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Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or PC (USA) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. It is part of the Reformed family of Protestantism, descending from the branch of the Protestant Reformation over which John Calvin had a strong, early influence. It is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. and was established by the 1983 merger of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States, whose churches were located in the Southern and border states, and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, whose congregations could be found in every state.

The reunited denomination is the most visible and influential Presbyterian denomination in North America and currently has approximately 2.3 million members, 10,900 congregations and 14,000 ordained ministers. Denominational offices are located in Louisville, Kentucky. It is a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, and Christian Churches Together. In 2006, the denomination became the first major religious denomination in the world to call on its members to become carbon neutral.



The Constitution of PC(USA) is composed of two portions: Part I, the Book of Confessions and Part II, the Book of Order. The Book of Confessions outlines the beliefs of the PC(USA) by declaring the creeds by which the Church's leaders are instructed and led. Complementing that is the Book of Order which gives the rationale and description for the organization and function of the Church at all levels. The Book of Order is currently divided into three sections - 1) Form of Government, 2) The Directory For Worship, and 3) The Rules of Discipline. The denomination is currently considering a major revision of the Form of Government which will be presented for first consideration to the General Assembly meeting in June, 2008.

Governing bodies

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has a representative form of government, known as presbyterian polity, with four levels of government and administration, as outlined in the Book of Order. The governing bodies (as they are referred to) are as follows:

  1. Session (Congregation)
  2. Presbytery
  3. Synod
  4. General Assembly

At the congregational level, the governing body is called the session. The session is made up of the pastors of the church and all elders elected and installed to active service. Following the pattern set in the first congregation of Christians in Jerusalem described in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the church is governed by elders. The elders are nominated by a nominating committee of the congregation; in addition, nominations from the floor are permissible. Elders are then elected by the congregation. Session meetings are moderated by a called and installed pastor and minutes are recorded by the elected clerk. This body takes care of the guidance and direction of the ministry of the local church, including almost all responsibilities of spiritual and fiduciary leadership. The congregation basically has only the responsibility to vote on: 1) the call of the pastor (subject to presbytery approval); 2) the election of its own officers (elders & deacons); 3) buying, mortgaging, or selling real property. All other matters such as the budget, other personnel matters, programs for spiritual life and mission, are the responsibility of the session.

The session also oversees the work of the deacons, a second body of leaders also tracing its origins to the Book of Acts. The deacons are a congregational-level group whose duty is "to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress both within and beyond the community of faith." In some churches, the responsibilities of the deacons are taken care of by the session, so there is no board of deacons in the church. In some states, churches are legally incorporated and members or elders of the church serve as trustees of the corporation. However, “the power and duties of such trustees shall not infringe upon the powers and duties of the Session or of the board of deacons.” The deacons are a ministry board but not a governing body.

The next level is the presbytery formed by all the congregations and the Ministers of Word & Sacrament in a geographic area together with elders selected (proportional to congregation size) from each of the congregations. Four PC(USA) synods (see below) have a non-geographical presbytery for Korean language Presbyterian congregations. One synod has a non-geographical presbytery for Native American congregations, the Dakota Presbytery. Only the presbytery (not a congregation, session, synod, or General Assembly) has the responsibility and authority to ordain church members to the Ministry of Word & Sacrament, to install Ministers of Word & Sacrament to (and/or remove them from) congregations, and to remove a Minister from the Ministry of Word & Sacrament. A Minister of Word & Sacrament is a Presbyterian Minister only by virtue of membership on a roll of a presbytery; the synods and general assembly do not maintain minister membership rolls. A pastor cannot be a member of the congregation he or she serves as pastor because their membership is in the presbytery. The presbytery also acts as a court of appeal from sessions. Members of the congregation generally choose their own pastor with the assistance and support of the presbytery. The presbytery must approve the choice and officially install the pastor at the congregation. Additionally, the presbytery must approve if either the congregation or the pastor wishes to dissolve that pastoral relationship. The presbytery has authority over many affairs of its local congregations. Only the presbytery can approve the establishment, dissolution, or merger of congregations. The moderator of the presbytery is elected annually. Additionally, an Executive Presbyter (sometimes called General Presbyter) is often elected as a staff person to care for the administrative duties of the presbytery, often with the additional role of a pastor to the pastors. A presbytery is required to elect a Moderator and a Clerk, but the choice to hire an Executive Presbyter is optional. Presbyteries must meet at least twice a year, but they have the discretion to meet more often and most do. There are currently 173 presbyteries for the more than 11,000 congregations in the PC(USA).

