The final full day of the PCUSA General Assembly was approached by commissioners with a sense of apprehension and foreboding. The Assembly, it was now clear, was divided almost 50 50 with razor sharp numerical divisions. The Rev. Jack Baca from San Diego Presbytery, moderator of the assembly’s Middle East Peacemaking Committee, put a brave face on the previous night’s defeat but it was obviously a disappointment – and surprise – that his majority report was not approved. ”We have not retreated from our goal” and the Assembly’s rejection had “spurred a deeper commitment for peace in the Holy Land,” he asserted.
At the end of the morning at worship the preacher was ruling elder Tony De La Rosa, Executive Presbyter for New York City Presbytery, who referenced his mother, his partner, and his partner’s mother. Using once again the lowering of the paralytic he said that “In Christ the barriers to grace are removed once and for all.” It was an agenda-driven sermon. I thought back to Manhatten Presbyterian luminaries such as George Buttrick and Canadian John Sutherland Bonnell, and fundamentalists John Hess McComb and Walter Duncan Buchanan at Broadway Church at 116th St., where I was taken as a child. It’s a different denomination today and it appears not anchored.
In a memorable speech at the beginning of the afternoon Michael Wilson, Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church in the rural heart of conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, stated that he was “proud and it was an honor to serve the PCUSA” and declared his commitment to building a “balanced vital community of faith.” He went on to warn that “narrow legislative victory has not worked well for the church.” “We have not listened to one another.” And he concluded with a plea: “please join us by not sharpening the divisions.” He knows of what he speaks: his Donegal Presbytery has been heavily impacted by departures of significant congregations, but always done in a gracious Christian way.
The recommendation of “Committee 13″ to revise the definition of marriage came in at 2:40 pm. Much of that debate repeated points made in earlier committee sessions on my Monday blog, though Brittany Tamminga of San Diego, a Theological Student Advisory delegate from Princeton Seminary, provided an unusual definition of calling, urging the Assembly not to deny LGBT their calling and asking commissioners to respect God’s calling, an interesting definition of the Reformed doctrine of vocation. The geographical spread seemed predictable: speakers from New York state and the Northeast being outspokenly in favour of revision of the definition of marriage. Overseas delegates pleaded with the Assembly to consider the impact a positive vote would make on relations between their churches and the PCUSA.
By 5:20 pm, after working through (and dismissing) two minority reports, the question was called. The advisory delegates were polled first – the Theological Students were 80% in favour of revision, as were 75% of the Youth Advisory delegates. The ecumenical representatives were split fifty/fifty and the missionaries not unsurprisingly came in at 21% in favour, 71% opposed. The final tally was 48% in favour, 52% opposed. The room emptied quickly, consternation was apparent: the Assembly had looked at the abyss and had failed to jump, deciding not to risk the future of the denomination for the uncertainties of surrendering to the culture. Debate ground on in the evening, completing business at 1:30 Saturday morning. The evening, I was told later (I did not stay), was largely a rubber-stamping of leftover committee recommendations. The next morning delegates returned for a final short session.
In reflecting about what I witnessed in Pittsburgh, I have been struck by the relevance of New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat’s just published Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics. “America’s problem,” he states there, ” isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. Since the 1960s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief – Catholic and Protestant alike – have entered a state of near terminal decline. The churches with the strongest connection to the Christian past have lost members, money, and authority; the elite that was once at least sympathetic to Christian ideas has become hostile or indifferent; and the culture has turned its back on many of the faith’s precepts and demands.” (p. 3) No more insightful statement on the state of mainline Protestant denominations could be provided.
Rabbi Gil Rosenthal of the National Coucil of Synagogues was to start Thursday morning of the General Assembly with “ecumenical” greetings. I had always thought “ecumenical” referred to those specifically Christian but this definition has now been broadened to include an imam and a rabbi. But instead of appealing to the liberals in the denomination by stressing inclusivity, Rosenthal launched into a fiercely partisan denunciation of divestment, something that brought howls of protest from those identifying with a pro-Arab and anti-Israeli position. The worm had indeed turned.
