Amid rising mountains and falling rains the 104th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States convened last month in Montreat, North Carolina. While the nation struggled on Capitol Hill with civil rights, 456 commissioners of what is popularly known as the Southern Presbyterian church struggled at the church’s Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains to grant the Negro religious rights within their churches. The mountains were blue, the days gray, the issues critical. Although only one-tenth of 1 per cent of the church’s membership is Negro, many of the assembly’s decisions concerned race, and many others were haunted by a racial specter that played a real but unspoken role in the assembly’s decisions.
In what may prove to be a historic assembly, the commissioners faced the problem of Negro presbyteries “which occupy the same district as that of other presbyteries,” and “instructed” these latter presbyteries “to bring their procedures into line with the constitution of our church, and to take into their membership and under their care all of the ministers and churches … within the district for which they bear particular responsibility.” Each of these presbyteries was also instructed “to present a report of its progress to the General Assembly at its next meeting.” The Rev. J. Reed Miller of Jackson, Mississippi, decried this as “enforced integration” and moved that “instruct” be changed to “request.” The motion was rejected. There were indications that the action to “instruct” will be challenged as being contrary to Presbyterian polity.
The synods of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana were also instructed “to take steps to dissolve” the denomination’s three Negro presbyteries. Some commissioners feared that the order to integrate might cause some local churches to leave the denomination.
The assembly adopted the “policy of holding its annual meetings only in churches willing to accept all persons for worship and membership in the congregation … and further, that this policy become effective with respect to the 1967 meeting of the Assembly.” A strong attempt to make this policy apply to the 1965 assembly meeting failed. Had it succeeded, it would have necessitated cancellation of plans to meet in the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis in 1965.
Later a letter was adopted to request the Memphis church, whose pastor, Dr. Henry Edward Russell, is a brother of Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, to bring its practice in line with the denomination’s position. The decision to send the letter was later withdrawn.
The assembly voted to add to its Directory of Worship the statement, “No one shall be excluded from participation in public Worship in the Lord’s House on grounds of race, color or class.” To become part of the denomination’s Book of Church Order, this action must be approved by a majority of the church’s eighty presbyteries.
A pastoral letter to the local session of each congregation was also adopted. It deals with ways of solving racial problems on the local level. One Southern minister told the meeting that if he read the letter to his sessions, some of his elders would ask, “What is wrong—don’t you want to live here any more?” The letter was adopted unanimously.
Dr. Felix B. Gear, professor of theology at the church’s Columbia Seminary at Decatur, Georgia, was chosen as moderator of the assembly. At a press interview, he asserted that the country “needs something in the way of a civil rights bill.” He also declared he had no objection to members of the church engaging in the proper kind of civil rights demonstrations. He added, “I don’t think it’s the business of the church to tell legislators how to secure justice, but it’s our business to say justice should be secured.”
In one resolution the assembly asserted that it “does hereby deplore the unlawful manipulation and use of children of juvenile age by adults in the advancement of local or national programs regardless of the nature or purpose of such programs.”
By an overwhelming vote the commissioners rejected a recommendation of the Standing Committee to participate in the NCC-sponsored Church Assembly for Civil Rights in Washington, D. C.
In his “State of the Church” report Dr. William H. McCorkle, retiring moderator, called the racial problem the “paramount issue of our Church.”
The assembly adopted a record benevolence budget of $9,968,380, an increase of $155,200 over the 1964 figure.
Recommendations were adopted urging that the religious training of children is the “primary responsibility” of church and home and that school authorities should permit students to engage in some form of “voluntary” devotional activity. For the rest, the assembly took the position that the recent Supreme Court decisions on prayer and Bible readings are “theologically sound.”
Plain Words On Civil Rights
The Interreligious Convocation on Civil Rights in Washington, D. C., last month was considered an impressive show of support by the major faiths of the civil rights bill.
Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, whites and Negroes, were on the platform and in the audience at the convocation, held in the gymnasium of Georgetown University. Senator Hubert Humphrey sat almost directly in front of the pulpit in the front row, and four other congressmen were in the audience.
The three main speakers were the Most Rev. Lawrence Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore; Rabbi Uri Miller, president of the Synagogue Council of America; and Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, chairman of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches.