Presbyteries are organized within a geographical region to form synod. Each synod contains at least three presbyteries, and its elected voting membership is to include both elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament in equal numbers. Synods have various duties depending on the needs of the presbyteries they serve. In general, their responsibilities (G-12.0102) might be summarized as: developing and implementing the mission of the church throughout the region, facilitating communication between presbyteries and the General Assembly, and mediating conflicts between the churches and presbyteries. Synods are required to meet at least biennially. Meetings are moderated by an elected synod Moderator with support of the synod's Stated Clerk. There are currently 16 synods in the PC(USA) and they vary widely in the scope and nature of their work. An ongoing current debate in the denomination is over the purpose, function, and need for synods.

The General Assembly is the highest governing body of the PC(USA). Until 2004, the General Assembly met once a year; since the 216th assembly met in Richmond in 2004, the G.A. meets biennially in even-numbered years. It consists of commissioners elected by presbyteries (not synods) and its voting membership is evenly divided between pastors and elders. There are many important responsibilities of the General Assembly. Among them, the Book of Order lists these four:

  1. to set priorities for the work of the church in keeping with the church's mission under Christ
  2. to develop overall objectives for mission and a comprehensive strategy to guide the church at every level of its life
  3. to provide the essential program functions that are appropriate for overall balance and diversity within the mission of the church, and
  4. to establish and administer national and worldwide ministries of witness, service, growth, and development.

The General Assembly elects a moderator at each assembly who chairs the rest of the sessions. A stated clerk is appointed to serve for a longer term and is responsible for the Office of the General Assembly which conducts the ecclesiastical work of the church. The Office of the General Assembly carries out most of the ecumenical functions and all of the constitutional functions at the Assembly. The General Assembly also elects a General Assembly Council (GAC) consisting of 56 members (39 voting and 17 non-voting) responsible for advising the General Assembly on priorities, programs and strategies and implementing its decisions. The GAC meets three times a year. The G.A. elects an Executive Director of the General Assembly Council who is the top administrator overseeing the mission work of the PC(USA).

Worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The Session of the local congregation has a great deal of freedom in the style and ordering of worship, within the guidelines set forth in the "Directory For Worship" section of the Book of Order. Worship varies from congregation to congregation. The order may be very traditional and highly liturgical, or it may be very simple and informal. This variance is not unlike that seen in the "High Church" and "Low Church" styles of the Anglican Church. The Book of Order suggests a worship service ordered around five themes: "gathering around the Word, proclaiming the Word, responding to the Word, the sealing of the Word, and bearing and following the Word into the world." Prayer is central to the service and may be silent, spoken, sung, or read in unison (including The Lord's Prayer). Music plays a large role in most PC(USA) worship services and ranges from chant to traditional Protestant hymns, to classical sacred music, to more modern music, depending on the preference of the individual church, and should be offered prayerfully and not "for entertainment or artistic display." Scripture is read and usually preached upon. An offering is usually taken.
"The pastor has certain responsibilities which are not subject to the authority of the session. In a particular service of worship the pastor is responsible for: (1) the selection of Scripture lessons to be read, (2) the preparation and preaching of the sermon or exposition of the Bible, (3) the prayers offered on behalf of the people and those prepared for the use of the people in worship, (4) the music to be sung, (5) the use of drama, dance, and other art forms. The pastor may confer with a worship committee in planning particular services of worship." [W-1.4005]

The Directory of Worship in the Book of Order provides the directions for what must be, or may be included in worship. During the 20th Century, Presbyterians were offered optional use of liturgical books:

Membership Demographics

The PC(USA) maintains extensive statistics on its members.

Total "communicant" membership fell by 2% in 2006 to 2,267,118, the largest loss since 1975. This continues a three decade-long decline in membership for PC(USA). This is consistent with the trends of most mainline Protestant denominations in America since the late 1960s.

