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The Church in New Zealand

A short notice in the Banner of Oct. 5, 1979, caught my attention—particularly because of our contact with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church there. The article portrays a sad picture of the general church situation—which likely is not a great deal better in this country.

Anglicans in New Zealand were told by one of their high church officials that 30 years from now their only problem will be the disposal of their empty buildings. Accusing his denomination of being “so busy looking after the one found sheep that they have ignored the 99 who are lost,” archdeacon Herbert G. Boniface said that Sunday school attendance has dropped 63 percent in the last 15 years. He said that in New Zealand only four percent of the population attends Sunday worship.

On Situation Ethics

An editorial in the Presbyterian Journal, Sept. 26, 1979, points out some of the evidences of “situation ethics” within the churches. This form of “ethics” (and it is not “ethics” at all) suggests that what is done in love, though in violation with laws of God or of men, can rightly be done by children of God. The editor of theJournal sees this now in the decisions taken by some of the denominations in our land:

Last week . . . we carried in our news pages the story of a civil trial in which representatives of the Presbyterian Church US appeared in court with documents purporting to be minutes of meetings of a certain board of trustees—meetings which, in fact, had never been held and minutes of which, therefore, were evidently fabricated.

We’re not repeating the details because the details do not matter. What matters is what situation ethics or “the new morality” has done to the moral consciences of churchmen in general and some Presbyterians in particular. 

It is mind-boggling that at the very top levels in the Churches today, and in such contexts as proceedings in the civil court, the truth is considered expendable if a fabrication will achieve a desired purpose. That is an idea central to the theme of situation ethics—that we do not live by rules and regulations, but by what is “the loving thing to do”—in this case, what will best achieve a goal considered desirable. 

The philosophy of situation ethics appeared in the decision of the 1978 PCUS General Assembly to send down a proposal on “weighted voting” for ratification by a majority of the presbyteries rather than by the constitutional three-fourths of the presbyteries. 

It appeared in the decision of the 1979 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America simply to declare that women may be ordained and let it go at that—after six attempts to have the constitution changed to permit such ordination had failed. 

Now it appears in the presentation of official papers to a civil court in a civil suit—”minutes” of meetings which never took place. 

We thought we had seen the limit when we witnessed a former moderator of the PCUS testifying in civil court that people long dead were, according to his testimony, members of a “loyal minority” entitled to a local church’s property. We should have known that the virus had penetrated deeply when we became aware that nobody really cared that such a thing should have happened. . . .

The editorial rightly deplores this “situation ethics.” This evil does indeed appear in many places, many churches, and under various circumstances. It is nothing more than that first lie of the devil to Eve, “Ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” The “new morality” is not new at all. Only it comes often in different guises.

More of the “Unchurched”

Calvinist Contact, Sept. 21, 1979, quotes a report which reflects upon the church situation in Canada. Some of these findings also are of interest—and added indication of the great apostasy taking place over the whole world.

Despite the apparent winds of charismatic change which rippled across the land in recent years and despite a “born again” attitude within some of the mainline churches, Canada is no longer a Christian country. 

Well over half of the nation holds a belief in secularism—that the world is all there is and that they might as well enjoy life while they can. 

These findings are based on a report by church growth researcher, Rev. Dennis Oliver, a 37-year-old Presbyterian. He has spent the past five years doing research work at the Canadian Church Growth Centre in Regina, Sask. His findings reveal a religious reality which totally contradicts the widely held belief that Canada is a Christian country.

Mr. Oliver says that only one-third of the population has “any functional relation to God in the traditional sense.” “Secularism is the principal orientation of the majority,” he says.

Some other conclusions are also startling. We often talk about the “mainline” churches—Anglicans, Lutherans, the United Church. But there is a new mainline made up of newer Protestant groups which tend to overshadow those traditional, older churches. 

“Many newer and smaller religious groups have gained in strength to the point where they can be considered to have achieved mainline status. They presently outnumber the more traditional Protestant Churches.” 

He bases his arguments on average numbers attending services rather than on official church rolls or census figures. Far more Pentecostals attend church on any given Sunday than Anglicans – 256,000 compared to 187,374. 

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Sunday gatherings exceed those of the Lutherans. More gather to attend services of the major Mormon church than those of any Lutheran or Holiness (Salvation Army, Christian Missionary Alliance, etc.) denomination. And there are now more Muslims in Canada than Presbyterians, who have sunk steadily over the past decade to a current figure of about 169,000. 

Mr. Oliver says that the churches which are generally lumped together under the title Evangelical or Conservative-Evangelical (including most Baptist churches, all Pentecostals, some Mennonite and a number of independent traditions) now have a combined average Sunday attendance of 397,000. This is greater than that of Canada’s leading Protestant denomination, the United Church, which has 378,156. 

If you want to put a tag on Canada’s religious stance, then you could say that the religious segment of Canada is mainly Roman Catholic. That church’s communicant membership stood at 10 million, according to 1978 statistics. But even more significantly is the fact that approximately 46 per cent of them are active in church attendance. . . .

Churches in Court

Our own past history involved some of our congregations going to court in order to secure their properties. Repeatedly, churches with doctrinal difficulties resulting in “splits,” find that the courts appear to decide that properties go with the loyal group (though it be but a small minority), There have been in recent years and months, some changes in this respect. Christianity Today, Sept. 21, 1979, reports on some of this:

A mailman in Macon, Georgia, has to know his Presbyterian churches. Otherwise, he might deliver mail to the wrong Vineville Presbyterian Church. There have been two churches by that name in Macon for the past six years—the result of a church split. 

But what was once only a matter of local confusion, now has attracted the concern of several mainline Protestant denominations as well as Roman Catholic and Orthodox bodies. At stake is the question: Who owns the church property of a local congregation—the congregation or the parent body? 

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving the Vineville church seemed to cast a vote on the side of the local congregation. For that reason, at least one group—the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.—rang its alarm bells. At a hastily called meeting on September 16, the church’s Missions Council voted whether to convene a first ever special General Assembly. 

If called, the General Assembly would consider an amendment to the church constitution that would clearly specify that local church property is held in trust for the entire denomination. 

For more than a century, the bodies merged into the UPCUSA, often called the Northern Presbyterians, have operated on the principle that property is held in trust for the parent body. This policy evolved primarily from an 1871 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Watson vs. Jones, which said that decisions of church courts were final in cases involving “connectional” churches. 

However, in its July 2 ruling involving the Vineville church, Jones vs. Wolf, the high court said that if “religious societies” want local church property to revert to the denomination in the event of a congregational schism, they can either write such provisions into their constitutions, or local congregations can write such provisions into their local charters. 

Specifically, in its 5-4 majority ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court gave state courts the freedom to decide church property ownership cases on secular considerations when the denomination’s constitutional provisions are not specific. The court said, “We cannot agree that the First Amendment requires the states to adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authority in resolving church property disputes. . . .”

Understandably, some of the larger denominations were shook up about the above decision. Defections continue within these denominations. But the property question is ever a major consideration. Churches which realize that they will not necessarily lose their properties, might be more ready to leave an apostatizing denomination.