(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook.) A few months into his term, J. Herbert Nelson – the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s new stated clerk, elected last summer by the 2016 General Assembly – is beginning to offer glimpses into his expanding vision for the denomination.
Nelson will preach at a Reformation worship service Nov. 2 at the PC(USA)’s national offices in Louisville – in an address that will be live-streamed and is being given the title “Write the Vision – Reclaim the Call.”
Scripture tells us that “the people who have no vision – they perish. They perish,” Nelson said Oct. 31.
In remarks that day at the Fall Polity conference, during both a workshop and a question-and-answer plenary session, Nelson gave some sense of his thinking – about his desire for the PC(USA) to make an impact in St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus, Ohio, cities where the next three General Assemblies will be held, and “to begin looking outward rather than inward” at the denomination’s national offices in downtown Louisville.
Reaching out. Nelson said national church leaders plan to be in conversation with Presbyterians and local community leaders in St. Louis (where Big Tent will be held in 2017 and the General Assembly in 2018) and Baltimore (the host city for the 2020 General Assembly) and Columbus (where the 2022 assembly will convene). The idea: a program Nelson called Hands and Feet.
When the 2016 assembly met in Portland in June, Nelson said many attendees noticed that Portland has a pervasive problem with homelessness – “it was pervasive, it was really frightening” to see the deep need. Presbyterians came, spent money in hotels and restaurants, then went home, Nelson said – but did not work “for the transformation of the city.”
He wants things to be different in St. Louis, Baltimore and Columbus. …
… Departures to ECO. Nelson said he wants the PCUSA to give some attention to its relationship to evangelical congregations that have left to go to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian, some in response to decisions the PCUSA made to permit the ordination of gays and lesbians who are in relationships and to allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages. ECO states on its website that it has more than 300 congregations nationwide – and over the past several years some of the PCUSA’s largest and most prosperous congregations have left.
“One of the great challenges we have with regard to ECO is what does it mean to be part of the body of Christ,” Nelson said – which means the PCUSA must consider the implications of the relationships between the two denominations, as painful as that sometimes has been.
That conversation can include, Nelson said:
- Raising questions at the ecumenical table to which they both belong – the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
- Considering what it means to be in covenant community with each other.
- Talking in local communities about what the relationship actually does and should look like.
“The responsibility for this does not rest solely with the Office of the General Assembly,” Nelson said. Each presbytery and synod must decide how to engage with congregations that have left or are considering it – determining how those departures will proceed.