Mount Morris Presbyterian Church in New York City gained twelve new members in 1975 and lost thirty-two. The statistical report of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. shows that the Harlem congregation ended the year with 364 on its rolls.

For many reasons, the church on Manhattan’s West 122 Street is not typical of the 8,686 congregations in the denomination, but it was in the company of the majority when it reported a net loss in 1975. The nation’s largest Presbyterian body has been recording membership losses for the last ten years, shrinking from over 3.3 million to under 2.7 million, an 18 percent decline. In 1975 alone the UPC lost 65,565 communicants.

That continuing decline was the focus of attention last month when the denomination’s annual General Assembly met in Baltimore. Before it got down to the business of examining reasons for the membership loss, the assembly singled out Mount Morris for a distinction accorded to few churches. One of this Harlem congregation’s ruling elders (lay officers) was elected moderator.

The new presiding officer, Thelma D. Adair, is a professional educator with a doctorate. She spent about four years (1968–72) as an executive at the denominational headquarters. She is the first black woman to serve in the church’s highest position, and she is also the first pastor’s wife to hold that post. A. Eugene Adair, her husband, was called to Mount Morris in 1942 to take charge of a building but no members (all the former members—who were white—had moved away). Because of her husband’s low pay Mrs. Adair has worked outside the home most of the years since then.

The Adairs don’t attach any great importance to statistics. The church’s “influence is not easily recorded” in membership totals, the new moderator told reporters after her election. She illustrated the point by explaining that her father and three brothers (all Baptist ministers) were educated in United Presbyterian mission schools but were never listed as communicants on denominational rolls. In the 1974 United Presbyterian directory there were no statistics from Mount Morris Church.

The North Carolina-born moderator, who is 55, prefers to talk about faithfulness. Appearing before the assembly with four other candidates for the office, she declared that Presbyterians who nurtured her led her to follow Jesus and to see that she could recommend him as Saviour to others through the church’s structure. In a paper distributed before the election she said on the subject of membership trends, “If it is God’s will, new members will be added to our number, but we must strive for faithfulness whether or not that adds to our number.”

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After her fourth-ballot victory (on the final tally she got 364 votes to 307 for clergyman John Galbreath of Pittsburgh), she told reporters that fidelity to the Gospel includes responding to human need and taking the side of “those who hurt” as well as introducing people to Jesus Christ.

The assembly itself showed little more interest than its moderator did in the membership figures. William P. Thompson, its stated clerk (chief executive officer) over the past ten years, tried to be optimistic in his statistical report. He told commissioners (delegates) he is convinced “that the state of the church is good” despite the “lamentable” decline of the last decade. He pointed out that the 1975 net loss was the smallest since 1969, suggesting that “the rate of the decline in membership appears to be leveling off.”

Thompson, who was easily elected to another five-year term, said a bright spot in the statistical picture was the increased giving. Contributions to all causes of the church increased by $32 million last year to reach a total of $474.6 million. When the financial pie was sliced, however, the national agencies got less—$175,079 less—than they had gotten the year before. The local churches kept over 82 per cent for their own use in 1975. Presbyteries and synods (regional units) got slightly more than in 1974.

On the matter of communicant strength the assembly received a detailed report from a special committee that had been analyzing the decline. Its conclusions (such as “since the early 1960’s the membership of our denomination, even more than others, has failed to keep pace with the growing population in our country”) were accepted with little challenge.

The recommendations for reversing the trend were approved with only slight amendment. The proposals emphasize preparation of pastors to be stronger leaders and the development of more aggressive programs of church-member recruitment. The assembly voted down a minority report identifying “evangelism as an area of obedience that we must hold in high priority.” Instead, it adopted an affirmation that “church membership growth is a natural result of faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

One of the findings of the special committee was that more than half of the people it surveyed (57 per cent of those in growing congregations) thought the national leadership of the UPC was “out of touch with the members.” In answer to a question from the floor, officials explained that the report contained no recommendation on this subject because the committee had determined that it was not a factor in membership decline. The study also showed a wide lack of agreement with the denomination’s official doctrinal stance (for instance, 40 per cent in one UPC poll did not agree with the statement that “the Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice”). The committee concluded, however, that “far more depends on the strength, clarity, warmth, and enthusiasm of the church leadership and program than on its theological orientation.”

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One attempt to halt the membership decline came to the assembly from the Synod of the Trinity (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Southeastern Ohio). Named “Risk Evangelism,” the concept has been implemented in more than 400 synod churches since it started in the Pittsburgh area. Its advocates describe it as a practical plan for church renewal as well as outreach. The denominational program agency had asked that it be made available to the church at large, and the assembly gave it a word of commendation. The committee that brought the endorsement to the floor also found itself in the position of having to “decry the lack of funds available for promoting” the concept throughout the denomination.

