Of the Synod of the Trinity #synodtrinity300

A sermon by John A. Bolt
First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown, West Virginia
Sept 17, 2017

Good morning and again welcome to First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown. My name is John Bolt and I’m one of the elders here, and for those visitors – while we are without a permanent pastor we are taking advantage of hearing from a variety of guest pastors. And for members, as chair of the Pastor Nominating Committee, let me just report that we are continuing our work and are confident in finding the person whom God has called to fill out pulpit. But it is on God’s time, not ours.

Our New Testament lesson comes from the Letter to the Hebrews; it’s only the first two verses in Chapter 12. Listen for God’s word to the gathered today:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Today I am going to step outside my usual process, and not follow the Lectionary passages for today, but instead spend the time in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the Synod of the Trinity.

Please join me in prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer.

Three hundred years. In the overall scheme of things, it’s really a blip – not even a blip. Pretty much everyone elsewhere in the world scoffs at our American timeline. Three hundred? How ’bout 3,000?

There have been humans on what we call the North American continent for 13,000, maybe even 50,000, maybe even 130,000 years.[1] So, what’s so cool about a 300-year-old institution on this continent?

Well, I guess the answer is because it’s OUR 300-year-old institution, and in a day and age when anything older than about five years is considered obsolete, it’s something to celebrate.

Here’s an illustration from my son’s time as a youth director in Bend, Oregon. At youth group one night – and it’s been a good five years or more ago, actually – some of the kids were bemoaning the fact that they didn’t sing any of the old songs any more. Now Greg isn’t as hide-bound about music as I might be, but he does have an appreciation for the old hymns, you know, like “The Church’s One Foundation,” written in the 1860s, or “For All The Saints,” words from 1864 put to Ralph Vaughn Williams great hymn tune in 1906.

So, he was pleased and surprised. Until, that is, the young person said, “You know, like ‘Our God is an Awesome God,” or “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” both vintage late 1980s. [Sound of balloon bursting!]

For us, then, 300 years is a big deal.

Sept. 17, 1717 – 300 years to the day – what is now the Synod of the Trinity was established at First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia – 59 years before Philadelphia was also the site of the founding of this nation.

Permit me some history lessons – it was my major after all.

I think we often forget that we Presbyterians are engulfed in that “great cloud of witnesses” that stretches back way more than 300 years, through Scotland, through Geneva, yes even through Rome, back to the beginning of our faith. Even our name, Presbyterian, comes straight out of the Bible: “presbyteros,” Greek for elder or senior.

And in a little over a month, we’ll be commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – which Jean Cauvin (known to us in English as John Calvin) helped to feed along with, of course, Martin Luther who hammered a nail – so to speak – in the split that was already happening when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517.

Calvin in Geneva first published his seminal work Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536 starting our strand of Christian faith that was taken to Scotland by John Knox who founded the Church of Scotland, essentially the mother church of American Presbyterianism.

There were Presbyterians up and down the East Coast, indeed as hard as it may be to believe today, Presbyterians were once one of, if not the largest, denomination in the colonies. Our influence on the creation of our national government was profound.

As us presbygeeks, or presbynerds, like to trot out every July 4, many Tories in the Colonies and in England called the American Revolution “a Presbyterian War.” In his monograph “The Presbyterian Rebellion,” published in Journal of the American Revolution, historian Richard Gardiner quotes a royal advisor as telling King George III in 1776, “this has been a Presbyterian war from the beginning…”[2] In another place, Gardiner says one royalist in Pennsylvania blamed it on “Presbyterian hotheads.”[3] Imagine that, us decent and orderly folks called “hotheads.” Will wonders never cease?

Anyway, I digress.

As Presbyterians grew in and around Philadelphia and the East Coast – remember Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies at that point, presbyteries were formed and when it reached four, it was decided a synod needed to be created.

