The 220th Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly adjourns in Pittsburgh today, having followed, quite remarkably, the United Methodists a couple months ago in rejecting same-sex marriage and anti-Israel divestment. Unlike the UMC, which is a growing global denomination, the PCUSA is a fast declining nearly U.S. only church. Since the 2010 abandonment of the church’s official expectation that clergy adhere to Christian sexual ethics, many conservative congregations and individuals have quit. Earlier this year, a new orthodox Presbyterian denomination was created, and reportedly about 800 congregations are pondering departure from the PCUSA. So conservatives were prepared for defeat here, and liberals understandably expected victory.
But many liberals joined moderates and conservatives in narrowly rejecting anti-Israel divestment after a legislative committee had overwhelmingly backed it. And moderates sided with conservatives in leaving the church’s traditional definition of marriage in place. Who knows what will happen to the PCUSA in the future, but the status quo prevailed for the moment.
I had never attended a PCUSA General Assembly before. It is very similar to a UMC General Conference but maybe more orderly and less tense. United Methodists are surrounded by pro-GLBT demonstrators, who this year were joined by pro-divestment activists, and together they constantly threatened to disrupt the proceedings. Sometimes they did. The Presbyterians seemed more calm by comparison. It was encouraging to see three IRD board members here: Rev. Sue Cyre of “Theology Matters,” Rev. Mateen Elass of Presbyterians for Renewal, and Gary Green of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. IRD fellow Alan Wisdom was also here, as were IRD staffer Bart Gingerich and IRD intern Christian Stempfer, all of whom provided great reporting and analysis.
It was appropriate for Presbyterians to meet in Pittsburgh, historically a Presbyterian town, since scrappy Scots-Irish settlers came here in the
1700′s after the British captured French Fort Duquesne and replaced it with Fort Pitt. Today, a block house from Fort Pitt still survives, which I enjoyed visiting. Young George Washington was with General Edward Braddock when he and much of his British army were slaughtered en route to Fort Duquesne. And Washington was here with General John Forbes when the French finally fled. (My review of a new history of young Washington’s first military experiences is in this week’s “Weekly Standard.”)
A fantastic mural in the William Penn Hotel by a Hungarian artist shows Washington at Fort Pitt though as a white haired man when he was actually in his 20′s. Even as Presbyterian Scots-Irish were eventually outnumbered by later Lutheran and Catholic immigrants, they continued to dominate the city for much of the 19th and early 20th century. Philanthropists like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, originally from Scots-Presbyterian background, emerged here.
Presbyterians, along with Episcopalians, once were America’s ruling elite. Events here at the PCUSA General Assembly, along with the Episcopal General Convention now meeting in Indianapolis, help illustrate how they’ve become more marginal. Debating same-sex marriage, or transgenderism as the Episcopalians are, is not typically a sign of church vitality. But the survival of traditional marriage at this General Assembly also illustrates that a reservoir of orthodoxy still survives within the PCUSA. We can pray it perseveres.