On the financial front, the assembly took a variety of actions to try to get the church’s national income to equal its expenditures. Until the various plans produce more money, more reductions in program are being planned.

To get through 1976, the assembly authorized further depletion of reserves, especially for weaning certain educational institutions from national church support. Commissioners also reaffirmed a “major mission funding” campaign for more than $60 million as well as short-term plans to get more for national programs. Meanwhile, administrators are faced with the fact that $25 million will be needed from congregations next year to maintain the current level of program, but only $21 million from that source is projected.

The assembly failed to settle one question, and that failure may cost it still more support. New York City Presbytery had asked the national body to advise it on whether to ordain a professed homosexual to the ministry. A minority report from a committee that had handled the New York communication asked the assembly to label homosexual practice as “clearly sinful in the eyes of God.” It also proposed that the assembly declare that “avowed homosexuals should not be ordained to the offices of pastor, ruling elder, and deacon.” On an uncounted, standing vote, commissioners turned down the minority report and adopted proposals from the committee majority. The majority said that “many expressions of homosexuality are without question sinful in the eyes of God” and that “it appears that it would at the present time be injudicious, if not improper, for a presbytery to ordain to the professional ministry of the Gospel a person who is an avowed practicing homosexual.”

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The report from the majority, as adopted by the assembly, also establishes a task force on Christian approaches to homosexuality, “with special reference to the ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals.” It is to be appointed by the moderator and “shall represent a spectrum of all sides on these issues.” The task force is to report back to the assembly within two years.

On still another sticky issue that has cost the national agencies support, the assembly answered a letter from the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. That church has objected for years to grants that the United Presbyterians have given to a leftist South American group known as ROSCA. The 1975 United Presbyterian Assembly cut off funds for the group, but the sister church in Colombia wrote that it had learned “laundered” money was still getting through via the World Council of Churches.

The response, which is going to Colombia over the clerk’s signature, emphasizes that the church “has not given, pledged, nor designated any funds for ROSCA” since the 1975 assembly. The letter also specifies that Philip Potter, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, “has informed us that the last grant by the World Council of Churches of U. S. dollars to ROSCA was paid March 13, 1975, which was prior to the meeting of our [1975] General Assembly.” Further, stated the letter, “Mr. Potter has informed us that ‘there are no other grants or pledges for ROSCA in the WCC.’ ”

On another issue that some ministers and leaders of national agencies considered troublesome, the assembly went along with the recommendations of a special committee established a year earlier to “counsel with the Presbyterian Lay Committee.” The panel had suggested that it would be not only unhealthful for the church but also a violation of freedom of the press if the conservative laymen’s group and its newspaper were suppressed. Commissioners voted down a minority report that would have restricted the paper’s free-subscription policy and would also have removed the word “Presbyterian” from the names of the organization and the publication. The lay group was asked, however, to divulge the size of its membership and the addresses of its officers and staff members.

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While the assembly expressed willingness to tolerate the Presbyterian Lay Committee and to begin a study of the ordination of homosexuals, it took a harder line on officers who conscientiously oppose ordination of women. Following up the 1975 decision in the “Kenyon Case” (in which ordination was denied to a seminarian who said that on scriptural grounds he could not participate in ordaining a woman—see June 6, 1975, issue, page 42), the assembly refused to label it a non-doctrinal issue. Beaver-Butler Presbytery in Pennsylvania had asked that a pastoral letter be sent to all governing bodies of the denomination urging “mutual forbearance towards each other” on those questions which had not been declared essential to “saving faith.”

The proposed “forbearance” was to have been primarily for the benefit of officers (clergy and lay) already in the church who do not accept the ordination of women. Beaver-Butler said the question is one on which “men of good characters and principles may differ.” By an uncounted vote estimated at five to one the assembly voted against concurring with the request for “forbearance.” Thus it left opponents of women’s ordination open to attack in the lower courts of the church while leaving the question of ordaining homosexuals unresolved.

The Kirk: Rattling The Bones

In the eyes of the press corps, no general assembly of the Church of Scotland quite pays its way unless it provides a headline such as “SPECTRE OF BISHOP WALKS AGAIN.” So it was again at this year’s assembly of “the Kirk” in Edinburgh; even a normally responsible newspaper used those words, and for good measure threw in the time-honored allusion to “the rattling of episcopal bones.”

The occasion scarcely merited all this. The assembly had heard about conversations with five other Scottish churches, in which had been recounted certain things held in common. One commissioner demurred, objecting that lines were being blurred and the Kirk’s teaching contradicted. The assembly disagreed, deeming that the specter was insubstantial, but the journalists gratefully took their cue.

Weightier protests were put forward to an official report recommending that ministers should not conduct special ceremonies of exorcism. “We are contending,” explained clergyman Stewart Lamont, “that the exorcism ceremonial, as carried out by some of our brethren in England, can serve only to heighten anxiety, exacerbate symptoms, and do harm to the person being treated and to the name of the Christian Church.”

