Who will fill this pulpit at First Presbyterian?
That’s an ecclesiastical matter in which courts refuse to involve themselves. But oftentimes, there are property questions. Who owns the real estate on which First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem stands? Questions like that are decided by a judge.
That’s a question currently before President Judge Stephen Baratta. He has already had to play Solomon once and direct the two denominations on when they could hold their Sunday services. He’s urged them to work together and has given both factions reason to believe each could lose. But they remain at odds.
It’s hard to tell the difference between the two groups, at least on the surface. Both worship the same God, read the same Bible, use the same choir book and have services that are remarkably alike. That was certainly the case during a recent Sunday visit to both groups. The only difference between ECO and PCUSA was a visit from the PCUSA stated clerk, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II.
In the ECO service, Rev. Dr. Mark Krumpler said he needed a softer heart. Quoting Ecclesiastes, he said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
In the later service by PCUSA, Rev. Dr. Nelson referred to the reading from Ephesians: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
Given these admonitions from both sides, it’s hard to believe this dispute still lingers. But it does.
And there are differences, and not just on LGBT rights. PCUSA has been open and even had a lunch after their Sunday service in which Nelson answered questions for over an hour. ECO has in contrast been unresponsive. Attempts to reach out in July failed. And they failed again recently as the Krumplers simply refuse to speak to the press.
One thing that stands out about Nelson was his simplicity. When the service started, it was with a parade of PCUSA clerics from all over and a congregation of about 250. The clergy were fully clad in all their religious regalia. Nelson walked behind them, wearing only a plain black suit and a Roman collar.
But underneath this simplicity, there’s strong conviction. In answering a question about the importance of LGBT rights, Nelson conceded that PCUSA’s stands on that and other issues has cost it membership. But he said, “We have to be the church even at the risk of the church losing its life.”
So it remains a church divided. During a lunch following the service, PCUSA member Paul Watts was shown a picture of an empty pulpit at First Presbyterian and was asked who would fill it.
He smiled and said, “The pulpit is already filled. Don’t you see the cross?”