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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, March 13, 2017

Who Will Fill This Pulpit?


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
I was spared, although there were tremors below me from time to time.

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
I expected to hear hints of animosity in both services, but they were absent.

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."

Prior Series
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

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

"although there were tremors below me from time to time"

that might actually be a stroke. Better get it checked out.

Patriot2 said...

PCUSA is a hierarchy & bureaucratic organization that has lost nearly 20% of its membership by deviating from the principles of its religious roots due to liberal PC agenda.

They deserve the strong response from members reaching out to the ECO arm of the church that speaks to the people without the bureaucracy IMO. The PCUSA pastor that spoke yesterday exemplifies the arrogant attitude that caused the departure by ignoring the church member majority position.

george schaller said...

Bernie
When your article is complete will you be linking churches to the local Vatican? Than will you have a subsect also linking them to local organization of the soul sale sector sidiversional toolZ and there implementation?

Anonymous said...

no much is sillier than organized religion but pass the collection plate as we need money for the furnace fund

Anonymous said...

Patriot 2 needs to be closely watched as he attempts to further his support of the "Pray Away the Gay" crowd or morphs into a stone them or burn their flag and repudiate the fact that "God is Love,"
Jesus Wept (Center Street version)

Anonymous said...

Much ado about nothing..in the end. Nobody cares except the people in the pews arguing over who gets the scraps. Reminds me of the roman guards who threw dice to see who got Jesus' clothing at the foot of the cross. Typical human behavior from the hypocrites who call themselves christians.

Patriot2 said...

Only ones that burn flags or stone people are the liberal Hillary supporters that exhibit little tolerance for disparate opinions-they are the ones to be closely watched!

Ovem Lupo Commitere said...

I have been very hesitant to comment, as the only issue at the moment really is a legal issue, to which I am not directly a part of. Besides, legal issues are best to be resolved in the legal courts, rather than the court of public opinion (I noticed a Morning Call article on the same subject).

However, I did find one quote from your post quite moving: "The pulpit is already filled. Don't you see the cross?"

I can only offer a prayer for all concerned, to find: Grace, God's love without needing to earn it; Mercy, God's forgiveness without needing to deserve it; and the Cross, reconciliation through Jesus. I believe all parties involved in your post will find common ground on those. Everything else beyond that ecclesiastical is tainted by humans. Hopefully for all involved, resolution can be found without the need for court judgement, as any divorce that can be resolved amicably is better than adversarially. With that sad divorce analogy, I guess I would ask both parents to "consider the children, and settle this like adults."