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|Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)|
|Moderator||Rev. Neal D. Presa|
|Associations||National Council of Churches; World Communion of Reformed Churches; World Council of Churches|
|Origin||June 10, 1983|
|Merge of||The Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America|
|Members||1,849,496 communicants, roughly 3,000,000 adherents|
|Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)|
|Moderator||Rev. Neal D. Presa|
|Associations||National Council of Churches; World Communion of Reformed Churches; World Council of Churches|
|Origin||June 10, 1983|
|Merge of||The Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America|
|Members||1,849,496 communicants, roughly 3,000,000 adherents|
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PC(USA), is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States. Part of the Reformed tradition, it is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the U.S. The PC(USA) was established by the 1983 merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, whose churches were located in the Southern and border states, with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, whose congregations could be found in every state.
The denomination had 1,849,496 members and 20,849 ordained ministers in 10,262 congregations at the end of 2012. Though its membership has declined significantly in the past several years, the PC(USA) remains the most visible Presbyterian denomination in North America. The PC(USA) is a member of the National Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, and Christian Churches Together. Denominational offices are located in Louisville, Kentucky.
Presbyterians trace their history to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. Presbyterian heritage, and much of what they believe, began with the Swiss/French theologian and lawyer John Calvin (1509–64), whose writings solidified much of the Reformed thinking that came before him.
Calvin did most of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland. From there, the Reformed movement spread to other parts of Europe. John Knox, a Scotsman who studied with Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, took Calvin's teachings back to Scotland (see Scottish Reformation). Other Reformed communities developed in England, Holland and France. The Presbyterian church traces its ancestry back primarily to Scotland.
The early Presbyterians in America came from Scotland and Ireland. The first American Presbytery was organized at Philadelphia in 1706. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) was held in the same city in 1789. The Assembly was convened by the Rev. John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. This was indicative of the active support of most Presbyterians for the American War of Independence.
The First Great Awakening had a major impact on the American Presbyterians. Inspired by the evangelical preaching of George Whitefield and others, Gilbert Tennent delivered a sermon in West Nottingham, Maryland in 1740 on "The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry." In the sermon, he asserted some current Presbyterian church leaders might be academic "Pharisee-teachers" who did not have the same faith or enthusiasm as newly converted followers, a controversial view which divided the church. Together with his brother William Tennent, he led the Presbyterian part of the Great Awakening revivalist movement in America.
In the South the Presbyterians were evangelical dissenters, mostly Scots-Irish Americans who expanded into Virginia between 1740 and 1758. Spangler (2008) argues they were more energetic and held frequent services better atuned to the frontier conditions of the colony. Presbyterianism grew in frontier areas where the Anglicans had made little impression. Uneducated whites and blacks were attracted to the emotional worship of the denomination, its emphasis on biblical simplicity, and its psalm singing. Some local Presbyterian churches, such as Briery in Prince Edward County, owned slaves. The Briery church purchased five slaves in 1766 and raised money for church expenses by hiring them out to local planters.
In the early years of the 19th century, the church carried on revivals and organized congregations, presbyteries, and synods wherever pastors and lay people went, emphasizing the connectional nature of the church. Presbyterians also helped to shape voluntary societies that encouraged educational, missionary, evangelical, and reforming work. As the church began to realize that these functions were corporate in nature and as the century proceeded, it formed its own boards and agencies to address these needs at home and abroad. Mission to Native Americans, African Americans, and populations all over the world became a hallmark of the church.
The 19th century was also characterized by disagreement and division over theology, governance, and reform - particularly slavery. In 1803, Barton W. Stone led a group of revivalist New Light Presbyterian ministers to form independent Springfield Presbytery which eventually became the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 1810, a number of Presbyterian congregations and ministers, ejected by Kentucky Synod for their pro-revival position and their relaxation of ordination requirements in a frontier setting, formed the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, although they never intended the split to be permanent. In 1837, the church was split by the Old School-New School Controversy. The century also saw the formation of the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1858. When the country could not reconcile the issue of slavery and the federal union, the southern Presbyterians split from the original PCUSA, forming the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America in 1861, which became the Presbyterian Church in the United States after the American Civil War.
The early part of the 20th century saw continued growth in both major sections of the church. It also saw the growth of Fundamentalist Christianity (a movement of those who believed in the literal interpretation of the Bible as the fundamental source of the religion) as distinguished from Modernist Christianity (a movement holding the belief that Christianity needed to be re-interpreted in light of modern scientific theories such as evolution or the rise of degraded social conditions brought on by industrialization and urbanization).
