The Presbyterian denomination traces its roots to the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. Reformers like John Calvin of France and Switzerland, and John Knox helped frame the theological framework of a movement which reached America’s shores in the early 1700s. Key principles included strict interpretations of scripture, a doctrine of predestination and austerity in the lives of the godly. It’s often said that what Martin Luther started, Calvin refined. These beginnings birthed the religious underpinnings of the Presbyterian, Reformed, and Congregational denominational movements.
Three major Presbyterian organizations across the United States and Alaska, include the Presbyterian Church (USA), Presbyterian Church in America, and ECO, a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Each are represented here in Anchorage and, to a greater degree, across Alaska. I will briefly describe these groups of Presbyterians. I’ve visited them and written about them in my ADN Church Visits blog for years.
A few of the major issues swirling around these organizations are the authority of God vs. man, abortion, same-sex marriage, and gay clergy. The impact of culture on Presbyterian denominations is also a significant factor in some of the dissonance. Reformed Theologian David F. Wells, in “No Place for Truth” writes, “The disappearance of theology from the life of the Church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today, but oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world — in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, in its reveling in the irrational.”
Presbyterian Church (USA) is the largest Presbyterian body in the U.S. numbering 1,760,200 in 2013, but with 200,000 members lost recently, it appears to be rapidly fading. PCUSA is known as the liberal arm of Presbyterianism. In Alaska, PCUSA churches fall under the presbytery of Yukon which lists 20 church congregations between Anchorage and Barrow. There were nine churches of presbytery of Alaska, covering the Southeast, but last year six churches in this presbytery were dismissed and allowed to join ECO. That presbytery has been incorporated with one in Washington as it no longer meets the minimum number of congregations required to be a presbytery.
During the past six years I’ve mostly attended worship services at PCUSA-affiliated Trinity Presbyterian, and First Presbyterian Church. Trinity experienced significant membership decline during this time, and currently operates with an interim pastor. I believe some of the national issues affecting PCUSA have affected Trinity. I’ve been puzzled by First Presbyterian and its persistent unfriendliness during my visits, except for my recent visit where more members than ever greeted me. It was the first church I reviewed in my ADN Church Visits blog. Over this period, I’ve seen multiple interim and regular pastors at FPC. With significant member loss, they are down to one service. There is talk of incorporating contemporary Christian music in their services. It’s never a fix. At one point FPC was known for its fine choir, but it’s smaller these days.
The second-largest Presbyterian body in the country is Presbyterian Church in America (http://www.pcanet.org/). They numbered 367,033 members in 2013, but unlike PCUSA, it is growing. My search reveals only two PCA churches in Alaska, both in Anchorage. I’ve attended Faith Presbyterian and commented on the congregation in my blog. They were cool to me during a worship service visit several years ago. I found the service to be a bit uncomfortable — not in theology, but in format. No one but the pastor and pianist were involved during the entire service, an unusual experience among all of my Alaska church visits. Nonetheless, this church is allied with a rapidly growing branch of Presbyterianism that is both conservative and reformed. Biblical scholars such as Tim Keller, R.C. Sproul, and Ligon Duncan are partly responsible for this surge.
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
This new evangelical Presbyterian denomination was created in 2012 by former congregations and members of PCUSA churches. Currently more than 160 congregations with more than 60,000 members are affiliated with ECO (http://eco-pres.org/). Its theology is reformed and Presbyterian practices are followed. ECO’s creation was spearheaded by the Fellowship of Presbyterians, an umbrella organization of Presbyterians concerned about the increasingly liberal tendencies of PCUSA, including the adoption in 2011 of lifting the ban on non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. Conceived as a PCUSA alternative denomination, it is rapidly growing. At present, a group of local, concerned Presbyterians is forming an ECO congregation. They meet once a month Sunday evening. Recently, I attended their meeting and was pleasantly surprised. A friendly lot of about 40, many from Trinity Presbyterian, started with a simple but adequate dinner, followed by a service of music, formation updates, missions talk, and a timely and interesting sermon from military chaplain Ted McGovern.
Anchorage Presbyterian Fellowship
This growing body incorporates Presbyterians from First Presbyterian and elsewhere who left for some of the reasons stated earlier. Meeting as a group for almost two years, they hold services at the University of Alaska Anchorage Fine Arts Recital Hall. Local community pastors served their needs until permanent pastor, Bernie Van Ee, arrived in early 2014. APF (http://anchoragepresbyterianfellowship.org/) is a conservative, back-to-basics group offering traditional services with hymnody, choir, communion, and sound messages. They consider themselves to be a non-denominational church and their services are well-attended.
Many Presbyterians are stepping up to the plate with alternatives. There are more than these four Presbyterian-related groups in Alaska, but space does not permit covering them. The final chapter on local Presbyterians has not yet been written.