After the meeting, leaders of the convocation were invited to the White House for a talk with President Johnson.
The audience was attentive throughout, but when Dr. Blake rose to speak with revivalist fervor, it burst into repeated applause.
“The crisis of the nation is no more severe than the crisis in our churches and synagogues,” said Dr. Blake. “How can any of us ministers, priests or rabbis, stand safely eloquent behind our pulpits, reflecting the moral confusions of American culture in our tactful, balanced prose when God is thundering at his people, calling them to repent and be saved? Never in the life of the nation have the churches and synagogues through their best leadership been so fully united intellectually on any moral issue confronting the American people. But such intellectual unity will reveal the weakness and irrelevance of our pulpits, unless from them we speak.…
“Our task as churchmen is not to be expert in legislation or to tell the Congress how to legislate. But it is our task and it is our competence to cut through the fog of immorality that threatens every American home and every church and synagogue, and to say so that everyone can hear and heed—‘Thus saith the Lord’—‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ ”
Archbishop Shehan said in his address, “Through its Congress, this nation is laboring to give a more complete expression in terms of law to our original vision and commitment. Only in an order of justice shall we have peace. Only in peace shall we have national unity. Only in national unity can we accomplish our difficult tasks.”
Rabbi Miller said, “The American people have been delinquent for a hundred years in putting into practice the principles of the emancipation declaration. We cannot tolerate intolerance either morally or practically.”
The crowd that filed out of the gymnasium was unaware that a few students had tried unsuccessfully to stage a protest against the terms of the present civil rights bill. Nor did many in the crowd see police remove a wooden cross found near the gym. The charred remains of cloth fastened to it indicated it had been burning.
The commissioners were faced with six overtures requesting withdrawal from the National Council of Churches. Most of the objections to continued affiliation opposed the actions of the NCC’s Commission on Religion and Race. The assembly expressed concern that “some of the activities” are “ill advised, and that in the future the Commission consider the conscience of local ministers and sessions and consult with and seek to work more closely with local ministers.” The final vote to remain in the NCC was substantial; some observers thought it was the strongest ever registered. The vote was preceded by three special speakers, allotted fifteen minutes each to provide the assembly with what was termed a “full objective educational program concerning the National Council of Churches.”
Another decision in the area of church union reaffirmed the conviction of the 103rd Assembly, “that ultimately the Presbyterian and Reformed communions in the United States should present a united life and witness according to the Reformed faith and Presbyterian order.” On the basis of this, the General Assembly instructed its “Ad Interim Committee on conversations with the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America to investigate with the like committee of the Reformed Church the advisability of expanding conversations to include the U.P.U.S.A. Church and other Reformed Churches looking toward ultimate union.” Some observers felt that this candid desire to merge with the so-called Northern Presbyterians, from whom the Southern Presbyterians divided over the issue of the Civil War, would hinder merger possibilities with the Reformed Church in America. An adopted report declared that there seem to be no essential “impediments” to union with the Reformed Church in America, and many resolutions were adopted to express by means of various acts of fellowship and cooperation the unity of the one faith of the two churches.
The church’s Committee on Christianity and Health, concerned with the emotional health of ministers and their wives, urged that “presbyteries take with great seriousness their responsibility to be a bishop or pastor to the ministers who may have particular need, making use of retreats, Bible study, and other proven ways of deepening supportive friendships.”
The same committee urged the adoption of a resolution asserting that it would be “contrary to our theological position if we as an Assembly of the Church of Christ should pronounce, in terms of research in tobacco, that an individual in our denomination shall not smoke.… Very moderate smoking, especially of cigars and pipes, so far as current research indicates, is not in itself injurious to health. The same applies to other oral intakes under attack.” Dr. Paul T. DeCamp, a chest surgeon, commented on the resolution, concluding his remarks with the advice that the assembly should “stick with religion and you may be right; get into medicine and you are almost sure to be wrong.” Thereupon the assembly immediately tabled the resolution of its Committee on Christianity and Health.
Reduction of nuclear stockpiles is desirable, according to a report adopted by the assembly, but it should occur multilaterally; unilateral action by the United States is unthinkable because of its obligations to itself and to the free peoples of the world.