The average Presbyterian Church has 208 members (the mean in 2006). About 25% of the total congregations report between 1 and 50 members. Another 23% report between 51 and 100 members. The average worship attendance as a percentage of membership is 51.7%. The largest congregation in the PC(USA) is Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, with a reported membership of 8,413 (2005).

Most PC(USA) members are white (92.9%). Other racial and ethnic members include African-Americans (3.1% of the total membership of the denomination), Asians (2.3%), Hispanics (1.2%), Native Americans (0.2%), and others (0.3%). Despite declines in the total membership of the PC(USA), the percentage of racial-ethnic minority members has stayed about the same since 1995. The ratio of female members (58%) to male members (42%) has also remained stable since the mid-1960s.

PC(USA)-affiliated seminaries, colleges and universities

The denomination maintains affiliations with ten seminaries in the United States. These are:

Two other seminaries are related to the PC(USA) by covenant agreement: Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, NY, and Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico in San Juan, PR.

For more information, see the article PC(USA) seminaries.

There are numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States affiliated with PC(USA). For a complete list, see the article Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities.

External links

Church history

Early history to the 18th Century

Presbyterians trace their history to the sixteenth century and the Protestant Reformation. Presbyterian heritage, and much of what they believe, began with the French lawyer John Calvin (1509–1564), whose writings solidified much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.

Calvin did most of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin's teachings back to Scotland (see Scottish Reformation). Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland and England.

The early Presbyterians in America came from England, Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly was held in the same city in 1789. The Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. This was indicative of the active support of Presbyterians for the American War of Independence.

Inspired by the evangelical preaching of George Whitefield and others, Gilbert Tennent delivered a sermon in Nottingham, Virginia in 1740 on "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry.” In the sermon he asserted that some current Presbyterian church leaders might be academic "Pharisee-teachers" who did not have the same faith or enthusiasm as newly converted followers, a controversial view which divided the church. Together with his brother William, Tennent led the Presbyterian part of the Great Awakening revivalist movement in America.

Church history in the 19th century

In the early years of the 1800s, the church carried on revivals and organized congregations, presbyteries, and synods wherever pastors and lay people went, emphasizing the connectional nature of the church. Presbyterians also helped to shape voluntary societies that encouraged educational, missionary, evangelical, and reforming work. As the church began to realize that these functions were corporate in nature and as the century proceeded, it formed its own boards and agencies to address these needs at home and abroad. Mission to Native Americans, African Americans, and populations all over the world became a hallmark of the church.

The nineteenth century was also characterized by disagreement and division over theology, governance, and reform - particularly slavery. In 1803, Barton W. Stone led a group of revivalist New Light Presbyterian ministers to form independent Springfield Presbytery which eventually became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1810, a number of Presbyterian congregations and ministers, ejected by Kentucky Synod for their pro-revival position and their relaxation of ordination requirements in a frontier setting, formed the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, although they never intended the split to be permanent. In 1837 the church was split by the Old School-New School Controversy. The century also saw the formation of the United Presbyterian Church of North America. When the country could not reconcile the issue of slavery and the federal union, the southern Presbyterians split from the original PC(USA), forming the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861, which became the Presbyterian Church in the United States after the American Civil War.

Church history from the 20th century to the present

The early part of the twentieth century saw continued growth in both major sections of the church. It also saw the growth of Fundamentalist Christianity (a movement of those who believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the fundamental source of the religion) as distinguished from Modernist Christianity (a movement holding the belief that Christianity needed to be re-interpreted in light of modern scientific theories such as evolution or the rise of degraded social conditions brought on by industrialization and urbanization).

This controversy reached a head in 1924 after the General Assembly adopted five "essential and necessary" pillars of Christian belief. This move toward fundamentalism and centralization caused a backlash in the form of the Auburn Affirmation — a document embracing modernism and "liberty of thought and teaching.” Although the years of the Great Depression and World War II and the ensuing neo-orthodox theological consensus mitigated much of the polemics during the mid-20th century, disputes erupted again beginning in the late 1960s, over the issue of ordination of women, and, especially since the 1990s, over the issue of ordination of homosexuals.