Open controversy was sparked in 1922, when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a modernist pastoring a PCUSA congregation in New York City, preached a sermon entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" The crisis reached a head the following year when, in response to the New York Presbytery's decision ordain a couple of men who could not affirm the virgin birth, the PCUSA's General Assembly reaffirmed the "five fundamentals": the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, the vicarious atonement, the innerancy of Scripture and Christ's miracles and resurrection. This move against modernism caused a backlash in the form of the Auburn Affirmation — a document embracing liberalism and modernism. The liberals began a series of ecclesiastical trials of their opponents, expelled them from the church and seized their church buildings. Under the leadership of J. Gresham Machen, a former Princeton Theological Seminary New Testament Professor who had founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, and who was a PCUSA minister, many of these conservatives would establish what became known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. Although the 1930s and 1940s and the ensuing neo-orthodox theological consensus mitigated much of the polemics during the mid-20th century, disputes erupted again beginning in the mid-1960s, over the extent of involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the issue of ordination of women, and, especially since the 1990s, over the issue of ordination of gays and lesbians.
The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was joined by the majority of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, mostly congregations in the border and Southern states, in 1906. In 1920, it absorbed the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church. The United Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the PCUSA in 1958 to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA).
Under Eugene Carson Blake, the UPCUSA's stated clerk, the denomination entered into a period of social activism and ecumenical endeavors, which culminated in the development of the Confession of 1967 which was the church's first new confession of faith in three centuries. The 170th General Assembly in 1958 authorized a committee to develop a brief contemporary statement of faith. The 177th General Assembly in 1965 considered and amended the draft confession and sent a revised version for general discussion within the church. The 178th General Assembly in 1966 accepted a revised draft and sent it to presbyteries throughout the church for final ratification. As the confession was ratified by more than 90% of all presbyteries, the 178th General Assembly finally adopted it in 1967. The UPCUSA also adopted a Book of Confessions in 1967, which would include the Confession of 1967, the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic and Scots Confessions and the Barmen Declaration. Moreover, the UPCUSA would alter the ordination vows for ministers, having them "sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confession of our church as authentic expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do" and vow to "be instructed and led by the these confessions as [they] lead the people of God," whereas the initial vows had them "sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture".
An attempt to reunite the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in the late 1950s failed when the latter church was unwilling to accept centralization. This reflected its support for local decision making and concern about central organizations having greater power, a historically Southern attitude about civil government as well as ecclesiastical. In the meantime, a conservative group broke away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1973, mainly over the issues of women's ordination and a perceived drift toward theological liberalism. This group formed the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Attempts at union between the churches (UPCUSA and PCUS) were renewed in the 1970s, culminating in the merger of the two churches to form the Presbyterian Church (USA) on June 10, 1983. At the time of the merger, the churches had a combined membership of 3,121,238. Many of the efforts were spearheaded by the financial and outspoken activism of retired businessman Thomas Clinton who died two years before the merger. A new national headquarters was established in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 replacing the headquarters of the UPCUSA in New York City and the PCUS located in Atlanta, Georgia.
The merger essentially consolidated those moderate-to-liberal American Presbyterians into one body. Practically all other U.S. Presbyterian bodies (the Cumberland Presbyterians being a partial exception) profess some measure of doctrinal Calvinist propositionalism, literalist hermeneutics, and conservative politics.
For the most part, PC(USA) Presbyterians, not unlike similar mainline traditions such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, are fairly (in some instances, strongly) progressive (liberal) on matters such as doctrine, environmental issues, sexual morality, and economic issues, though the denomination remains divided and conflicted on these issues. Like other mainline denominations, the PC(USA) has also seen a great deal of demographic aging, with fewer and fewer new members and a steadily declining membership total in every consecutive year since 1967.
A recent phenomenon is that of conservative-minded groups in the PC(USA) (such as the Confessing church movement) remaining in the main body, rather than leaving to form new, break-away groups, as those most theologically conservative usually did (e.g., the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Bible Presbyterian Church). However, a new split-away denomination has been established as of January 2012 called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.