This is from the minutes of the meeting:

It having pleased Divine Providence so to increase our number, as that, after much deliberation, we judge it may be more serviceable to the interest of religion, to divide ourselves into subordinate meetings or Presbyteries, constituting one annually as a synod, to meet in Philadelphia, or elsewhere to consist of all the members of each subordinate Presbytery or meeting for this year at least.[4]

Admittedly is was a different day and time, but the Synod was of such stature in the early days of our nation that its meeting was even noted on the front page of The New York Times: On Monday, Oct. 17, 1881, this brief notice appeared:

The Synod of Philadelphia [as it was then known] will convene in the First Presbyterian Church of (Wilkes Barre, PA) on Thursday evening next. The Rev. Wallace Radcliff, of Reading, will preach the opening sermon. The Synod embraces all the Presbyterian ministers and churches within 19 counties of the State [i.e., Pennsylvania] and of portion of West Africa, as well as the city of Philadelphia. In view of the importance of the coming meeting, it is expected that not less than 400 delegates will be in attendance.[5]

I just wish it had included what that “importance” was about.

The boundaries, and even the formal name, shifted over the years and as The Times noted, at one time even included New York and part of Africa, but with 1983’s reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the northern stream (and the lineage of this congregation), and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the southern stream which was dominate – but not exclusive – in much of the rest of the state, the current Synod of the Trinity was formed. It now comprises all of Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia, except the churches in the Eastern Panhandle, and a few counties in Ohio.

Sixteen presbyteries make up the Synod, which serve 1,094 churches and 160,509 Presbyterians, making the Synod of the Trinity one of the largest in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is also safe to say that the Synod of the Trinity is one of the strongest of the 16 that currently make up the denomination, and much of that is also because of our history and the commitment of that great cloud of witnesses over three centuries.

This congregation has supported the Synod not only with its treasure but its time. Through its recent history, First Morgantown members have served as commissioners to the Synod from the Presbytery of West Virginia – a role I’m currently honored to have. Mavis Grant Lilley has served as well. George Lilley has served on various personnel committees, Bill Riley on finance committees. I’m sure there are others through time that I am missing, and I apologize – any of you out there want to raise your hand?

The role of the Synod has shifted through the years in response to many impetuses – some financial, some numerical, some generational. Those who have been around for a while can recall the days of a Synod School, a once- or twice-a year gathering for fellowship and education. That has gone by the wayside here, but in some synods remains a vital gathering.

It occurs to me about now that many of you are asking – maybe have been since I started talking – just what is a synod anyway? That’s a fair question, and one that has been debated by the denomination a lot in recent years. Do we still need them, and what purpose to they serve?

A synod is one of the expressions of our connectional church. The Presbyterian form of government is a middle way between the episcopal system – think Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal – and the congregational system – think Baptists, and of course Congregationalists. We govern ourselves through a representative system – remember what I said about Presbyterians being influential in the formation of the U.S. government?

It starts at the session of a local church, which sends commissioners (not delegates, but that explanation is for another time) to a presbytery. Presbyteries gather together in synods. While the presbytery’s job is to support congregations as well as do ministry that one church can’t accomplish alone, the synod’s job in many ways is to support ministries that presbyteries can’t do alone.

The highest governing body is the General Assembly, but it is also made up of commissioners from presbyteries; synods are not in that chain – although they are certainly present and play an important role at Assemblies.

According to the Book of Order:

A “Synod is responsible for the life and mission of the church throughout its region and for supporting the ministry and mission of its presbyteries as they seek to support the witness of congregations, to the end that the church throughout its region becomes a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.”[6]

For that reason, one of the very visible expressions of this responsibility has been Synod support of campus ministry. The Westminster Foundation, for example, was for a long time a ministry of the Synod and even though it is – in theory at least – a stand alone organization, the Synod remains the largest single funder – and the Foundation’s other connections with the presbyteries of West Virginia, Shenandoah and Upper Ohio Valley are its life blood.

Through the Westminster Foundation, the Synod helps support campus ministries here at WVU, at Marshall – both of which are full-time Presbyterian pastors – and at other campus ministry programs at Fairmont State/Pierpont Community and Technical College, Shepherd University and West Liberty University. In Pennsylvania, support goes to 10 campus ministries, including Penn State and various of its campuses

Another key historical activity of the Synod, in West Virginia at least, was missions in the Southern coalfields.

In about 1893, the Synod sent a Sunday school teacher to Colcord, at the time – and in many ways still – one of the most isolated places in West Virginia. Eventually the Colcord Presbyterian Church was built, and still stands and serves the people of that part of Raleigh County. It is also the site of one of the camps of the West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps – an important ministry of the Presbytery of West Virginia which also receives significant support from the Synod.

