(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call, Bethlehem, PA). The First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem is getting the strongest show of solidarity yet from the national denomination with a Sunday visit from the highest elected leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson will lead the 11:30 a.m. service for the Presbyterians for Unity, the portion of the church’s congregation seeking to stay under the umbrella of the mainline denomination. His visit will mark the first time a sitting stated clerk of the general assembly has led a service in the region overseen by the Lehigh Presbytery in memory, according to Presbytery Teaching Elder Rev. David Duquette. He called the stop “unprecedented.”
Nelson, speaking during a Thursday interview between his cross-country travels, said his goal is ensure the Presbyterians for Unity feel the support of the rest of the denomination.
“They are not alone in this struggle,” Nelson said. “They’re certainly setting a tone and an example for others looking at similar struggles.”
In June, the majority of the 2,600-member congregation voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join a more conservative denomination, the Covenant Order of Evangelical, or ECO, which is said to better reflect the group’s theological views.
But the Presbyterian Church (USA) said the vote violated church rules on how such separations should take place, setting off a contentious legal battle over which side will keep the 31.5-acre Center Street property.
Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta is hearing the case and could decide to hold a full trial before issuing a ruling. In the meantime, Baratta ordered both congregations to coexist within the church, holding separate services if they desired.
At a fall conference in Louisville, Ky., where the denomination is based, Duquette told national officials that a visit from leadership could lift morale. Duquette said he was told “help is coming.”
“Having him there will be an incredible boost,” Duquette said. “And I think it really shows… that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a vision of being a church that’s opening and welcoming and not restrictive and judgmental. This is a tremendous affirmation for us.”
This is NOT a unity visit, this is a louisville slugger real estate inspection, when 76% vote to leave the pcusa he’s not showing up to help bring them all together he’s there to reinforce the trust clause out of the holy book of church order.
If you are the elected representative of a religious denomination in schism and systemic decline, financial crises, a general depopulation of your churches, and general incoherence on its public message and image, there are many demands on your time. Many competing factors for your attention. Using a rather conservative estimation of about 10% of PCUSA churches in flux or in the process of revaluation of it affinity to the national church. Out of the 400-500 or so churches of various sizes and situations in similar or like circumstances, why this one in Bethlehem? And why now in the midst of litigation? So what is the purpose of the visit? To cheer lead and rally the troops? To show support? To cover their assets and financial investments in the process? To engage in partisan polemics and give a news event for the PNS?
Maybe all of that, and maybe more. But if so, what makes this case and situation more or less worthy of such individual attention than say the other 300, 400 other PCUSA churches in similar circumstances? Does not the love of him and his office extend to those conflicted churches as well? So where is their love in the hearts of Louisville? All most interesting and all the more curious. But this is the PCUSA. And indeed anything and everything is in play at any given moment.