For the most part, Presbyterians, compared to similar "mainline" traditions such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, are fairly (in some instances, strongly) conservative on matters such as doctrine, sexual morality, and economics, especially the denomination's well-to-do laity, who often take issue with the usually more liberal-minded clergy in judicatory deliberations. Even in the most liberal presbyteries, conservative congregations can be found, while more theologically conservative presbyteries are more likely than not to have few or no dissenting liberal voices, a phenomenon rooted in the decision of some Presbyterian conservatives to stay put in the main body, rather than leaving to form new, break-away groups, as those most theologically conservative usually did (e.g., the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod).

The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. was joined by the majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, mostly congregations in the border and Southern states, in 1906. In 1920, it absorbed the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church. The United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

This sparked a period of ecumenical activism which culminated in the development of the Confession of 1967 which was the church's first new confession of faith in three centuries. The 170th General Assembly in 1958 authorized a committee to develop a brief contemporary statement of faith. The 177th General Assembly in 1965 considered and amended the draft confession and sent a revised version for general discussion within the church. The 178th General Assembly in 1966 accepted a revised draft and sent it to presbyteries throughout the church for final ratification. As the confession was ratified by more than 90% of all presbyteries, the 178th General Assembly finally adopted it in 1967.

An attempt to reunite the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the late 1950s failed when the latter church was unwilling to accept centralization. This reflected its support for local decision making and concern about central organizations having greater power. Ironically, these concerns were similar to those of New England Puritans in earlier times. In the meantime, a conservative group broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1973, mainly over the issues of women's ordination and a perceived drift toward theological liberalism, although some critics charge that opposition to Civil Rights during the 1960s played a more decisive role in the alienation and eventual split. This group formed the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

Attempts at union between the churches (UPCUSA and PCUS) were renewed in the 1970s, culminating in the merger of the two churches to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) on June 10, 1983. A new national headquarters was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 replacing the headquarters of the UPCUSA in New York City and the PCUS located in Atlanta, Georgia.

The merger essentially consolidated those moderate-to-liberal American Presbyterians into one body; practically all other U.S. Presbyterian bodies (the Cumberland Presbyterians being a partial exception) profess some measure of doctrinal Calvinist propositionalism, literalist hermeneutics, and conservative politics. As of 2007, tension between a perceived liberal-to-leftist national headquarters based in Louisville, Kentucky and a large number of more conservative churches and members continues; a few conservative churches and members have left the denomination.

Emphasis on Mission

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has always been a leading United States denomination in mission work, and many hospitals, clinics, colleges and universities world-wide trace their origins to the pioneering work of Presbyterian missionaries who founded them more than a century ago. Currently, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) works with partner churches and organizations in more than 100 countries and has appointed mission personnel to serve in nearly 70 countries. A vital part of the world mission emphasis of the denomination is building and maintaining relationships with Presbyterian, Reformed and other churches around the world. The PC(USA) is a leader in disaster assistance relief and also participates in or relates to work in other countries through ecumenical relationships.

Current Controversies

Homosexual Ordination and Membership

As are most main-line denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently is struggling with the issue of Biblical interpretation and faithfulness, particularly as it relates to homosexuality. The Book of Order prohibits the ordination of those who are not faithful in marriage or chaste in singleness (G-6.0106b). This paragraph was added in 1997 and is commonly referred to by its pre-ratification designation, "Amendment B" Several attempts have been made to remove this from the Book of Order but no attempt has received both the necessary votes at the General Assembly and approval of enough presbyteries. Sexually-active gay people remain welcome as members, although officially they cannot serve as pastors, elders or deacons.

Many Presbyterian scholars, pastors, and theologians have been heavily involved in the debate over homosexuality. In 2005, a female minister in Pennsylvania came under scrutiny after performing a marriage between a lesbian couple, including infusion of Buddhist rites in the ceremony. Her case is to be heard by the church's court. Officially, the church does not prohibit clergy-performed blessing ceremonies for same sex unions, as long as it clear that the blessing ritual is not a marriage ceremony.