Since 1983 the Presbyterian Youth Triennium has been held every three years at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S. and is open to Presbyterian high school students throughout the world. The very first Youth Triennium was held in 1980 at Indiana University and the conference for teens is an effort of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the nation; Cumberland Presbyterian Church; and Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, the first African-American denomination to embrace Presbyterianism in the reformed tradition. For information on this year's triennium, go to http://presbyterianyouthtriennium.org/
The Constitution of PC(USA) is composed of two portions: Part I, the Book of Confessions and Part II, the Book of Order. The Book of Confessions outlines the beliefs of the PC(USA) by declaring the creeds by which the Church's leaders are instructed and led. Complementing that is the Book of Order which gives the rationale and description for the organization and function of the Church at all levels. The Book of Order is currently divided into three sections - 1) Form of Government, 2) The Directory For Worship, and 3) The Rules of Discipline.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) has a representative form of government, known as presbyterian polity, with four levels of government and administration, as outlined in the Book of Order. The councils(governing bodies) are as follows:
At the congregational level, the governing body is called the session, from the Latin word sessio, meaning "a sitting". The session is made up of the pastors of the church and all elders elected and installed to active service. Following a pattern set in the first congregation of Christians in Jerusalem described in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the church is governed by presbyters (a term and category that includes elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, historically also referred to as "ruling or canon elders" because they measure the spiritual life and work of a congregation and ministers as "teaching elders").
The elders are nominated by a nominating committee of the congregation; in addition, nominations from the floor are permissible. Elders are then elected by the congregation. All elders elected to serve on the congregation's session of elders are required to undergo a period of study and preparation for this order of ministry, after which the session examines the elders-elect as to their personal faith; knowledge of doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church, and the duties of the office of elder. If the examination is approved, the session appoints a day for the service of ordination and installation. Session meetings are normally moderated by a called and installed pastor and minutes are recorded by a clerk, who is also an ordained presbyter. If the congregation does not have an installed pastor, the Presbytery appoints a minister member or elected member of the presbytery as moderator with the concurrence of the local church session. The moderator presides over the session as primus inter pares and as moderator also serves a "liturgical" bishop over the ordination and installation of elders and deacons within a particular congregation.
The session takes care of the guidance and direction of the ministry of the local church, including almost all responsibilities of spiritual and fiduciary leadership. The congregation as a whole has only the responsibility to vote on: 1) the call of the pastor (subject to presbytery approval) and the terms of call (the church's provision for compensating and caring for the pastor); 2) the election of its own officers (elders & deacons); 3) buying, mortgaging, or selling real property. All other church matters such as the budget, personnel matters, and all programs for spiritual life and mission, are the responsibility of the session. In addition, the session serves as an ecclesiastical court to consider disciplinary charges brought against church officers or members.
The session also oversees the work of the deacons, a second body of leaders also tracing its origins to the Book of Acts. The deacons are a congregational-level group whose duty is "to minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress both within and beyond the community of faith." In some churches, the responsibilities of the deacons are taken care of by the session, so there is no board of deacons in that church. In some states, churches are legally incorporated and members or elders of the church serve as trustees of the corporation. However, "the power and duties of such trustees shall not infringe upon the powers and duties of the Session or of the board of deacons." The deacons are a ministry board but not a governing body.
A presbytery is formed by all the congregations and the Ministers of Word and Sacrament in a geographic area together with elders selected (proportional to congregation size) from each of the congregations. Four PC(USA) synods (see below) have a non-geographical presbytery for Korean language Presbyterian congregations. One synod has a non-geographical presbytery for Native American congregations, the Dakota Presbytery. There are currently 173 presbyteries for the more than 10,000 congregations in the PC(USA). The five presbyteries are "non-geographical" only in that they overlay other pre-existing English-speaking geographical presbyteries; they are in fact "geographical" in that they are geographically limited to the boundaries of a particular synod. It may be more accurate to refer to them as "trans-geographical" presbyteries.
Only the presbytery (not a congregation, session, synod, or General Assembly) has the responsibility and authority to ordain church members to the ministry of Teaching Elder (formerly called Ministry of Word and Sacrament), to install Teaching Elders to (and/or remove them from) congregations, and to remove a minister from the ministry of Teaching Elder. A Teaching Elder is a Presbyterian minister by virtue of membership on a roll of a presbytery. The General Assembly cannot ordain or remove a Teaching Elder, but the Office of the General Assembly does maintain and publish a national directory with the help of each presbytery's stated clerk. Bound versions are published bi-annually with the minutes of the General Assembly. A pastor cannot be a member of the congregation he or she serves as pastor because his or her primary ecclesiastical accountability lies with the presbytery. Members of the congregation generally choose their own pastor with the assistance and support of the presbytery. The presbytery must approve the choice and officially install the pastor at the congregation. Additionally, the presbytery must approve if either the congregation or the pastor wishes to dissolve that pastoral relationship.
The presbytery has authority over many affairs of its local congregations. Only the presbytery can approve the establishment, dissolution, or merger of congregations. The presbytery also maintains a Permanent Judicial Commission, which acts as a court of appeal from sessions, and which exercises original jurisdiction in disciplinary cases against minister members of the presbytery.