Camps historically were also Synod operations, and today there are 11 camp and conference centers within the bounds of the Synod. While the responsibility of running these centers has been assumed by presbyteries, Synod continues to support them financially.

One more key historical ministry: higher education. As you are probably aware education has been an extremely important and high-profile emphasis of the Presbyterian Church since the days of John Calvin. If you couldn’t read, you couldn’t read the Bible, so education really comes before understanding.

Much of that support was carried out through Synods, and today there are six colleges and universities within the bounds: Davis and Elkins College, in Elkins, WV; and in Pennsylvania, Westminster College, New Wilmington; Wilson College, Chambersberg; Grove City College, Grove City; Arcadia University, Glenside; and Waynesburg University, just up the road in Waynesburg

There are many, many more ways the Synod has fulfilled its calling throughout its 300-year history, but as is the nature of its place in the Presbyterian universe, many of those are behind the scenes and more directly linked to its work with presbytery leadership – whether through judicial activities, providing advice and training, helping in the search for presbytery leadership, and so forth.

Before I move on from history to the present and future (which are in many ways linked), I want to reinforce why I’ve taken such time on the history of our Synod.

At a time when institutions are under attack, at a time when community and connections are at worst dismissed or at best overlooked and ignored, I think it’s important to realize and know about our heritage. We didn’t get to where we are – for good or ill — by happenstance. It’s not longing for the old days, but it IS understanding where and whose we are; where we fit in that great cloud of witnesses.

As for today – and the future. The Synod has been taking a hard look at itself over the past several years, and how it will move responsibly into the future, in terms of governance, relationships and stewardship.

While the Synod is strong financially, perhaps the strongest financially and certainly stronger than all but perhaps one or two others, it does not have unlimited resources. Also, in many ways the culture of the church has become more focused on congregationally-based missions rather than corporate missions by higher councils. And that’s a good thing, because the two initiatives are not mutually exclusive and can support each other.

One result of that self-examination has been to adopt a system of operation called “policy governance.” I won’t try to explain that in detail – in many ways because it’s taken us two or three years to sort this out.

But as part of that model, we have established what’s called a Primary End (sounds vaguely reminiscent of the “Great Ends of the Church,” no?), and Secondary Ends. You might call it a mission statement, I guess.

As a body, the Synod has set its primary end as:

  • As part of the body of Christ, the Synod, through the responsible use of shared resources, supports and challenges member presbyteries to be vital, innovative and faithful in their collaborative and distinctive callings.

The secondary ends are:

  • Connecting presbytery leadership for coordination, spiritual support and sharing best practices.
  • Encouraging innovation in, between and among presbyteries through the use of human, programmatic and financial resources.
  • Providing services of education and nurture as requested by member presbyteries.
  • Extending partnership of member presbyteries in joint and shared mission and ministry.
  • Nurturing relationships within the larger church for the purpose of greater witness.
  • Fostering conversation and action for the promotion of social righteousness.

You can hear in all those that the Synod’s primary connecting is through the presbyteries, but another part of the policy governance process is to identify “owners,” and that group is clearly you, those in the pews of the churches in the presbyteries.

For example, each year the Synod provides hundreds of thousands of dollars to presbyteries and churches through a variety of grants: peacemaking, mission travel, innovation grants, network grants, study grants, self-development of people, small churches.

So as the Synod of the Trinity sets sail on its fourth century, remember that it has served churches from First Church in Philadelphia to Colcord Presbyterian Church to First Church in Morgantown, helping strengthen that great cloud of witnesses which stretches back millennia to the present and future, building “a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.”

To God alone be the glory, Amen.

[1] Carl Zimmer. “Humans Lived in North America 130,000 Years Ago, Study Claims.” The New York Times. April 26, 2017

[2] Richard Gardiner. “The Presbyterian Rebellion.” Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 5, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Records of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Minutes of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. https://archive.org/stream/recordsofpresbyt170600pres#page/45/mode/1up.

[5] “The Synod of Philadelphia.” The New York Times. Oct. 17, 1881.) https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1881/10/17/98569549.html.

[6] Office of the General Assembly. 2015. “Book of Order 2015-2017” The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Part II. G.3.0401.

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