Indeed the issue of divestment dominated the day as the Assembly returned to the subject in the evening. The majority report of the Committee on Middle East and Peacekeeping Issues had called for the church to divest its $1.6 million stock holdings in Caterpillar, Motorola, and Hewlett Packard because of complicity in what was called Israeli repression of Palestinians. The debate, with a minority report, went on for two hours but was, as the Moderators said later, marked by civility. One ruling elder from Peoria who had worked for Caterpillar for 38 years was particularly impassioned. As I said to someone sitting next to me “It’s lucky that they didn’t ask someone from Canada from the other point of view.” Caterpillar has few friends north of the 49th parallel since it bought and closed out Electro-Motive Co of London Ontario and put 450 employees out of work. The final vote was 333 to 331 with two abstentions. An audible gasp could be heard as the numbers were announced. The men with yarmulkes, who seemed at times ubiquitous at Assembly, had done their job.
Two issues testing the openness of the church to constructive dialogue proved significant but provided mixed signals. The first had to do with whether the so-called “property clause” of the Book of Order of the denomination should be retained. Faced with growing numbers of churches leaving the denomination – some say up to 350,000 will finally depart though the total cannot be fully known yet – the question of who owns church property takes on a weighty significance. Speaking in favour of placing property in the hands of congregations was Jeff Garrison, pastor of First Church, Hastings, Michigan, who regretted the expenditure of “money and energy that could have gone toward ministry and mission” was instead diverted to legal costs. Garrison cited Canadian church union in 1925 and the resulting litigation and hassles that remained for years as a warning to Americans. Speaking on the other side, ruling elder Jan Banker of Tampa Bay Presbytery spoke of “Presbyterians behaving badly” and referred to an incident in their presbytery which had been marked by an “egregious act of unfaithfulness.” Knowing those involved far too well, I had to concur.
The “property clause” was retained but encouragingly a commissioner’s overture asking the Board of Pensions to explore a shared benefits program with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (to which most congregations leaving the PCUSA have gone) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (a new denomination to which many others are going) was approved by a vote of 319 to 311 with 8 abstentions. One woman minister rose to denounce the EPC, saying that the denomination denied the legitimacy of her ordination but that statement was soon disclaimed and it was pointed out that only one presbytery in the EPC now opposes women in ministry. “I would encourage us to do the graceful thing” Jim McCrea, a pastor in Galena, Illinois, opined. It was a promising moment amid the unhappiness of separation and schism.
Fireworks came early this fourth of July when Tara Spuhler McCabe, Vice Moderator, announced her unexpected resignation. From the moment the Presbyterian Outlook revealed that she had performed a same-sex marriage in April questions had been raised. “I think I embody the reality of a growing number of pastors,” she stated, ” who find themselves caught between being pastors … and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling.” A gasp of “No” could be heard across the Assembly. Moderator Neal Presa regretfully chose a replacement, Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs. He assured the Assembly, on being questioned, that again he had chosen a person of different persuasion in regards to solemnizing same sex marriages.
Wednesday afternoon the Assembly got down to business: the new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, worked out with the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church, was approved. Though not enough presbyteries had approved the addition of the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions it was sent down again for approval. It appears that if the voice of the church is not satisfactory another attempt can be made to “right” matters.
In an audacious move the Church Growth and Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program recommended that the Assembly commit itself to 1001 new churches. The commissioners came up with additional wording seeking the development of workable strategies, collaboration with congregations in growing new communities of faith and to report back to the 2014 General Assembly. The move appeared to fly in the face of so many congregations leaving the denomination – Assembly was told that in Tropical Florida Presbytery alone sixteen churches have departed with another six in process. Many presbyteries have been decimated, reducing overhead and staff, and even making their continued existence uncertain.
On Wednesday evening the Assembly commissioned 152 Presbyterian mission co-workers and young adult volunteers who have accepted appointments since the last General Assembly. The service had particular resonance for me as my father and mother had served the same Board from 1929 to 1970 as missionaries to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, sponsored by the nearby First Presbyterian Church, now reduced to under 300 members, a sign I fear of the decline of the whole denomination.
When commissioners to the PCUSA General Assembly woke up on 3 July and had their Pittsburgh Post-Gazette delivered to their hotel rooms they were greeted by the front-page headline “Presbyterian divestment proposal spurs heated debate here.” Speaking of what it called “impassioned testimony from American Jews, Palestinian Christians and Presbyterians,” the Chair of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee Brian Ellison was quoted as saying that “the church should not profit from investing … in companies whose actions conflict with church values.” A yeaar ago Ellison was appointed chair of the Covenant Network and at the time had stated “Having given all of my vocational life to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I joined with others in celebrating last year’s constitutional changes permitting sessions and presbyteries to ordain all those whom God calls. ” Political and ordination activism often seems to coalesce to create a high voltage (some say toxic) atmosphere as the merits of positions are reduced to slogans and stereotypes.
