The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), is trying to decide whether to run for a fourth four-year term:

Despite the departure of a handful of disaffected Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in recent months, General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick remains convinced that the troubled denomination “is in a potential tipping point of renewed growth and vitality.”

And he said he will consider seeking a fourth four-year term as stated clerk. This summer, Kirkpatrick said, “I will pray, talk with friends and colleagues and attempt to assess my energy and the call of the church for another term.”

The evidence of that “potential tipping point of renewed growth and vitality” is not really clear, though he mentions a couple of things later in the interview. But then there’s that pesky New Wineskins movement:

Kirkpatrick said he expects “a relatively small movement out of the PC(USA), though it all hurts.” He said he has “an abiding passion for unity because of what I witnessed growing up in Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis.” That church was torn apart by theological conflict, he recalled, with some members leaving for the Presbyterian Church in America or the EPC. “It was very painful,” Kirkpatrick said, “but has made me utterly committed to the belief that there’s room under the Lordship of Christ for more diversity in our church.”

Outsider’s impression: if there were any more diversity in the PCUSA, they’d be ordaining Unitarians and Raelians, but those impression could certainly be wrong. What I don’t believe is wrong, however, is that for an institution such as the PCUSA to be an effective instrument in God’s mission, it needs less diversity, not more, in the sense of general agreement about what that mission is, and what the theological foundation for it is.

He bemoaned the number of civil court cases resulting from congregations wanting to take their property with them when they leave the PC(USA). “In the vast majority of cases, our presbyteries are not going to court,” Kirkpatrick said. “Congregations are going to court and presbyteries are forced to respond.”

I don’t know how many court cases there are (I can think of several off-hand, but I’m sure that’s hardly comprehensive), and I don’t know who started them. But while Kirkpatrick’s complaint may be factually accurate, he needs to recognize what’s going on. No congregation that paid for its property, pays the bills for it, maintains and improves it, and holds the deed to it, is going to just walk away from that property just because a clause in the PCUSA Book of Order asserts a claim on property with which the denomination has never had any tangible connection. There are a number of states–no one knows yet how many it will eventually be–that have looked on the claims of local churches against more hierarchical denominations than PCUSA (the Episcopal and United Methodist churches, to be exact) with great sympathy, and in California, at least, the national offices and dioceses/annual conferences have gotten completely routed. If Kirkpatrick wanted to avoid court battles, all he’s got to do is instruct presbyteries to dismiss congregations with their property when they decide to leave. Otherwise, there’s going to be a fight in just about every state before all is said and done.

The PC(USA) Constitution allows presbyteries the option of dismissing churches with their property, he said. “The question should always be ‘what’s best for the life of the church?’” That question is tougher, he added, “in cases where there’s a split in the congregation or where there’s a huge investment that must be considered when determining what PC(USA) witness must be maintained in that community.”

And to date, amazingly enough, every presbytery that has followed the advice from HQ (in the form of the notorious “Louisville Papers” has decided that it’s “best for the life of the church” to keep the property. Who’d have guessed?

Kirkpatrick also praised the burgeoning renewal of partnership between the denomination and its seminaries. “A great strength of our church is our seminaries,” he said, “ and one development I’m particularly pleased with is that our seminaries are doing a lot of the things our national agencies used to do. We are increasingly seeing our church and our seminaries not as two separate things, but as two parts of one thing.”

It says a great deal about PCUSA that Kirkpatrick thinks it’s great that this is “increasingly” the case. Apparently seminaries used to be thought of as separate and apart from the denomination. That, of course, is a large part of the reason why there’s so much turmoil in the PCUSA (as well as other mainline churches)–seminaries were allowed to go their own way, teach whatever they wanted, no matter how contrary to the theological standards of the denomination, and trained students not simply to be faithful pastors, but part of the “long march through the institutions” that has been going on among the children of the 60s ever since they got their Ph.Ds. Oh, and this is part of what Kirkpatrick trumpeted as one of those signs of “renewed growth and vitality”: Presbyterian seminaries are now starting to think of themselves as part of the Presbyterian Church. I guess you’ve got to get your positives where you can find them.

Kirkpatrick said the renewed growth and vitality he’s seeing in the PC(USA) is also evident in the ecumenical movement. Christian Churches Together (CCT), for example — which was formally launched three weeks ago — brings together in the U.S. for the first time Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, historic black and evangelical and Pentecostal churches and religious organizations.

Christian Churches Together has been in the planning stages for several years now. Near as I’ve been able to tell from the denominational reports I used to receive on it, it’s basically a less bureaucratic and more denominationally-inclusive way of doing what the National Council of Churches has been doing–giving denominational leaders a way to do stuff their members probably wouldn’t appreciate. This is from the CCT web site:

The purpose of Christian Churches Together is to enable churches and national Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world. The by-laws list seven specific tasks:

1. to celebrate a common confession of faith in the Triune God,

2. to discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer and theological dialogue,

3. to provide fellowship and mutual support,

4. to seek better understanding of each other by affirming our commonalities and understanding our differences,

5. to foster evangelism faithful to the proclamation of the gospel,

6. to speak to society with a common voice whenever possible, and

7. to promote the common good of society and engage in other activities consistent with its purposes.

Those last two, I have no doubt whatsoever, will be what CCT is doing five years from now, and it, like the NCC, will look like an adjunct of the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Whatever. The point is that I’m not sure how more of the same, ecumenically speaking, is supposed to further the “renewed growth and vitality” of the PCUSA, or any of the other moribund mainline denominations. But that’s just me.

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