A presbytery has two elected officers: a moderator and a stated clerk. The Moderator of the presbytery is elected annually and is either a minister member or an elder commissioner from one of the presbytery's congregations. The Moderator presides at all presbytery assemblies and is the chief overseer at the ordination and installation of ministers in that presbytery. The stated clerk is the chief ecclesial officer and serves as the presbytery's executive secretary and parliamentarian in accordance with the church Constitution and Robert's Rules of Order. While the moderator of a presbytery normally serves one year, the stated clerk normally serves a designated number of years and may be re-elected indefinitely by the presbytery. Additionally, an Executive Presbyter (sometimes designated as General Presbyter, Pastor to Presbytery, Transitional Presbyter) is often elected as a staff person to care for the administrative duties of the presbytery, often with the additional role of a pastor to the pastors. Presbyteries may be creative in the designation and assignment of duties for their staff. A presbytery is required to elect a Moderator and a Clerk, but the practice of hiring staff is optional. Presbyteries must meet at least twice a year, but they have the discretion to meet more often and most do.
See "Map of Presbyteries and Synods".
Presbyteries are organized within a geographical region to form a synod. Each synod contains at least three presbyteries, and its elected voting membership is to include both elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament in equal numbers. Synods have various duties depending on the needs of the presbyteries they serve. In general, their responsibilities (G-12.0102) might be summarized as: developing and implementing the mission of the church throughout the region, facilitating communication between presbyteries and the General Assembly, and mediating conflicts between the churches and presbyteries. Every synod elects a Permanent Judicial Commission, which has original jurisdiction in remedial cases brought against its constituent presbyteries, and which also serves as an ecclesiastical court of appeal for decisions rendered by its presbyteries' Permanent Judicial Commissions. Synods are required to meet at least biennially. Meetings are moderated by an elected synod Moderator with support of the synod's Stated Clerk. There are currently 16 synods in the PC(USA) and they vary widely in the scope and nature of their work. An ongoing current debate in the denomination is over the purpose, function, and need for synods.
The General Assembly is the highest governing body of the PC(USA). Until the 216th assembly met in Richmond, Virginia in 2004, the General Assembly met once a year; since 2004, the General Assembly has met biennially in even-numbered years. It consists of commissioners elected by presbyteries (not synods), and its voting membership is proportioned with parity between elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament. There are many important responsibilities of the General Assembly. Among them, The Book of Order lists these four:
The General Assembly elects a moderator at each assembly who moderates the rest of the sessions of that assembly meeting and continues as moderator until the next assembly convenes (two years later) to elect a new moderator. The current Moderator of the 220th General Assembly (2012) is Rev. Neal Presa. The moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010) was Ruling Elder Cynthia Bolbach. The moderator of the 218th General Assembly was the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow.
A Stated Clerk is elected to a four-year term and is responsible for the Office of the General Assembly which conducts the ecclesiastical work of the church. The Office of the General Assembly carries out most of the ecumenical functions and all of the constitutional functions at the Assembly. The current Stated Clerk of the General Assembly is the Rev. Gradye Parsons.
The Stated Clerk is also responsible for the records of the denomination, a function formalized in 1925 when the General Assembly created the “Department of Historical Research and Conservation” as part of the Office of the General Assembly. The current “Department of History” is also known as the Presbyterian Historical Society.
Six agencies carry out the work of the General Assembly. These are the Office of the General Assembly, the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, the Board of Pensions, the Presbyterian Foundation, and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (formerly known as the General Assembly Mission Council).
The General Assembly elects members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (formerly General Assembly Mission Council). There are 48 elected members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (40 voting members; 17 non-voting delegates), who represent synods, presbyteries, and the church at-large. Members serve one six-year term, with the exception of the present Moderator of the General Assembly (one 2-year term), the past Moderator of the General Assembly (one 2-year term), the moderator of Presbyterian Women (one 3-year term), ecumenical advisory members (one 2-year term, eligible for two additional terms), and stewardship and audit committee at-large members (one 2-year term, eligible for two additional terms). Among the elected members’ major responsibilities is the coordination of the work of the program areas in light of General Assembly mission directions, objectives, goals and priorities. The PMAB meets three times a year. The General Assembly elects an Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency who is the top administrator overseeing the mission work of the PC(USA). The current Executive Director of the PMA is Ruling Elder Linda Bryant Valentine.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) is the highest Church court of the denomination. It composed of one member elected by the General Assembly from each of its constituent synods (16). It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all Synod Permanent Judicial Commission cases involving issues of Church Constitution, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission issues Authoritative Interpretations of The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through its decisions.
