Healing a breach dating from the Civil War, the nation’s two largest Presbyterian bodies were reunited in Atlanta last month, ending 122 years of separation. After three-and-a-half days of simultaneous business sessions in the cavernous World Congress Center, the 987 commissioners (elected delegates) of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPC) and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS, known as Southern Presbyterians) were joined by a host of fellow Presbyterians and 100 ecumenical delegates in a festive parade to city hall. The throng of 7,500 was greeted by Mayor Andrew Young.

That night—Friday, June 10, at 8:37 P.M.—the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was officially constituted at a Communion service attended by 14,000 and witnessed by thousands more via satellite TV.

The following morning the merged assemblies chose as their first moderator Jay Randolph Taylor, 53, pastor of the Myers Park Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. Taylor named as vice-moderator the black woman who had nominated him, the Reverend Joan Salmon-Campbell, 45, of Philadelphia.

According to George Gallup, Jr., who addressed one of the assembly breakfasts, the newly formed church is now the most evenly distributed of all U.S. denominations. Its 3.2 million members (74 percent from the UPC) make it fourth in size of America’s Protestant bodies. Both the UPC and the PCUS suffered membership losses in 1982 of 36,682 and 8,200 respectively. But the UPC decrease is nearly 10,000 fewer than that of 1981 and the lowest in more than 10 years. Deriving little comfort from that statistic, Robert H. Meneilly, founding pastor of the 7,000-member Village United Presbyterian Church, Prairie Village, Kansas, and chairman of the 1982-created Special Committee on Evangelism and Church Growth, deplored the UPC’s loss of a million members over the past 17 years. He called on the assembly to develop a five-year plan for evangelism. The combined assemblies accepted the challenge, declaring evangelism “a necessary, urgent, and major priority of the Church.”

Despite continuing membership losses, both uniting churches reported increases in both infant and adult baptisms. The UPC has added 319 new congregations since 1977 (42 in 1982); the PCUS organized 76 new churches last year.

In other Atlanta highlights, the assembly endorsed a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze, advocated “full and equal access to contraception and abortion services for all women, regardless of race, age, and economic standing,” with protection of privacy; opposed further Israeli settlements on the West Bank; called for an agreement providing for “Palestinian self-determination in their homeland;” voted (351 to 335) to pray for “born-again” Guatemalan president Ríos Montt and asked the U.S. government to press for human rights in Central America; provided for the appointment of four “recognized conservative evangelicals” as “advisory members” of the new 48-member General Assembly Council; announced the termination of A.D. magazine with the assembly issue; and accorded Martin Luther King, Sr., a prolonged standing ovation after he appealed to commissioners to “love everybody.”

For evangelicals, the assembly news was both good and bad. On the plus side: the new emphasis on evangelism and the provision for evangelical advisers to the General Assembly Council. On the minus side: preoccupation with a host of social and political issues (on which evangelicals themselves may be divided), which consumed most of the assembly’s time and effort and betrayed where the major focus of Presbyterian concern really lies. As the final session drew to a close, a southern commissioner went to a microphone to express anxiety over the reactions of many individuals in churches whose decisions to remain or leave will be determined by the course charted by the assembly for the new denomination. Moderator Taylor had earlier given assurance of his empathy with these troubled conservatives, but he also stressed the need for “affirming” homosexuals. Presbyterians for Lesbian/Gay Concerns was highly visible during the assembly. The organization staffed a booth, dispensed literature, and sponsored a luncheon attended by about 100 and addressed by Kathy Conner, widow of former UPC moderator John Conner. Mrs. Conner expressed hope that the church’s 1978 “definitive guidance” barring the ordination of “unrepentant” homosexuals would not remain “definitive” for long.


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