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A Letter from the Interim Associate Pastor to Presbytery

From the Back to the Future
November 4, 2010

One of the greatest perks of serving as an associate pastor to the presbytery has been the opportunity to visit congregations and learn their story. Knowing where we've been gives a context in which to see where we are and to get inspiration for where we might yet go in response to God's call.

I've visited not one, but two, churches which were put up on logs more than 100 years ago and rolled along to new locations so they could  be physically closer to the people they were built to serve. Talk about a church on the move. One even held services halfway through the journey. Another church was jacked up so that a foundation could be dug and there would be space for fellowship. Often these feats were accomplished by the labor of church members. Still other churches trace their founding back to the 18th century in a time when church-goers faced threats typical of the frontier.

A church I once pastored responded affirmatively to the presbytery's request to erect a new building to reach an expanding part of the city. The work began right before the stock market crash of 1929. Rather than stop, the elders put up their own homes as guarantee that the church mortgage would be paid off. That piece of their history kept the congregation moving forward when they faced a financial crisis in the latter part of the 20th century. They followed in the footsteps of their grandparents in faith.

Recently, I came across an intriguing connection of past and present. An essay in the Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church (Kettering, Ohio) newsletter included a reference to something called "occasional hearing." The church, of which my family and I were once members, has a 200-year-old history, which has been well-documented. In the 1840s, a huge controversy arose over occasional hearing, which is defined as listening to a sermon preached by a minister from a denomination other than one's own. Shocking, I know!

The theological warfare was so fierce over this issue that Sugar Creek split into two congregations, each of which aligned with a different denomination. A pastor who was called to serve one of the churches believed it was immoral to listen to a sermon by a minister of another denomination. He asked the presbytery to discipline any minister who had anything to do with ministers who were not members of (his) Free Associate Synod. A decision was rendered that ministers of different denominations could work together, but they could not listen to each other's sermons. (Were there sermon police?)

The sound and fury eventually ceased --at least over that issue --when the Associate Presbyterian Church and the Free Associate Reformed Presbyterian Churches reunited in 1858 in, of all places, our own Pittsburgh, becoming the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPNA).

The UPNA adopted the six Great Ends of the Church in 1910. They, of course, have been the focus of an in-depth series in this e-news by Pastor to Presbytery Sheldon Sorge. When the northern and southern branches of Presbyterians reunited in 1983 as the PCUSA (having split over slavery), those great ends became part of our church constitution. They are part of how we constitute ourselves. They emerged from our history and point to future and hope to which God in Christ beckons.

I look forward to Sheldon's next teachings on the Great Ends. I invite you to take a magical history tour of your church to explore, as I have, how, even amid theological differences and trying circumstances, you are building on our shared history and moving toward fulfillment of 1) proclaiming Good News, 2) Godly community, 3) divine worship, 4) truth, 5) social justice, and 6) living the love of God in all the earth.

Roll on.


The Rev. Carol Divens Roth, Interim Associate Pastor to Presbytery

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