The denomination maintains affiliations with ten seminaries in the United States. These are:
There are numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States affiliated with PC(USA). For a complete list, see the article Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. For more information, see the article PC(USA) seminaries.
When the United Presbyterian Church in the USA merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States there were 3,131,228 members. Statistics shows steadily decline since 1983.
The PC(USA) maintains extensive statistics on its members. Total "communicant" membership fell by 2.9% in 2009 to 2,077,138, Losses continued in 2010 with a loss of 61,047 members (−2.9%) in 2010, resulting in a membership of 2,016,091 at the end of 2010. This continues a three decade-long decline in membership for PC(USA). This is consistent with the trends of most mainline Protestant denominations in America since the late 1960s. In 2013, Jan Armstrong, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara, said that the most recent informal OGA (Office of the General Assembly) projections are for an anticipated loss of perhaps 500,000 members over the next 3–4 years, roughly 25% of the denomination's membership.
The average Presbyterian Church has 195 members (the mean in 2009). About 25% of the total congregations report between 1 and 50 members. Another 23% report between 51 and 100 members. The average worship attendance as a percentage of membership is 51.7%. The largest congregation in the PC(USA) is Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, with a reported membership of 8,989 (2009).
According to the latest statistics, in 2012 the PC(USA) had 1,849,496 communicants, a total loss of 102,791 members in the previous year. This shows the single largest annual membership decline since the PC(USA) was formed in 1983.
Member congregations also declined in 2012 by 204, of whose 86 was dissolved, 110 were dismissed to other denominations. Only 13 new congregations were started in the previous year. There were only 20,849 PC(USA) ministers in 2012, 215 fewer than it was in 2011.
Most PC(USA) members are white (92.9%). Other racial and ethnic members include African-Americans (3.1% of the total membership of the denomination), Asians (2.3%), Hispanics (1.2%), Native Americans (0.2%), and others (0.3%). Despite declines in the total membership of the PC(USA), the percentage of racial-ethnic minority members has stayed about the same since 1995. The ratio of female members (58%) to male members (42%) has also remained stable since the mid-1960s.
The session of the local congregation has a great deal of freedom in the style and ordering of worship within the guidelines set forth in the Directory for Worship section of the Book of Order. Worship varies from congregation to congregation. The order may be very traditional and highly liturgical, or it may be very simple and informal. This variance is not unlike that seen in the "High Church" and "Low Church" styles of the Anglican Church. The Book of Order suggests a worship service ordered around five themes: "gathering around the Word, proclaiming the Word, responding to the Word, the sealing of the Word, and bearing and following the Word into the world." Prayer is central to the service and may be silent, spoken, sung, or read in unison (including The Lord's Prayer). Music plays a large role in most PC(USA) worship services and ranges from chant to traditional Protestant hymns, to classical sacred music, to more modern music, depending on the preference of the individual church and is offered prayerfully and not "for entertainment or artistic display." Scripture is read and usually preached upon. An offering is usually taken.
The pastor has certain responsibilities which are not subject to the authority of the session. In a particular service of worship the pastor is responsible for:
The pastor may confer with a worship committee in planning particular services of worship.
- the selection of Scripture lessons to be read,
- the preparation and preaching of the sermon or exposition of the Bible,
- the prayers offered on behalf of the people and those prepared for the use of the people in worship,
- the music to be sung,
- the use of drama, dance, and other art forms.—[W-1.4005]
The Directory for Worship in the Book of Order provides the directions for what must be, or may be included in worship. During the 20th century, Presbyterians were offered optional use of liturgical books:
For more information, see Liturgical book of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
In regard to vestments, the Directory for Worship leaves that decision up to the ministers. Thus, on a given Sunday moring service, a congregation may see the minister leading worship in street clothes, Geneva gown, or an alb. Among the Paleo-orthodoxy and emerging church Presbyterians, clergy are moving away from the traditional black Geneva gown and reclaiming not only the more ancient Eucharist vestments of alb and chasuble, but also cassock and surplice (typically a full length Old English style surplice which resembles the Celtic alb, an ungirdled liturgical tunic of the old Gallican Rite).
The Service for the Lord's Day is the name given to the general format or ordering of worship in the Presbyterian Church as outlined in its Constitution's Book of Order. There is a great deal of liberty given toward worship in that denomination, so while the underlying order and components for the Service for the Lord's Day is extremely common, it varies from congregation to congregation, region to region.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has, in the past, been a leading United States denomination in mission work, and many hospitals, clinics, colleges and universities worldwide trace their origins to the pioneering work of Presbyterian missionaries who founded them more than a century ago.