This was particularly evident when the Civil Union and Marriage Issues Committee concluded their debate of the day before with two proposals to be sent to the plenary session on Friday: one that changed the definition of marriage from between a woman and a man to between two people and the other calling for a two-year period of church-wide reflection on the meaning of marriage. The proposal to change the definition of marriage passed by a vote of 28 to 24 amid intense reflection on what its impact might be: the estimate of a thousand churches leaving the denomination had been bandied about. There was an atmosphere of crisis in the room as the vote was announced. Some regarded that as the price the church had to pay for being prophetic and pastoral, others saw it as a suicidal death wish.
That evening the various renewal groups joined as the Presbyterian Coalition to honour Terry Schlossburg. a long-time articulate and winsome advocate for Presbyterians Pro-Life and the broader concerns of those committed to Biblical faithfulness in the denomination. The mood of the evening was both celebratory but also sobering and solemn. Evangelicals who remain in the denomination feel isolated and abandoned as many have defected and their issues of conscience had been ignored or outvoted. In that atmosphere John Huffman, veteran evangelical strategist, addressed the meeting. His fifty years as an ordained PC(USA) minister had given him a unique perspective. He made five points: (1) Everything has changed but nothing has changed. Ministry is tough. The heart of God is broken but He doesn’t give up. (2) No matter how hard we work things will never go back to where they were. The years have taken their toll and we cannot turn back the clock. (3) ”I thank God for a great church history, a great theology, a great global mission heritage.” [It is estimated that there are today 92 million Christians in the world as a direct result of Presbyterian (USA) missionary activity.] (4) We have made progress in the past fifty years: there is greater hunger spiritually today than in 1962 when churches were pastor-driven and its activities and program predictable. The emphasis on small groups, the renewal of the church, discipleship training, are all advances which have created a more intentional community-centered church life. He included a list of inspirational leaders in the 1960s and 1970s that re-energized the laity. (6) “I love this church. It’s been good to me. Stay, fight on, serve, and be faithful.” It was a moving speech which I hope will be published.
“Our church is like fudge: sweet, with a few nuts.” Brian McClaren, gadfly agent provcateur for recovering evangelicals, addressed commissioners and advisory delegates over breakfast Monday, bringing a message of hope and encouragement for the embattled mainline. “Congtatulations,” he stated, “You are further along than you think you are. ” In a later interview he explained: “You have to do less, sometimes, or you have to have less people, but if you only have constraint without creativity you decline. The only thing that pulls you out of decline is creativity. The assumption that the future will be different from the past is a painful conclusion to reach but once you accept it, again it unleashes creativity.” His prediction about a promising future for Presbyterians: “”There will be thousands if not tens of thousands of young evangelicals who are being driven out of their evangelical church because of hostility to gay people, hostility to immigrants, and carelessness about the environment.”
The American General Assembly always begins with commissioners assigned a committee that will vet all material about a specific issue before it comes to all 500 in the final four days of the gathering. Of the twenty-one committees I joined with the press as a correspondent and with many others for #13 “Civil Union and Marriage” and witnessed a fascinating conversation that showed me just how much the culture has impacted the church. An hour and a half was allotted to the presentations: based on the number of submissions, fifteen minutes for those opposed to a change in the existing definition of marriage in the liturgy and standards as between “a man and a woman” and seventy-five minutes for those calling for re-write.
The group arguing for retention made their familiar case: Biblical authority, refusing to change the creation order, and the impact that opening ordination to non-celebate homosexuals had made on the churches overseas that our missionary efforts had established: the Mexican church being the first to cut their ties after the previous General Assembly, followed by Presbyterians in Ghana and even the Mezo Presbyterian church in India. The presenters seemed despondent and dissiprited as though facing a juggernaut.