The 2006 Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, in theory, attempted to find common ground. Some felt that the adoption of this report provided for a clear local option mentioned, while the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Clifton Kirkpatrick went on record as saying, "Our standards have not changed. The rules of the Book of Order stay in force and all ordinations are still subject to review by higher governing bodies." The authors of the report stated that it is a compromise and return to the original Presbyterian culture of local controls. The recommendation for more control by local Presbyteries and Sessions is viewed by its opposition as a method for bypassing the constitutional restrictions currently in place concerning ordination and marriage, effectively making the constitutional "standard" entirely subjective. This report has been blamed for an increasing number of members and churches leaving the denomination seeking a clearer position on the issue of homosexuality and other issues. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has seen a dramatic increase in membership after the 2006 General Assembly of the PCUSA.

In the General Assembly gathering of June 2006, Presbyterian voting Commissioners passed an "authoritative interpretation", recommended by the Theological Task Force, of the church constitution (the Book of Order). Some argued that this gave local ordaining bodies (referred to as presbyteries) the "local option" of ordaining, or not ordaining anyone based on a particular presbytery's reading of the constitutional statute. Others argued that presbyteries have always had this responsibility and that this new ruling did not change but only clarified that responsibility. On June 20, 2006, the General Assembly voted 298 to 221 (or 57% to 43%) to approve such interpretation. In that same session on June 20, the General Assembly also voted 405 to 92 (with 4 abstensions) to uphold the constitutional standard for ordination requiring fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. A clear understanding of the effect of what the General Assembly voted upon in 2006 may have to wait until the ecclesiastical courts make decisions on specific cases.

The General Assembly of 2008 took several actions related to homosexuality. The first action was to adopt a different translation of the Heidelberg Catechism from 1962, removing the words "homosexual perversions" among other changes. This will require the approval of the 2010 and 2012 General Assemblies as well as the votes of the presbyteries after the 2010 Assembly. The second action was to approve a new Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order allowing for the ordaining body to make decisions on whether or not a departure from the standards of belief of practice is sufficient to preclude ordination. Some argue that this creates "local option" on ordaining homosexual persons. The third action was to replace the text of "Amendment B" with new text: "Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards. This removes the "fidelity and chastity" clause. This third action requires approval of a majority of presbyteries by June, 2009 in order to take effect. It is believed by many that these changes in part or together allow for the ordination of homosexual persons in presbyteries or congregations that choose to allow such. Fourth, a resolution was adopted to affirm the definition of marriage from Scripture and the Confessions as being between a man and a woman.

At the General Assembly of 2004 an overture to consider adoption of the Belhar Confession was adopted. That confession was written by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in response to apartheid. In the American context it is alleged to apply to the issue of sexual orientation. The 2008 General Assembly voted to create a committee to study the confession and bring a recommendation to the 2010 General Assembly. This is the first step in the PC(USA) process of changing the Book of Confessions, a process that will require approval at General Assemblies in 2010 and 2012 and approval of the presbyteries after the 2010 Assembly.

Since 1980, the More Light Churches Network has served many congregations and individuals within American Presbyterianism who take positions on one side of this issue. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians was formed in 1997 to support repeal of "Amendment B", and to encourage networking amongst like-minded clergy and congregations. Other organizations of Presbyterians have also organized on the other side of the issue to support maintaining the current standards of ordination. The Layman has proven effective as a rallying place for the opposition. Presbyterians for Renewal has also addressed this issue.

Property ownership

In the event of a congregational split, dissolution (closing), or disassociation from the PC(USA), the Presbytery may assert a claim to the property. State law (which varies) determines the ownership of property despite the denomination's property clause in the Book of Order. This clause does not prevent particular churches from leaving the denomination, but if they do, they may not be entitled to any physical assets of that congregation unless by agreement with the presbytery. Recently this provision has been vigorously tested in courts of law.

Despite the historically connectional structure of Presbyterianism, this issue is, surprisingly, relatively new. Until recently the "connection" referred to doctrinal coherence and had no reference to physical property. In 1981, UPCUSA leaders persuaded the General Assembly to amend the Book of Order in order to add the "property trust" elements. The denomination did this in reaction to three developments over the previous decade:

1) A case involving a Pittsburgh ministerial candidate who opposed the ordination of women led several congregations in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to leave in favor of the new Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative body with origins in the Southern U.S., in the mid-1970s.