Currently, the church supports about 215 missionaries abroad annually. Many churches sponsor missionaries abroad at the session level, and these are not included in official statistics.
A vital part of the world mission emphasis of the denomination is building and maintaining relationships with Presbyterian, Reformed and other churches around the world, even if this is not usually considered missions.
The PC(USA) is a leader in disaster assistance relief and also participates in or relates to work in other countries through ecumenical relationships, in what is usually considered not missions, but deaconship.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) determines and approves ecumenical statements, agreements, and maintains correspondence with other Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, other Christians churches, alliances, councils, and consortia. Ecumenical statements and agreements are subject to the ratification of the presbyteries. The following are some of the major ecumenical agreements and partnerships.
The church is committed to "engage in bilateral and multilateral dialogues with other churches and traditions in order to remove barriers of misunderstanding and establish common affirmations." As of 2012 it is in dialog with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, the Korean American Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It also participates in international dialogues through the World Council of Churches and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The most recent international dialogues include Pentecostal churches, Seventh-day Adventist, Orthodox Church in America, and others.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in corresponding partnership with the National Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches. It is a member of Churches for Middle East Peace.
In 1997 the PCUSA and three other churches of Reformation heritage: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ, acted on an ecumenical proposal of historic importance, known as A Formula of Agreement. The timing reflected a doctrinal consensus which had been developing over the past thirty-two years coupled with an increasing urgency for the church to proclaim a gospel of unity in contemporary society. In light of identified doctrinal consensus, desiring to bear visible witness to the unity of the Church, and hearing the call to engage together in God’s mission, it was recommended:
That the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ declare on the basis of A Common Calling and their adoption of this A Formula of Agreement that they are in full communion with one another. Thus, each church is entering into or affirming full communion with three other churches.
The term “full communion” is understood here to specifically mean that the four churches:
commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service;
The agreement assumed the doctrinal consensus articulated in A Common Calling:The Witness of Our Reformation Churches in North America Today, and is to be viewed in concert with that document. The purpose of A Formula of Agreement is to elucidate the complementarity of affirmation and admonition as the basic principle of entering into full communion and the implications of that action as described in A Common Calling.
The 209th General Assembly (1997) approved A Formula of Agreement and in 1998 the 210th General Assembly declared full communion among these Protestant bodies.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in corresponding partnership with the National Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, Christian Churches Together, and the World Council of Churches.
In June 2010, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches will merge with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The result will be a form of full communion similar to that outline in the Formula of Agreement, including orderly exchange of ministers.
The PC (U.S.A.) is one of nine denominations that joined together to form the Consultation on Church Union, which initially sought a merger of the denominations. In 1998 the Seventh Plenary of the Consultation on Church Union approved a document "Churches in Covenant Communion: The Church of Christ Uniting" as a plan for the formation of a covenant communion of churches. In 2002 the nine denominations inaugurated the new relationship and became known as Churches Uniting in Christ. The partnership is considered incomplete until the partnering communions reconcile their understanding of ordination and devise an orderly exchange of clergy.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is currently struggling with the issue of Biblical interpretation and faithfulness, particularly as it relates to homosexuality. Paragraph G-6.0106b of the Book of Order prohibited the ordination of those who are not faithful in marriage or chaste in singleness. This paragraph was included in the Book of Order from 1997–2011, and was commonly referred to by its pre-ratification designation, "Amendment B." Several attempts were made to remove this from the Book of Order, and in 2011, the Presbyteries of the PC(USA) passed Amendment 10-A permitting congregations to ordain elders and deacons and presbyteries to ordain ministers without reference to the fidelity/chastity provision, saying "governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates".
Many Presbyterian scholars, pastors, and theologians have been heavily involved in the debate over homosexuality. In 2005, a female minister in Pennsylvania came under scrutiny after performing a marriage between a lesbian couple, including some Buddhist rites in the ceremony. Her case is to be heard by the church's court. Officially, the church does not prohibit clergy-performed blessing ceremonies for same sex unions, as long as it is clear that the blessing ritual is not a marriage ceremony.
Since 1980, the More Light Churches Network has served many congregations and individuals within American Presbyterianism who promote the full participation of all people in the PC(U.S.A.) regardless of sexual identity or lifestyle. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians was formed in 1997 to support repeal of "Amendment B" and to encourage networking amongst like-minded clergy and congregations. Other organizations of Presbyterians, such as the Confessing Movement and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have also organized on the other side of the issue to support the fidelity/chastity standard for ordination.