By a vote of 240 to 145, the assembly took the final step permitting women to hold the offices of elder and minister in the denomination. An overture requesting that elders be permitted to administer the sacraments was, however, rejected.
O.P.C. Debates Separation
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was preparing this year to send its sister church in Holland a detailed statement containing the biblical arguments for “separation from unbelief,” but after lengthy debate, the General Assembly sent the statement back to the drafting committee.
The church, founded in 1936 by J. Gresham Machen and several other Presbyterian ministers, is concerned about the indirect connection between De Gereformeerde Kerken and the World Council of Churches (through the church’s missionary agency) and has already expressed its disapproval.
In March of this year, the Holland church announced that it saw “no decisive hindrance” to full-fledged membership in the World Council. This precipitated a heated debate in the General Assembly of the OPC last month.
In the end, the assembly voted to approve the “general thrust” of the committee’s report but sent it back for redrafting. Some wording was viewed as extreme.
Though interpretations on separation and other questions varied, the commissioners at the General Assembly were united in their emphasis on scriptural support for their positions. Dr. Edward J. Young, in an evening address, noted the church’s “one desire—to act in accordance with the Scriptures.”
In other business, the General Assembly:
—Voted to “go on record as indicating its conviction that the work of medical missions is a proper work of the church.” This means that the church will proceed with plans to build a 22-bed hospital in Ghinda, Eritrea (Ethiopia).
—Went over the expenditures of its Committee on Christian Education with minute scrutiny but passed the committee’s budget, along with the others. (The committee had gone into debt in order to begin publishing its own Sunday school material. Its senior quarterly has been well received and is used in as many churches outside the denomination as within it.)
The host church this year was the Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, where the Rev. Charles H. Ellis is pastor. A former pastor of the church, the Rev. Glenn R. Coie, was named moderator.
The Church Immovable
“We have been communicating with the Presbyterians for thirty years, yet we haven’t apparently moved an inch. This is disgraceful.” The speaker was an archdeacon at the Convocation of Canterbury last month. History had earlier been made when the gathering was addressed by Dr. J. W. C. Dougall, chairman of the Church of Scotland panel engaged in the current Anglican-Presbyterian conversations. Other participants in the latter, apart from the two national churches, are the Presbyterian Church of England and the Episcopal Church of Scotland. The most significant, and to some evangelicals the most disappointing, feature of Dr. Dougall’s address was his assertion that “so far as Scotland is concerned, the central, practical problem of Anglican-Presbyterian relations will be the relation of the Church of Scotland to the Episcopal Church in Scotland.”
What this means, in effect, is that the Church of Scotland (1,281,000 communicants) must negotiate with the Episcopal Church (55,000 communicants), which largely represents the “Higher” wing of Anglicanism, before progress is possible with the Church of England. Some years ago the editor of the Scottish Episcopal Church Year Book, in discussing Anglicans who come to Scotland, said: “It has always been a matter of regret that so many, especially from England, have joined themselves in ignorance to the Presbyterians and Established Church in our land.… It is hoped that skillfully directed publicity (without rancor) may be successful in damming this avoidable and unnecessary leakage.” It might perhaps have been more happily put in the interests of ecumenicity, but it got across a viewpoint not uncommon in his denomination.
J. D. DOUGLAS
Baptists And Beatles
Baptist church membership reached its peak in 1906, and is today back where it was eighty years ago despite the increased population, said the report presented last month to the annual assembly of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland. “Christian doctrines and standards,” it acknowledges, “are criticized and even repudiated, in a way unknown to this country during the past two centuries.”
The report is oddly equivocal, however, when, turning from the general to the particular, it mentions Honest to God, and welcomes the fact that doctrine and theology “have once more become subjects of eager discussion in the newspaper, the market-place and the studio.” The Profumo affair is mentioned disapprovingly, but then follows a quaint reference to the honors paid to, and the mass hysteria caused by, the Beatles, “a group of Liverpool young men.” The presidential address was given by Dr. L. G. Champion. The union’s statistics show a membership of 310,437.
J. D. DOUGLAS
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more