2) The Supreme Court case Jones v. Wolf, , allowed for church property cases to be adjudicated in civil courts in the U.S., giving churches hostile to national or regional bodies a possible platform to secede.

3) Some months prior to that General Assembly, a number of disaffected congregations formed a new conservative denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. UPCUSA loyalists interpreted that move as having been encouraged by the 1979 ruling.

The secessions in the first and third points were occasioned in part by factors including the UPCUSA's approval of abortion rights, its stands on world peace and concomitant suspicion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy (brought about by the trauma of the Vietnam War), and its support of controversial social justice causes such as a well-publicized GA contribution to the defense fund of imprisoned activist Angela Davis. The first instance in particular reflected that candidate's and those churches' opposition to female leadership in the church and feminism in general. Later, in the 1980s, Presbyterian evangelicals added homosexuality to their list of grievances, although the UPCUSA decided in 1978 not to ordain non-celibate gays to the ministry or eldership, a decision that liberal groups have been trying to reverse for most of the 2000s.

The PCUS, already deeply in preparation for the UPCUSA merger, followed suit in 1982, but managed to gain a concession for its conservative congregations in the form of a two-year grace period to take effect after the consummation of the merger, to enable dissenting churches to defect, by consent of presbytery, without suffering any loss of assets. The PCUS had to agree to this limit on eligibility as a condition of union, due to the so-called "Northern Presbyterians" being by far the majority numerically.

In ensuing years, disaffection has grown among PC(USA) conservatives (from both predecessor traditions) due to feelings that presbyteries have no right to congregational property, since national agencies and local pledges usually finance building programs, with little or no presbytery fiduciary interest. In fact, prior to World War II, more often than not, new churches started from the initiative of larger congregations (e.g., Sunday School missions), not presbyteries, as became the case increasingly from the 1950s onward, due to suburban mission planning and ecumenical concerns. Several cases in California seem to have halted the practice in that state—the courts have allowed individual churches to leave the PC(USA) and keep their own assets, as well as parishes of the United Methodist and Episcopal denominations. In most other states, however, courts have generally deferred to the provisions in the Book of Order, permitting presbytery takeovers and/or dissolutions of some dissenting churches.

Divestment from corporations operating in Israel

In June 2004, the PC USA General Assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called on the church's committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment "to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." The resolution also said "the occupation . . . has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict." The church statement at the time noted that "divestment is one of the strategies that U.S. churches used in the 1970s and 80s in a successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa."

A second resolution, calling for an end to the construction of a wall by the state of Israel, passed . The resolution opposed to the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier, regardless of its location, and opposed the United States government making monetary contribution to the construction. The General Assembly also adopted policies rejecting Christian Zionism and allowing the continued funding of conversionary activities aimed at Jews. Together, the resolutions caused tremendous dissent within the church and a sharp disconnect with the Jewish community. Leaders of several American Jewish groups communicated to the church their concerns about the use of economic leverages that apply specifically to companies operating in Israel. Some critics of the divestment policy accused church leaders of anti-Semitism.

In June 2006, after the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama changed policy (details), both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups praised the resolution. Pro-Israel groups, who had written General Assembly commissioners to express their concerns about a corporate engagement/divestment strategy focused on Israel, praised the new resolution, saying that it reflected the church stepping back from a policy that singled out companies working in Israel. Pro-Palestinian groups said that the church maintained the opportunity to engage and potentially divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation, because such support would be considered inappropriate according to the customary MRTI process.

Revision of Interfaith Relations Resource on Church Anti-Jewish Bias in Materials Related to Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In May 2008, the denomination's Office of Interfaith Relations issued a statement titled "Vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias." This statement reported that "strains of an old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak and in the rhetoric and ideas of some writers that we may read" regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Church revised and expanded this document in June, removing acknowledgement of such sentiment as a matter of current church practice, instead declaring that the church's current stands are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish - in part because they reflect criticisms of Israel meted by Jews and Israelis. The revisions resulted in a rebuke from the major Jewish denominations in a June 13, 2008 letter to the head of the PCUSA and a similar condemnation in the form of a statement from the denominations and ten other organizations.


Further reading

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