The 2006 Report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, in theory, attempted to find common ground. Some felt that the adoption of this report provided for a clear local option mentioned, while the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Clifton Kirkpatrick went on record as saying, "Our standards have not changed. The rules of the Book of Order stay in force and all ordinations are still subject to review by higher governing bodies." The authors of the report stated that it is a compromise and return to the original Presbyterian culture of local controls. The recommendation for more control by local presbyteries and sessions is viewed by its opposition as a method for bypassing the constitutional restrictions currently in place concerning ordination and marriage, effectively making the constitutional "standard" entirely subjective.
In the General Assembly gathering of June 2006, Presbyterian voting Commissioners passed an "authoritative interpretation", recommended by the Theological Task Force, of the Book of Order (the church constitution). Some argued that this gave presbyteries the "local option" of ordaining or not ordaining anyone based on a particular presbytery's reading of the constitutional statute. Others argued that presbyteries have always had this responsibility and that this new ruling did not change but only clarified that responsibility. On June 20, 2006, the General Assembly voted 298 to 221 (or 57% to 43%) to approve such interpretation. In that same session on June 20, the General Assembly also voted 405 to 92 (with 4 abstentions) to uphold the constitutional standard for ordination requiring fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness.
The General Assembly of 2008 took several actions related to homosexuality. The first action was to adopt a different translation of the Heidelberg Catechism from 1962, removing the words "homosexual perversions" among other changes. This will require the approval of the 2010 and 2012 General Assemblies as well as the votes of the presbyteries after the 2010 Assembly.[dated info] The second action was to approve a new Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order allowing for the ordaining body to make decisions on whether or not a departure from the standards of belief of practice is sufficient to preclude ordination. Some argue that this creates "local option" on ordaining homosexual persons. The third action was to replace the text of "Amendment B" with new text: "Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards." This would have removed the "fidelity and chastity" clause. This third action failed to obtain the required approval of a majority of the presbyteries by June, 2009. Fourth, a resolution was adopted to affirm the definition of marriage from Scripture and the Confessions as being between a man and a woman.
In July, 2010, by a vote of 373 to 323, the General Assembly voted to propose to the presbyteries for ratification a constitutional amendment to remove from the Book of Order section G-6.0106.b. which included this explicit requirement for ordination: “Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.” This proposal required ratification by a majority of the 173 presbyteries within 12 months of the General Assembly’s adjournment. A majority of presbytery votes was reached in May, 2011. The constitutional amendment took effect July 10, 2011. This amendment shifted back to the ordaining body the responsibility for making decisions about whom they shall ordain and what they shall require of their candidates for ordination. It neither prevents nor imposes the use of the so-called “fidelity and chastity” requirement, but it removes that decision from the text of the constitution and places that judgment responsibility back upon the ordaining body where it had traditionally been prior to the insertion of the former G-6.0106.b. in 1997. Each ordaining body is now responsible to make its own interpretation of what scripture and the confessions require of ordained officers.
In January, 2012, The Fellowship of Presbyterians (an alliance within PC(U.S.A.) of conservative-leaning members) gathered to create a "New Reformed Body," an alternative denomination to which congregations disaffected by the change in ordination standards could transfer their membership. A gathering of members of the PC(USA) met in Orlando to form a denomination that sought to be free from an increasingly liberal theology. Ultimately their work led to the formation of ECO (denomination). Although significantly more conservative than PC(USA), ECO affirms the ordination of women (a position not taken by some conservative Presbyterian groups such as Presbyterian Church in America or Evangelical Presbyterian Church (United States)), while maintaining that ordained officers of the church are to remain faithful within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chaste in singleness. It also affirms that Jesus Christ is the only way to God's salvation.
In the event of a congregational split, dissolution (closing), or disassociation from the PC(U.S.A.), the presbytery may assert a claim to the property. State law (which varies) determines the ownership of property despite the denomination's property clause in the Book of Order. This clause does not prevent particular churches from leaving the denomination, but if they do, they may not be entitled to any physical assets of that congregation unless by agreement with the presbytery. Recently this provision has been vigorously tested in courts of law.
Despite the historically connectional structure of Presbyterianism, this issue is, surprisingly, relatively new. Until recently the "connection" referred to doctrinal coherence and had no reference to physical property. In 1981, UPCUSA leaders persuaded the General Assembly to amend the Book of Order in order to add the "property trust" elements. The denomination did this in reaction to three developments over the previous decade:
1) A case involving a Pittsburgh ministerial candidate who opposed the ordination of women led several congregations in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio to leave in favor of the new Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative body with origins in the Southern U.S., in the mid-1970s.
