleged, “paints a picture of the population slaving day after day and being denied a breath of air and a moment of ease at the weekends.” Thus, in the name of pleasure, Sunday with all its moral and spiritual significance was disappearing from the lives even of church members. The Rev. Eric Alexander of New-milns charged the committee with trying to become in the report as little different from the world as possible, and added: “That policy has consistently failed since Lot tried it in Sodom.”

The report nevertheless won the vote. Despite Mr. Gray’s disclaimers to the contrary, subsequent newspaper headlines showed unmistakably what editors had understood, and what readers will understand, from the assembly’s approval: that the Kirk had given its blessing to “Sabbath golfers” and to “a brighter Sunday”—whatever that means.

Another row blew up over an innocent-looking deliverance wherein the Inter-Church Relations Committee invited the assembly to “welcome” the continuance of informal meetings with Roman Catholics in Scotland. Dr. Harry Whitley (who proudly quoted an ex-moderator’s description of him as “the greatest non-theological factor in Church disunity”) wanted the meetings merely “noted,” because they had profoundly disturbed many ordinary people. He was rash enough to quote John Knox, a predecessor of his at St. Giles’. That was enough to bring the heavy artillery of a line of former moderators to bear against him, in the name of “charity.”

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One of them, Dr. A. C. Craig, famous for his 1901 Vatican visit, said that critics of the meetings who thought Presbyterians were selling the pass “simply do not know what is going on.” It was an unhappily worded statement, for much of the criticism derives from the fact that the meetings concerned are held in secret. Then, incredibly, Dr. George MacLeod, as staunch an ecumenist as ever set foot on Iona, rose to support Dr. Whitley, who, he revealed, had even asked the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Edinburgh to preach in his pulpit. The debate moved along intriguingly till the professional Protestants took a hand and predictably ruined their case by gross overstatement, making the assembly “welcome” the meetings after all.

Another tense debate evolved when a young minister, the Rev. J. L. Scott, moved “that the assembly instruct the Panel on Doctrine to investigate the issues involved in Church members who are under vows to Christ, being members also of societies involving secret ceremonies and secret binding oaths.” He frankly admitted that he was thinking especially of the Masonic Lodge, but disclaimed any animus against it—and no one who heard his engagingly candid speech could sense any prejudice.

Disclosing that some of the most loyal members of his own congregation were Masons, he pointed out that the Church of Scotland had never given guidance to men who had no way of knowing what the vows were before they came to take them. Pressure was often put upon young ministers to join, with the suggestion that here was a way to get alongside men. “Ought we who have been set free by Jesus Christ,” he asked, “to risk our liberty by entering on such vows?” Masons might argue that their vows included nothing incompatible with civil, moral, or religious rights—but that was the assurance of Masonry. The Christian looked to his church for guidance, because “for a Christian there is nothing that cannot be brought to Christ’s standard of judgment.”

After some discussion in which several elder statesmen of the Kirk confessed and defended their Masonic links and asked the house to reject Mr. Scott’s proposed investigation, the vote substantially favored him. A piquant factor is that the Panel on Doctrine charged to carry out the enquiry is about equally divided, for its convener and half of its members are Masons. The panel will report at next year’s assembly.

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The assembly had earlier: elected Dr. Duncan Fraser of Invergordon as moderator in succession to Professor James S. Stewart: set up a special committee to consider the possibility of directing ministers because of the Kirk’s 140 vacant charges; declined to set up another special committee despite Dr. George MacLeod’s customary eloquent plea to review the issues raised by modern war; heard that the new notorious incident of the nude at last year’s Edinburgh Festival was merely “a silly piece of pretentious vulgarity”; and heard from its Foreign Missions convener that for the second year in succession no minister was in training at the Kirk’s missionary college.

Meanwhile, across the street in the Free Church Assembly the new moderator, the Rev. Angus Finlayson of North Tolsta, attacked the national Kirk’s attitude to Sunday, saying she had shirked her duty, “capitulating to the clamour of the age and to the claims of the modern mind.”

Regarding the ecumenical movement Mr. Finlayson said: “The Pope has assumed the role of a director of traffic. Not long ago we commemorated the Reformation and its leaders … who in their day directed religious traffic … back to God and his Word. Now Rome is rerouting the creedless churches of Christendom back to what she regards as the one true church, and foremost in the van are those who but a short time ago vied with us in celebrating the liberty won for them by the Reformation.” The Free Kirk Assembly was further enlivened when the chair in which sat the assistant clerk collapsed and he was deposited on the floor. He was unhurt.


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