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[PCUSANEWS] Kirkpatrick says PC(USA) is at tipping point of renewal

From News Service <newsservice@CTR.PCUSA.ORG>
Date Tue, 27 Feb 2007 12:34:20 -0500

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07113 February 27, 2007

Kirkpatrick says PC(USA) is at 'tipping point' of renewal

Stated clerk indicates he'll consider seeking a fourth term

by Jerry Van Marter

LOUISVILLE - 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."

In a wide-ranging interview with the Presbyterian News Service Feb. 26, Kirkpatrick said his recent travels to Lebanon and Mexico, as well as conversations he's had in recent weeks with large-church pastors and middle governing body leaders has persuaded him more than ever "that we dare not miss the donut for looking at the hole."

Proudly showing off his eight-week-old granddaughter in his Louisville office, Kirkpatrick said, "God has blessed my family through the Presbyterian Church for 300 years - I can't believe that God doesn't intend that same blessing for my grandchildren."

Particularly since last summer's 217th General Assembly, disaffected PC(USA) congregations have increasingly explored exit strategies from the 2.3-million-member denomination. Last month, the New Wineskins Association of Churches voted unanimously to ask the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to create a non-geographic presbytery for congregations who want to leave the PC(USA).

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."

Kirkpatrick cited three recent journeys which he said convinced him that "it's clear to me we're at a point of willingness to build together the PC(USA) of the future that God intends":

His time in Lebanon and Mexico, "where I witnessed first-hand the vitality of the witness of our partner churches" despite war in Lebanon and continued economic and political unrest in Mexico. The church in Mexico, for instance, now numbers 1.8 million Presbyterians, a far higher percentage of that country's population than Presbyterians in the U.S. comprise.

His meeting last month with the traditionally conservative large-church pastors, where Kirkpatrick said he found "deep alienation, but vital ministry and by-and-large a willingness to engage in theological dialogue and partnership in mission."

A consultation in Albuquerque, NM, to discuss the future of the PC(USA)'s middle governing body system, which he said focused on larger questions of "what God wants us to be and do even though some - especially the smaller [presbyteries] - are in financial trouble; the willingness to "be adaptive rather than technical in our leadership" bodes well for the denomination, Kirkpatrick said.

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."

He said a legal opinion on church property that denominational critics have derisively called "The Louisville Papers" and labeled "hard-line" and "secretive" are simply that - legal opinions on church property law.

"That's not the advice we're giving churches and sessions," Kirkpatrick insisted, citing a more recent paper from his Constitutional Services office entitled "Responding Pastorally to Troubled Churches." That document states: "We commend using a response team that seeks a time of prayer and conversation aimed at understanding the conflict and identifying steps toward reconciliation."

Several presbyteries have established processes along that line - Kirkpatrick praised those Wabash Valley and New Covenant presbyteries in particular. "I really hope congregations will use the processes of the presbyteries rather than resorting to court," he said.

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."

Kirkpatrick said he'd be "happy" to host a conversation around church property issues, "but down the road - not in an atmosphere of litigation."

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."

For example, several seminaries have agreed to specialize in different aspects of the church's ministry - for example, Columbia Theological Seminary in evangelism, San Francisco Theological Seminary in vocation, and Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Christian education. Kirkpatrick said he expects each of the 10 seminaries to adopt an emphasis that will produce "a flowering of mission activity as well as renewed traditional theological education."

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.

Globally, associations of Reformed churches are coming together as never before, said Kirkpatrick, who is president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. And similar to the CCT in the U.S., the Global Ecumenical Forum is casting a far wider global net than has historically been possible by the World Council of Churches.

"It's a sign of the flowering of ecumenism far beyond the traditions of previous generations," Kirkpatrick said. "For me it is a huge sign of hope that underneath all our differences and diversity, there is one church. I hope that spirit comes inside the PC(USA)."


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