The counter arguments will become familiar in the days ahead but some were quite novel to me. They focussed on an issue every church will have to deal with sooner or later: in a sexually broken world, the pastoral care congregations will be called on to provide not only for GLBT’s but their families as well. The argument was for pastoral discretion so that the present definitive interpretation does not shackle a loving response to those who need the church’s care if not necessarily its affirmation. In exercising pastoral discretion disregarding the present strictures can involve costly legal battles, as the lawyer for Jean Southard and Jane Spahr testified – both women having been charged recently solmenizing a wedding prohibited by Presbyterian church law. Can we legally deny use of the building for such ceremonies, particularly with cooperative and shared denominational facilites or union congregations? The real difficulty with the present situation is what to do in the six states and the District of Columba) that have legalized same sex union now called by the state “marriage”? The arguments became intensely personal: we were shown a picture of Van and Ralph, in a relationship for many years and one of whom appears near death. Theircongregation wanted to celebrate their union before that happened. We were told that wethe church is sending such away with a broken heart. The present position, it was affirmed, ”denies one group of people the opportunity to worship God.”
Astonishing statements were made. “Scripture reveals no consistent view of marriage.” “”Marriage is different today than one hundred years ago.” True but how and then the kicker: “Gender of couples is not the main point.” “Christ provided no instruction about same gender marriage.” “Jesus Christ teaches us radical inclusivity.” “The harm [the church has] done to GLBT’s is cruel – stop the cycle of harm.” “Are they children of a lesser God?” we were asked. A Czech now living in the United States argued from Calvin’s Book 4 of the Institutes and said that in the Reformation there was no such category as Christian marriage.” These staements, given the format of the presentation, could not be debated or challenged.
The overwhelming sentiment seemed to be that this is the time to change, that decisive action was needed, and that there has been too much delay. Later the General Assembly Offfice was called in to discuss what the impact on the denomination would be if there was a change in the definition of marriage, the present authoritative interpretation reversed, and “gender equality” in marriage affirmed. The committee is now wrestling as to whether a firm recommendation to amend will proceed to the Assembly or caution will prevail. But judging from the number of rainbow scarves I saw in the room among both observers and committee members, there is no doubt which way the wind in blowing. Stay tuned again. This could be a decisive moment in Presbyterian history or simply, as the Brits say, “a damp squid.”
Sunday, the second day of General Assembly, is traditionally a time for worship in local congregations. In Pittsburgh, the heartland historically of American Presbyterianism, you have many options. The three most popular for commissioners appeared to be First Church, which many chose because of its nearby location and history, East Liberty if you wanted spectacular archietecture (built by the Mellons in 1930 with no expense spared), and Shadyside known today for the excellence of its preaching. Being naturally countercultural I chose Mount Lebanon United Presbyterian Church whose twin towers dominate the Pittsburgh skyscape as you fly into the city. The church is one of four that are working through “gracious dismissal” from the denomination with the Pittsburgh Presbytery. I was privileged to participate in their life as a congregation. Lead Pastor Tim Janiszewski gave a powerful analysis of what it means to be a missional congregation (inside out not outside in) at the Adult Bible Class and a strongly Biblical message about the disciples’ motivation for outreach. As Tim Janiszewski said in the Adult Class the 30% rule applies to their second traditional service and is a concern – below 30% capacity visitors looking for a church immediately assume a problem and today there are only 120 in a sanctury built for 1100. The 9 o’clock contemporary family service draws 250. The sheer size of the Pittsburgh churches, built in an earlier era and in a time of prosperity when steel was king, means that these congregations can easily become preoccupied by building maintenance, something not unfamiliar to us in Canada. Mount Lebana UP passed my ultimate test when I was invited out to a Chinese meal by an older couple. I left with a warm appreciation of a congregation that had earlier nurtured the MacDougall family before they came to Bridlewood in 1972 and had such a significant impart on our fledgling church plant.
That afternoon Assembly unanimously reelected Gradye Parsons as its stated clerk. Noone else had applied and one can certainly understand why- being stated clerk of a troubled and deeply divided denomination with catastrophic losses of membership since reunion in 1983, is no sinecure. Parsons, who is a Gordon-Conwell graduate, stated in his acceptance speech: “Yes, there have been storms, and there still are. Yes, we’re in a bit of a mess, but we’re still called by Jesus Christ, to be sisters and brothers in the faith, and to use our gifts for the world Christ loves.”
