Leading From the Center: Strengthening the Pillars of the Church by William J. Weston
Part I: How did we get here?
Chapter 3 – Just Right: The Loyalist Constitutional Church of the Special Commission of 1925.
Chapter 3 picks up where the story of Machen and friends left off in Chapter 2. The 1925 General Assembly was a critical turning point. The denominational judicial commission had ruled that New York Presbytery had improperly licensed ministerial candidates who did not affirm the virgin birth. Yet the liberals and loyalists joined to elect Charles Erdman of Princeton Seminary as the moderator of the assembly. It appeared at the time that the liberal wing was ready to walk.
To address the controversy, Erdmann created the The Special Commission of 1925, commissioned with the task of finding a way to preserve the peace, unity, and purity of the church. (Is this sounding familiar?) The commission had fifteen people, mostly loyalists. They were mostly big steeple pastors and heavy-hitter business types.
Leaders of the various factions were invited to address the commission. As Weston writes:
The conservatives maintained that the cause of unrest was that there was a naturalistic liberal party in the church that was not Christian, which was being tolerated by the sleeping majority of the church. The conservative solution was to make the Presbyterian Church take a stand on the essentials of Christian doctrine, thereby driving the liberals out. This was the strategy behind the five points. The liberals, on the other hand, maintained that there had always been tolerance for diversity of opinion in the Presbyterian Church and that the problem came from dogmatic conservatives trying, unconstitutionally, to make everyone toe the line. This was the strategy of the “Auburn Affirmation.” (31)
The commission came to define the problem as one of disagreement between those who were sure of doctrine and those that were less sure. Weston included the following quote from the commissions report to the 1926 General Assembly.
The principle of toleration when rightly conceived and frankly and fairly applied is as truly a part of our constitution as are any of the doctrines stated in that instrument … Toleration as a principle applicable within the Presbyterian Church refers to an attitude and a practice according to which the status of a minister or other ordained officer, is acknowledged and fellowship is extended to him, even though he may hold some views that are individual on points not regarded as essential to the system of faith which the Church professes. (33)
This conclusion sent conservatives like Machen over the edge. As Weston notes, the battle moved from being between conservatives and liberals to being between conservatives and loyalists. Machen actively tried to split the church over doctrine but the loyalist redefined the controversy from one about doctrine to one about order. The remainder of the chapter goes on to show how Machen’s efforts ended up in him leaving Princeton to form Westminster Seminary and how Princeton came to be in the loyalist camp.
Closing the chapter, Weston writes:
By allowing competition with the constitution, the loyalist Special Commission of 1925 effectively ended the church’s civil war and, despite Machen’s best efforts, prevented a major schism. The center-right coalition that had run the church from the time of the Briggs case was displaced by a center-left coalition that has run the church of to the present crisis. (41)
This chapter finishes fleshing out Weston’s three party typology and I think it has considerable merit. The next two chapters, which I will turn to on Monday, offers Weston’s assessment of where we are now in the PCUSA.