To follow Presbyterian news updates, outsiders need to learn a few key facts.
The Presbyterian Church in America is not the same thing as the American Presbyterian Church. Also, Orthodox Presbyterians are not to be confused with Bible Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Reformed Presbyterians or Evangelical Presbyterians.
This Presbyterian alphabet soup became less complicated in 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. joined with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the so-called Southern branch. This created the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which today has about 2.3 million members.
Is that clear? If so, take a deep breath because Presbyterian affairs are about to get more complicated as new divisions and unions reshape the churches that trace their roots to John Calvin and his Reformed branch of Protestantism.
"While we're seeing churches fly away from the core doctrines that once held them together, we're also seeing new bonds being formed that are truly interesting," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, whose work in the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper has made him a mainline Protestant lightning rod.
"We're seeing a realignment across the boundaries between our churches. This unity will be doctrinal — not legal. There may not be a formal structure that forms out of all of this. We don't need a big new denominational headquarters to replace the old denominational headquarters."
These are, of course, fighting words at the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been forced to downsize its Louisville staff several times in the past 15 years. Membership statistics and donations have declined in an era of conflict about biblical authority, ordination standards, sexual ethics and a host of ancient doctrines, especially the belief that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, these riptides of change have also affected the Layman, a newspaper born in 1965 when the old United Presbyterian Church began work on a modernized confession of faith. That fight reopened wounds from a 1924 battle, when its General Assembly decided that literal views of key doctrines — such as the virgin birth, deity and resurrection of Jesus — did not have to be used as a test for ordinations.
After decades of focusing on what has become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Layman's August issue included several pages of coverage of events in the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In the future, said Williamson, it will include news about the Presbyterian Church in America and other conservative Reformed bodies.
This will get complicated because "lots of things are happening at once" as church leaders try to plan for the future, he said.
Some congregations have decided to stay in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but their leaders are loosening their national ties. Williamson noted that leaders of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta have voted to try to stop their per-capita financial contributions from going to the national offices in Louisville. Instead, they want this money to back a new network called the Presbyterian Global Fellowship.
"So they're staying in the PCUSA, but they're doing what I call 'leaving, in place.' They're staying … but they've made it clear that this isn't business as usual," he said. "Now that's the largest church in the denomination, so when it does something like that it gives cover for smaller churches and their pastors who have been afraid to take a stand."
Some churches are openly attempting to cut their mainline ties and join the New Wineskins/Evangelical Presbyterian Church Transitional Presbytery. Other congregations are revising legal documents that bind them to their regional Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries, in case they want to exit in the future.
Leaders on both sides know it may take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to tie up the many loose ends in this legal fight — affecting millions of dollars worth of pensions, endowments and church properties nationwide. Similar conflicts are shaking the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other oldline Protestant bodies.
There will be unity in the future, said Williamson, but it will not look like the unity of the past.
"There isn't going to be a central, merged denominational office somewhere," he said. "The new church unity will be in new networks of people with common beliefs. It's going to look more like the World Wide Web, not the old industrial model."