I was privileged to be one of the 3000 Presbyterians that gathered on 30 June for the 220th General (i,e., national) Assembly in Pittsburgh. As we worshipped together in the opening communion service that Saturday there was a mood of anxious expectancy, some might even say dread. A common recognition that resonated continuously was the fact that the denomination has changed dramatically since the last Assembly two years ago and there were frequent references to churches having been given “gracious (and in some cases, as in Kansas City, not so gracious) dismissal”. The outgoing moderator, Cindy Bolbach, unable to stand because of recent cancer treatments, preached forcefully and received a standing ovation for her courage and strength in adversity. She had spoken at the last Assembly on the lowering of the paralytic into the house where Jesus was healing the sick and had said that, like the patient, the denomination was paralysed. Now, presumably having now enacted Proposition 10A that opened ordination to non-celebate homosexuals, she said she was changing the application. This time, instead, she focussed on the process by which a person is brought to Jesus and the risks that have to be taken to show the compassion of faith which she described as “the heart of the gospel.” We must, she concluded, get beyond “categorizing people and every habit of labelling people.” She cited San Francisco Presbytery as a body where toxicity had been transformed into “a place where people can see Jesus.”
The Assembly then set about to elect a Moderator. The candidates had already been introduced at a luncheon arrangted by the Presbyterian Outlook and in short five minute campaign speeches they gave their pitch. They represented the spectrum of the PCUSA both geographically and culturally. The very process, seeming very democratic, has meant that as the denomination has balkanized there are none of the strong and seasoned leaders of yesteryear which, cynics affirm, leaves 100 Witherspoon St Louisville, the denominational headquarters, firmly in control – or so I was told by a knowlegable observer who had no theological axe to grind.
The first candidate to speak was Randy Branson, a small town Texas pastor for most of his ministry and whose platform was twofold: to show more appreciation and respect so thhat our witness is not weakened in the world and to create a new relationship between the Assembly and the local congregation. He referred to a minute he had recently uncovered of a 1907 meeting of the Southern Church held in his congregation in Graham, Texas, which featured prayer, Bible study, and missionary advance, presumably in contrast to today. Neal Presa, a dynamic young Philippino who serves a suburban church in northern New Jersey then spoke emotionally of his parents being on the point of divorce when he proposed to his wife and how they had reconciled and drew lessons from it for the church, drmatically saying that, now together, they had travelled 8000 miles to be present, He asked whether the denomination was going to use “our faith as a means of mass destruction.” “The real challenge the churches are facing is whether we are open to the limitless possibilities of God’s future and to seek the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The third candidate, Sue Krummel, with her husband an executive presbyter near Chicago, started with the question “What were we thinking when we agreed to come here?” and commented, in the understatenent of the evening, that “there is just a little pressure on us.” The the final candidate, who alone took a carefully nuanced position against legitimnizing the solemnisation of gay marriages by Presbyterian clergy, was Bob Austell who did two years at Gordon Conwell before transferring to Princeton. Austell concluded the presentations by saying that he was ”a pastor, a good news pastor” and came from a Presbytery (Charlotte) that had lost ten churches in the last year and was forced into major staff downsizing and which he was now bereft of many friends.
It took four ballots late into Saturday evening, to elect Neal Presa as Moderator. There was however dissension over his choice of a Vice-Moderator when it had been revealed that she had, as a pastor in Washington DC where same sex marriages are legal, signed the wedding certificate for a lesbian couple “out of pastoral concern.” It appears that this will be an ongoing theme for the entire Assembly as the issue of definining marriage (eliminating the reference to man and woman in the liturgy and even for some the standards) gives evidence of being highly divisive. In speaking to many commissioners I hear them saying that this will be “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” causing even more churches to leave and necessitating a whole restructuring of many presbyteries. We will see – stay tuned.
Given at the John Stott Memorial service at St Paul’s Bloor St Toronto on 18 March 2012. I will be giving a paper titled “John Stott Theological Educator” at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Milwaukee on 15 November at a John Stott tribute along with Alister Chapman, Andy LePeau, Greg Scharf, and Carl Trueman
As I state in my biography of C Stacey Woods, John Stott arrived in Canada for the first time on 10 November 1957. He and Wilber Sutherland, who had met him when his boat, the SS United States, docked at New York, had taken the overnight sleeper from New York. Wilber Sutherland as General Secretary of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada had invited John Stott to come to Canada to conduct evangelistic meetings in several universities, an invitation which was subsequently broadened to include the United States.
