On Wednesday, June 9, the three candidates to the position as stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA met to debate on the critical issues facing the denomination.
The three candidates that attended the meeting in Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, were: Robert B. Davis, associate minister of Westminister Presbyterian Church, Escondido, Calif. and executive director of the Presbyterian Forum; L. Rus Howard, minister of Peters Creek Presbyterian Church in Venetia, Pa. and member of the board of director of the Outreach Foundation; and Alex F. Metherell, elder at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, Calif. and a physician and engineer who is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the medical-physiological trauma Christ endured on the cross.
Clifton Kirkpatrick, the current stated clerk who is running for his third four-year term, declined the invitation.
Kirkpatrick said debating on such a floor was “not in harmony” with the election format established by the Standing rules of the General Assembly.
"I believe it is best that we all follow the procedure for presenting the candidates detailed in the Standing Rules of the General Assembly," Kirkpatrick said in his letter to the Presbyterian Lay Committee - the organizer of the event.
Pertaining to the loss of membership in the PCUSA – the highest rate of decline since 1983 when the current PCUSA formed, all three candidates said a reformation was needed.
"Something has to change," Davis said. "This denomination does not look healthy. Our status quo is losing numbers. What we need to see is that there is a new Reformation under way. It is time for a change."
Saying he was "deeply concerned about the decline of leadership," Howard blamed the problem on leaders who "fail to affirm that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. They fail to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God and that God has called us to holy living."
Metherell said the membership loss in 2003 represents an acceleration, noting that the total loss during Kirkpatrick's eight years as stated clerk was 260,000. He said the Office of the General Assembly's membership report included "just over 10,000 adult baptisms" in 2003 – and "that's less than one per church."
"That tells you that the gospel is not being preached," Metherell said. "We are so distracted by following social policies about human sexuality and abortion."
Howard, who made several negative remarks about Kirkpatrick throughout the debate, said, “Clifton Kirkpatrick's analysis of the membership decline, the best place for it is the trash can. This is a spiritual problem. The church is not being led according to Scripture. The role of the stated clerk is primarily spiritual."
In relation to the numerous times church officers disregarded the Church’s laws, the three candidates agreed that there was a constitutional crises facing the denomination.
"Yes, there is a constitutional crisis," Davis said, referring specifically to the numerous cases where members disregard denomination's constitutional law prohibiting the ordination of self-acknowledged, practicing homosexuals. "Cliff's handling has been inadequate and incorrect," Davis added.
Davis said that he would emphasize the need for administrative action by higher governing bodies and that he would use the Office of the Stated Clerk as a "bully pulpit" to advocate compliance with church law.
"We do have a constitutional crisis," Howard said. "The stated clerk has failed us completely. I would first deal with defiance. I would publicly name it. I would provide the church publicly with how individual elders could begin the process to correct the error. We must name defiance. We must recognize it foremost as defiance against God. The goal is not to kick people out, but to bring people back to a faithful relationship with Christ."
"There very definitely is a constitutional crisis," Metherell said. "The Office of the Stated Clerk is going out of its way to enable the defiance that is going on."
He said the denomination is relying almost solely on the Book of Order to resolve constitutional issues, when the church's primary documents are, first, the Scriptures, and second, The Book of Confessions, and that their role in resolving constitutional issues needs to be primary.
"When we totally ignore The Book of Confessions and Scripture," he said, "we run into the trouble we are in now. I will be sure that The Book of Confessions and Scripture get their proper place in the life of the church."