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A number of former missionaries in Asia and Africa were obviously concerned that the subject should not be dismissed superficially. The concept of exorcism, said J. R. Fleming, formerly of China, might be foreign to our society, but there were those who found relief in hearing a minister say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out.” The Very Reverend Lord George MacLeod also urged a responsible approach: “We have to be very careful not to douse all the enthusiasm and expectancy of God moving and casting out devils.”

But the real highlight of this assembly was the curious case of the disciplined elder, brought to the supreme court after synod and presbytery had disagreed. Thomas Boyd, an elder in a Lanarkshire congregation where he led a Bible study and prayer group, had felt led to be rebaptized in a neighboring Baptist church.

In the case brought against him, it was pointed out that his ordination vows as an elder had involved acceptance of the Westminster Confession, which says very plainly: “The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered to any person.”

Ah yes, said the defense, but the Confession permits liberty of conscience in matters that are not of the substance of the faith—and anyway, the Kirk has not in recent times been conspicuous for adherence to that Confession. “When you have a cupboard full of skeletons,” asserted fellow elder David Wright of Edinburgh University, “you cannot select one for analysis and examination without rattling several others.” He suggested that Boyd be simply admonished for “excessive zeal and lack of understanding.” The important thing, he said, was to reach a settlement that would uphold right doctrine and promote peace in Boyd’s kirk session (local board).

But this moderate view was overwhelmingly defeated in favor of one by Professor John McIntyre asking that the assembly reaffirm the doctrine of one baptism, uphold the presbytery’s view that Boyd had broken his vows and could not continue as an elder, and instruct the presbytery to meet with Boyd, his minister, and the kirk session, to persuade him to repent.

After the verdict Boyd was not noticeably repentant; he said he was physically but not spiritually upset. The outcome does not affect his status as an ordinary church member.

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One senses that there was much more to this matter than came out. Perhaps the most perceptive comment on the assembly’s ruling came from an unexpected quarter. “This is a terrible decision,” commented Lord MacLeod, “which has handed over the whole charismatic movement to the Baptist Church.”

Once again the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism proved a divisive theme, but the assembly voted against a motion that would have cut the Kirk’s contribution to the WCC and increased the contribution to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

The 1,300-strong body was more of one mind in wanting strong representations made to the government to reinstate the term “Christian names” on government blanks instead of “forenames.” This change of practice was regarded as an affront not just to Christians but to democracy, for it had been done without consent of the majority.

Elected as moderator was Professor Thomas F. Torrance, 62, of Edinburgh University, who was born in China of missionary parents. Probably the most evangelical appointee for many years, Torrance left no one in any doubt about his views. During assembly week he sent a message supporting an attempt to set up a Scottish equivalent of the Festival of Light. “The so-called permissive society,” he said, “frequently represents a regression to infantile and barbaric behavior. Under the cover of ‘the natural’ or ‘free artistic expression,’ or ‘freedom,’ the permissive society allows evil to entrench itself in human and social structures.” He went on to suggest that it was in precisely this way that Nazis and Communists perpetrated their enormities.

The general assembly also:

• Asked the Scottish Football Association to reconsider its approval of Sunday soccer.

• Urged the government to recognize the 200-mile fishing limit claimed by Iceland (for whom it was a matter of national survival).

• Called on the news media to refrain wherever possible from stating the religious denomination of victims of violence in Northern Ireland.

• Agreed to send down to presbyteries for comment some radical new proposals under which the assembly would meet only every second year, for a week (instead of ten days), and with numbers reduced to 500.

Outside St. Giles’ at the assembly’s opening service. Pastor Jack Glass and his separatist colleagues demonstrated in what has become an annual event. The focal point this time was Blessed John Ogilvie, whose canonization was recently announced by the Vatican but who, Glass and his little group pointed out, had been “hanged as a traitor” under King James VI in 1615.

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Black evangelist Toby Crosby died last month in Palatka, Florida. At age 122, he was believed to be the second oldest U. S. resident (the oldest is said to be 133-year-old Charlie Smith of Bartow, Florida). Born a slave in South Carolina, Crosby was a preacher for the Church of Our Lord of the Apostolic Faith. Although his sight and hearing were impaired, he preached and traveled until two weeks before his death, when he suffered a stroke.

Sunday Selling

Thirty states still have some form of restriction on Sunday selling, according to a New York Times study. Enforcement varies from state to state, however, and Sunday shopping flourishes in some of the states (New York, Oklahoma) while the lid is kept on tight in others (Mississippi, Louisiana). It is a local-option matter in some states. Most states have an array of legislative exceptions on who can work and what can be sold on Sundays. Rhode Island is the latest blue-law state to enact Sunday work-permit legislation.

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