The next day. here at the University of Toronto, John Stott began his memorable North American tour. He went on to the Universities of Western Ontario and Michigan, spent Christmas with the Billy Graham family in Montreat, and then resumed his Canadian tour, starting at Winnipeg and on to UBC, concluding in February at McGill for a weekend. There a future moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada was converted. The impact of his visit was long-lasting and gave a strong boost to InterVarsity’s student ministry. His lectures, under the title “Christianity Is Christ,” were published as Basic Christianity and made his name familiar across Canada and around the world.
Stott’s next exposure to Canadians came with his visit to Urbana Illinois in 1964. For five of the next six Urbana’s, as the InterVarsity missionary conference grew from five thousand to nineteen thousand (including several thousand Canadians), he was the featured attraction. His morning Bible readings provided a model for Biblical exposition. I remember vividly Urbana 70 and his exposition of John 14-17. He began in 1964 with II Corinthians chapters 4 through6 and ended in 1979 with Romans 1 through 5. The inspiration for those attending from Canada was energizing and ultimately incalculable.
At the first Lausanne congress John Stott arranged to meet me in an assembly room to discuss an invitation that I, on behalf of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada of which I was president at the time, had extended to him to speak at a Christian Leadership Seminar to be held at York University the following June. His choice of a room to meet elicited his comment that “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” a proverb that I have found very useful subsequently. Over 1500 people crowded York University on that occasion, as Stott was teamed with Donald McGavran and Stephen Olford.
L to R, Centre row: Mel Donald, Marj Long, JRWS, John White, ADM,Gordon Stewart
The final invitation to John Stott to come to Canada I extended, this time as General Director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, was on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. He came to address a four day national staff conference at Geneva Park in Orillia in January 1979. The staff had not been altogether in one place for over a decade and John Stott made the meetings very memorable.
John Stott played a pivotal role in the creation of Regent College in Vancouver and spoke at four summer schools. He was also, as Timothy Dudley Smith says in his biography, invited to be the Principal. Regent became the inspiration in 1979 for the London Institute and it was during those years that the Langham Trust was brought into being here in Canada, as a part of his vision for graduate theological education in Majority World countries, and the encouragement of expository preaching. In Canada the Trust was started as a Vancouver organization with John Cochrane one of its initiators. Gradually the center of gravity moved to Toronto where an active Langham Trust board today strengthens Stott’s earlier initiatives.
Stott’s goodbye visit to Canada was in April 1998 when a series of farewell meetings here in Knox Church, Avenue Rd. congregation and at Tyndale Seminary were thought to be his final appearances in Toronto. At seventy-eight it was not anticipated we would see him again but he returned on at least three more occasions, the last in 2004.
At least three things John Stott taught Canadians: (1) The value of expository preaching ministry which he modeled and encouraged and was in sharp contrast to the usual Canadian pulpit fare. (2) The discipline of a focused life in contrast to our more relaxed and casual approach. His razor-sharp intellect challenged easy complacencies and compromises. (3) His strategic thinking, constantly strategizing, using limited resources to the best advantage, and always with a global vision, in contrast to our too often narrow focus and the pursuit of short-term goals.
The death on Thursday, 1 March, of Malcolm Caldwell draws to an end a remarkable career in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. I had the privilege of attending the funeral service at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa when about 150 of us joined in celebrating his life and witness in worship led by the Clerk of Presbytery, James Hurd, who was a successor of Malcolm’s in Woodstock, New Brunswick. The message was delivered by Rev Clarence H. Witten, minister of the Dixon’s Corners Christian Reformed Church. The Caldwells, when they retired from ministry, had moved to Lantz, Nova Scotia and worshipped at the church Clarence Witten had pastored at the time, Faith Community, in Milford. Their minister at St Paul’s, Jack Archibald, was out of town conducting chaplaincy retreats at Lake Louise, Alberta.
