I was in church today from 10 am until nearly 3 pm. Last July, I wrote a mini-series on the rift at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem. (See links below). I was asked to do a follow-up because the Stated Clerk (highest ranking cleric) of the Presbyterian Church USA was visiting the Christmas City, and was going to deliver a sermon. I warned my editor that he would have to pay the hospital bill for the lightning bolts, and he agreed.
|Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II|
First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem is unfortunately a church divided. A splinter group calling themselves the ECO Presbyterians have been busy nationwide, peeling away congregations from Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). That's an ecclesiastical matter in which courts refuse to involve themselves. But oftentimes, there are property questions. Who owns the real estate on which First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem stands?
That's a question currently before President Judge Stephen Baratta. He has already had to play Solomon once and direct the two denominations on when they could hold their Sunday services. He's urged them to work together and has given both factions reason to believe each could lose.
The Stated Clerk is Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the son and grandson of Presbyterian preachers. His wife is a Presbyterian preacher, too. But not his daughter. She's a recent college grad and is still visiting other churches, he grumbled, as the audience chuckled.
In order to get a feel for what is going on, I attended both PCUSA and ECO services,and stuck around for lunch. Both denominations were equally friendly.
|Bethlehem's First Presbyterian|
Speaking for the ECO group, Rev. Dr. Mark Krumpler said he needed a softer heart. Quoting Ecclesiastes, he said, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."
In the later service by PCUSA, Rev. Dr. Nelson referred to the reading from Ephesians: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love."
Given these admonitions from both sides, it's hard to believe this dispute still lingers.
During the lunch later that day, I sat with Gail Watts, one of the PCUSA elders at First Presbyterian, along with her husband Paul. I showed Paul the picture I took of the empty pulpit and asked him who would be filling it.
He smiled at me and said, "The pulpit is already filled. Don't you see the cross?"
Before I do my full story, I have to try to sit down and talk to the ECO group. I failed to get through to them in July, and will try again.
One of the things that struck me about Rev. Dr. Nelson was his simplicity. When the service started, it was with a parade of PCUSA clerics from all over. They were fully clad in all their religious regalia. Nelson walked behind them, wearing only a plain black suit and a Roman collar.
Underneath this simplicity, there's strong conviction.In the video clip below answering a question about the importance of LGBT rights even though it has cost the church some membership, he concluded by saying, "We have to be the Church even at the risk of the Church losing its life."
I. Holy War: A Church Divided Against Itself
II. Holy War: Where Churches Stand on LGBT Issues
III. Holy War: First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Timeline