2) The Supreme Court case Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), allowed for church property cases to be adjudicated in civil courts in the U.S., giving churches hostile to national or regional bodies a possible platform to secede.
3) Some months prior to that General Assembly, a number of disaffected congregations formed a new conservative denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. UPCUSA loyalists interpreted that move as having been encouraged by the 1979 ruling.
The secessions in the first and third points were occasioned in part by factors including the UPCUSA's approval of abortion rights, its stands on world peace and concomitant suspicion of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy (brought about by the trauma of the Vietnam War), and its support of controversial social justice causes such as a well-publicized General Assembly contribution to the defense fund of imprisoned activist Angela Davis. The first instance in particular reflected that candidate's and those churches' opposition to female leadership in the church and feminism in general. Later, in the 1980s, Presbyterian evangelicals added homosexuality to their list of grievances, although the UPCUSA decided in 1978 not to ordain non-celibate gays to the ministry or eldership, a decision that liberal groups succeeded in reversing in 2011.
The PCUS, already deeply in preparation for the UPCUSA merger, followed suit in 1982, but managed to gain a concession for its conservative congregations in the form of a two-year grace period to take effect after the consummation of the merger, to enable dissenting churches to defect, by consent of presbytery, without suffering any loss of assets. The PCUS had to agree to this limit on eligibility as a condition of union, due to the so-called "Northern Presbyterians" being by far the majority numerically.
In ensuing years, disaffection has grown among PC(USA) conservatives (from both predecessor traditions) due to feelings that presbyteries have no right to congregational property, since national agencies and local pledges usually finance building programs, with little or no presbytery fiduciary interest. In fact, prior to World War II, more often than not, new churches started from the initiative of larger congregations (e.g., Sunday School missions), not presbyteries, as became the case increasingly from the 1950s onward, due to suburban mission planning and ecumenical concerns. Several cases in California seem to have halted the practice in that state—the courts have allowed individual churches to leave the PC(USA) and keep their own assets, as well as parishes of the United Methodist and Episcopal denominations. State courts have varied as to whether they grant property to congregations or presbyteries in disputes, with states like Louisiana and Kansas deferring to local congregations.
In 2006, a few top staff in the national denominational offices (two attorneys named, the Clerk suggested by role in the exposé article cited below; none of those staff still serve in those offices) produced documents labelled "Privileged and Confidential Attorney Work Communication" recommending that presbyteries use "spiritual language" in defending property rights and assuming a defensive posture, obligating congregations to file suit. The so-called "Louisville Papers" caused a firestorm of controversy when they were exposed and publicly distributed.
In June 2004, the General Assembly met in Richmond, Virginia and adopted by a vote of 431-62 a resolution that called on the church's committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) "to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." The resolution also said "the occupation… has proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict." The church statement at the time noted that "divestment is one of the strategies that U.S. churches used in the 1970s and 80s in a successful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa."
A second resolution, calling for an end to the construction of a wall by the state of Israel, passed. The resolution opposed to the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier, regardless of its location, and opposed the United States government making monetary contribution to the construction. The General Assembly also adopted policies rejecting Christian Zionism and allowing the continued funding of conversionary activities aimed at Jews. Together, the resolutions caused tremendous dissent within the church and a sharp disconnect with the Jewish community. Leaders of several American Jewish groups communicated to the church their concerns about the use of economic leverages that apply specifically to companies operating in Israel. Some critics of the divestment policy accused church leaders of anti-Semitism.
In June 2006, after the General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama changed policy (details), both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups praised the resolution. Pro-Israel groups, who had written General Assembly commissioners to express their concerns about a corporate engagement/divestment strategy focused on Israel, praised the new resolution, saying that it reflected the church stepping back from a policy that singled out companies working in Israel. Pro-Palestinian groups said that the church maintained the opportunity to engage and potentially divest from companies that support the Israeli occupation, because such support would be considered inappropriate according to the customary MRTI process.
In May 2008, the denomination's Office of Interfaith Relations issued a statement titled "Vigilance against anti-Jewish ideas and bias." This statement reported that "strains of an old anti-Jewish tradition are present in the way we ourselves sometimes speak and in the rhetoric and ideas of some writers that we may read" regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Church revised and expanded this document in June, removing acknowledgment of such sentiment as a matter of current church practice, instead declaring that the church's current stands are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish — in part because they reflect criticisms of Israel meted by Jews and Israelis. The revisions resulted in a rebuke from the major Jewish denominations in a June 13, 2008 letter to the head of the PCUSA  and a similar condemnation in the form of a statement from the denominations and ten other organizations.