On 30 August 2008 as Convener of the Committee on History, PCC, I interviewed Malcolm for its Oral History project. He and Lois had recently moved into Ottawa from their second retirement home in Merrickville. With Lois’ help, he struggled to recall events in his twenty-three year ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
That ministry had been nurtured in his home congregation of St Andrew’s Sydney Mines. Malcolm was born a year after church union when the church, by a vote of 265-59, remained in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The minister at the time was F Scott MacKenzie, from 1927 to 1945 Principal and subsequently (to 1958) Professor at Presbyterian College, Montreal. As I say in my biography of Stanford Reid (pages 103-6), MacKenzie very much identified with the old liberalism. It was the induction of Quincy McDowell in 1930, an American, a graduate (with my father) of the Princeton Seminary class of 1927 , that shaped both St Andrew’s and the Caldwell family. Malcolm’s younger brother was named Quincy so profound was their pastor’s impact. McDowell, who remained for a decade, was followed (from 1940-1952) by another American, Clarke Evans, a 1935 graduate of Westminster Seminary.
It was during the ministry of Doug Wilson in St Andrew’s (1954-1962) that Malcolm felt the stirrings of a call to ministry. He was at the time an employee of Dominion Steel and Coal in Sydney where he had worked since high school. His brother Quincy had taken theological studies at Westminster Seminary graduating in 1959. Now, three years later Malcolm, with his wife Lois (née MacQueen), and two children set off for Boston and studies at Gordon College and Divinity School. In this move he was encouraged by H Stewart Gray, a 42 year Trustee of Gordon Divinity School and an elder of the United Presbyterian Church of Newton, MA, with a cottage on the Mira where he and his wife, Leta (née Shaw), would summer. A successful businessman, Stewart had set up a Trust Fund for fellow Canadians at Gordon.
As Lois, a remarkable woman with great gifts of empathy and efficiency, worked to put Malcolm through school he worked summers at a golf club. He graduated with a BA and subsequently a MDiv, applied for an appointment as an ordained missionary of the PCC and was sent to the Newcastle, New Brunswick, pastoral charge. Joining Miramichi Presbytery in 1968 placed Malcolm at the centre of denominational agitation – and eventual schism – of a group of radical separatists. Unlike brother Quincy. Malcolm was a denominational loyalist, a cool head with mature wisdom and discernment. He moved on to Ottawa, serving in the Gloucester and Vernon charge. Paul Mills had been there before.By now there were three children: Donald, who moved in 1977 to Boston to work with Stewart Gray as an apprentice to his partner Stewart MacDonald, Mary and Malcolm (who later followed his brother to to work for MacGray Co.)
The family returned to the Maritimes as Malcolm accepted a call to St Paul’s Woodstock. His time at Woodstock was very fruitful: he gathered around him a Session that had been previously nurtured by Bob Ross: a remarkable group of laymen deeply committed and with leadership gifts. I had the privilege of living in the Woodstock Manse the summer of 1981 and can attest to the quality of its life and witness under Malcolm’s leadership. One of the elders, Archie McLean, later President of Maple Leaf Foods, gave me some good advice. The service at St Paul’s was broadcast and, having heard me preach my first Sunday service as he was driving back from conducting a service at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Houlton, Maine, he was outspoken: “If you preach here in Woodstock as though you were at Knox Church Toronto you won’t have a congregation very long.” I took that comment as a commendation of Malcolm’s ministry. Warmly pastoral, with an ability to immediately recall individual names, Malcolm was a man of the people: passionate about his Christian faith and contagious in sharing it.
On 28 June 1984 Malcolm was inducted as Senior Minister of Bethel Church, Sydney. His predecessor, Everett Bean, had been an icon in the PCC and served as Clerk of Synod (and General Assembly) with great distinction. Malcolm was a native son, knew the area well, and was quickly integrated back into the community, enjoying support from Everett Bean who remained in the congregation as minister emeritus until his tragic death on 7 January 1991. Bethel was a post-Union amalgamation of several minorities among Sydney Presbyterian churches and has always represented a challenge to its clergy through its sheer size and diversity. Shortly after Dr Bean’s death Malcolm announced his retirement, as of June 1991. He was 65 years of age.
Many tributes were paid Malcolm but none was appreciated more than the honour granted him by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1990. At the instigation of Stewart Gray, the school conferred on Malcolm the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Stewart beamed with pride as Malcolm came up to receive his diploma. With two of his boys working for MacGray, ninety-one year old Stewart was the proud honourary parent. Four years later Stewart Gray was gone, with much of his estate going to Gordon-Conwell Seminary.
