On Sunday, December 11, the Peace Light—a flame taken from the grotto in Bethlehem where tradition places Jesus’ birth—was used to light the advent and chancel candles at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Those gathered hoped the peaceful message of the light would resonate with them, and with their brothers and sisters with whom they once shared pews.
First Presbyterian Church, a multi-acre property with enough space to accommodate a couple thousand congregants, is the focus of a controversial civil court case between some members and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Presbytery of Lehigh. Some members have chosen to remain with the PC(USA) while others have aligned themselves with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). Congregations connected to both denominations currently inhabit the property, and which one will rightfully own the property remains to be seen.
For now both congregations worship separately in the church space, and on the third Sunday of Advent the Reverend Joyce Lieberman, director of constitutional interpretation for the PC(USA), shared with congregants who’ve remained in the PC(USA).
“God’s vision is here. God’s realm on earth can be seen in our midst. God’s promises yearning to be fulfilled call us into the future,” Lieberman preached. “We can see it in our hearts, souls, and minds. And as we stand in this season of Advent, between God’s promises seen and God’s promises yet to be fulfilled, we wait in patience, as we move toward God’s realm on earth, as it is in heaven.”
It was a message needed for the worshippers who have been struggling with schism declared by the Presbytery of Lehigh, which named the PC(USA) as the true church. A court date has been set for March to determine who gets control of the church property.
“Grief is a profound thing,” Lieberman said during a question-and-answer period after worship. “It’s really hard because you can’t imagine that your brothers and sisters in Christ would treat you the way you have been treated.”
Lieberman stressed that congregations cannot in and of themselves vote to leave the denomination. “You need to engage with the presbytery,” she said.
“As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we believe that no one part of the church is the church in and of itself. We together collectively are the church,” Lieberman said.
On average 200 congregants who did not want to transfer to the ECO continue to worship as First Bethlehem PC(USA) on Sunday mornings. Four other weekend services that bring in roughly 600 people fall under the ECO umbrella, and the Sunday school program that encompasses both congregations is run by First ECO.
A session for the PC(USA) congregation at First Bethlehem Church is being finalized and will meet for the first time in January. Despite moving forward, there is still plenty of healing that needs done.
“The stages of grief are all there: shock, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance,” said the Reverend Bill Hess, a retired minister called to lead the PC(USA) congregation.
Lieberman advised that during this tough time the people in both the PC(USA) and the ECO congregations continue to pray and to respond to how they are being led.
“What is God calling you to do, and I don’t mean just worship,” Lieberman said. “You have abundance to work with—of people, of resources. And I believe you can claim where God is calling you, but you really do have to look.”
“That’s your challenge—to look outside your walls and look outside what you’re currently dealing with, because God’s mission field is out there and you are called to do that,” she said. “You need to be out there finding that place where you all can gather together and bring the good news of the gospel. That’s going to help you no matter what the courts decide.”