Malcolm and Lois were together in ministry for fifty-eight years. Twenty-one of those years were spent in retirement. Malcolm was a man of prayer, as his three children bore witness at the funeral. Their passionate profession of personal faith in Christ, given at that service, was a moving witness to the impact of his life. There is a whole generation of pastors of Malcolm’s ilk that are passing on: as we honour them we pay tribute to the leadership they provided in a church that is vastly different today. Malcolm’s faithfulness is an example to all of us. His faithful daily devotional life is a reminder that it is in the little things, the disciplines of the rhythm of our lives, that we will be judged.
This past Wednesday, 19 January, the day of his death, I paused to remember a man who had a dramatic impact on my life: Frank Ely Gaebelein (1899-1983). Dr Gaebelein, Headmaster of Stony Brook School for forty-one years, died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, on that date in 1983. When I was deposited in September 1953 at “the Brook” straight from the mission field by my father (who had taught there 1923-1924), FEG was on sabbatical and Pierson Curtis was in charge. The legendary “PC” and I simply did not click: probably the only one in the School of whom that can be said. When FEG returned in 1954 he took an immediate interest in me and made me. for my final year, his aide-de-camp, sitting in the Office guarding his door at nights. His Romans class was the intellectual highlight of my two years at Stony Brook: careful exposition of Scripture and brilliantly applied. My senior assignment was a paper on the inspiration of Scripture and the recommended text was Francis Lindley Patton’s classic. Patton had spoken at the opening of the School in 1922 and was at that time President of Princeton Seminary. I came to FEG with my valedictory speech. He went over with me the outline, four words starting with “S,” and told me to strike out one, “Sex.”
FEG, Graduation 1959
My first year at McGill University – FEG had battled my father who made me turn down a full scholarship to Harvard so I would be sure to keep the faith under the watchful eye of Stanford Reid at McGill – was a disaster. I describe my trauma in C Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University (154-5). In my despair I traveled back to Stony Brook, and spent time with him. He wrote my uncle Wesley Ingles, a former teacher, “I am concerned about Don MacLeod … Don has been in to talk with me … It is too bad to see [him] … at such a loose end.” (FEG to JWI, 13 Sept 1956 SBS Archives) Others may have found FEG aloof but to me he was a warmhearted pastor. Three years later, graduating from McGill, I made my way back for graduation to show him that I had navigated the shoals of adolescence successfully.
FEG, MacLeods 13 April 1971
I have a full file of Gaebelein letters over the next decade that I cherish. What a correspondent he was: always encouraging me to stay the course, to remain strongly Biblical in the early days of ministry, to keep the faith. I started a church in suburban Toronto in 1967 and invited him to lead a weekend with my fledgling congregation over Easter 1971. How he managed to be away from home over that holiday escapes me and his utter humility in coming. We kept him busy with various events climaxing with a memorable message Resurrection Morning, “The Imperative of Christian Education.” The brochure speaks of his “continuous contact with youth [which] has given Dr. Gaebelein a unique combination of the wisdom and perspective of age with the freshness and dynamism of the innovator.” He left me one of his books inscribed to “my former student, in whose faithful ministry of Christ and the Word I greatly rejoice.”
In March 1980, returning from a school break in Florida, we dropped in at his home in Arlington, Virginia, as I wanted my boys to meet him. We spoke briefly, left a plant, and expressed concern. Dorothy Gaebelein was upstairs in the final stage of her illness. It was a difficult time for him and, after prayer together, we continued on our journey home with a heavy heart. My final memory of FEG was at the Evangelical Theological Society when it met in Toronto at Ontario Bible College and Theological Seminary, as Tyndale was then known, in November 1981. I drove him out to the Airport to catch a plane back to Washington. He only lived another fourteen months but I see him still, going out through Departures, alone.
FEG was a cultured man of strong convictions, stalwart faith, and iron discipline. Stony Brook was his monument. He prepared me for life. I see in my notes from his Romans class ,which I still use, he said “The fellowship among believers is one of the benefits of a place like Stony Brook … That is something that we who are going to secular colleges will miss.” I have one of his mountain photographs framed in a prominent place in my home, a constant reminder of FEG. The obituary of a Swiss mountain climber comes to mind when I think lovingly of Frank Ely Gaebelein: “He died climbing.”