A national grassroots campaign by Presbyterians to stop the Presbyterian Church USA from funding missionizing efforts against Jews is gaining steam following a Jewish Week report revealing the secret initiative embedded in the struggling mainline Protestant denomination.
The issue threatens to split the Presbyterian Church between conservative and liberal factions, which already are locked in a fierce struggle over gay ordination, leading church officials told The Jewish Week.
Liberal Presbyterian ministers this week expressed shock and outrage over revelations last week that the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has allocated $345,000 to Philadelphia Rev. Andrew Sparks, who operates a "messianic congregation" using deceptive tactics to attract Jews and has plans to expand his evangelizing projects elsewhere, according to documents.
"I am appalled and angry about this," Rev. Eugene Bay, pastor of the large Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in the Philadelphia area, wrote in an e-mail shared with colleagues this week.
In Washington Monday night, the Western Presbyterian Church adopted a resolution opposing funding projects to evangelize Jews.
"It is frankly an embarrassment to be involved in a denomination that is supporting this," Pastor John Wimberly told The Jewish Week.
He said the effort by fundamentalist church forces to push Jews to accept Jesus "ultimately will split our denomination in half."
The resolution, called an overture, will be presented to the regional church body in March, with an eye toward bringing it to the PCUSA General Assembly late next year, Pastor Wimberly said.
It is part of a larger effort not only to freeze funding but change basic church doctrine that currently validates evangelizing Jews, said Rev. Cynthia Jarvis of the Chestnut Hills congregation in Philadelphia, who is spearheading the campaign.
"We want to change the whole orientation of the PCUSA’s new church development policy that defines Jews as an ethnic group" that can be targeted for conversion, like Koreans," she said. "We want to put in place a policy that would make sure this could never happen again."
She was referring to the establishment in Philadelphia last month of a new messianic church called Avodat Yisrael designed to attract unaffiliated Jews by using a Torah and other ritual symbols. Critics have denounced deceptive tactics used by the founder, Rev. Sparks, a former Conservative Jew who hides his church affiliation.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, called the PCUSA funding "an alarming development."
"It lacks religious and moral integrity," he said.
"The disturbing part is that this was endorsed by three different levels" of the church hierarchy. "We see this as a national issue, not just a local issue."
Rev. Susan Andrews, the moderator, or elected head of the PCUSA, admitted there is a sharp conflict within the denomination over evangelizing Jews.
She said she was shocked to learn about Avodat Yisrael’s funding and the PCUSA’s long history (from the early 20th century through the 1950s) of projects to convert Jews.
"It is clear that our understanding of Scripture says two things. The first is that the Jewish people are the covenanted people as we are," she said in a phone interview Monday. "Therefore proselytizing in a judgmental way is inappropriate for Presbyterians towards Jews.
"At the same time our Gospel calls us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to call all people to discipleship in his name. And some Presbyterians therefore believe that it is appropriate to specifically invite non-affiliated Jews and interfaith families to consider faith in Jesus.
"Other Presbyterians believe that we need to be in dialogue and partnership around common understanding of faith and social justice, but that any overt reaching out to Jews is inappropriate."
Asked for her opinion, Rev. Andrews, who is known as a liberal voice, said that as moderator, she must represent the entire spectrum of thought.
"We need to keep the breadth of this theological conversation going" for the sake of the future of the Presbyterian movement, she said.
She referred further questions to a document issued Tuesday by Jay T. Rock, the church’s new interfaith director.
In a lengthy five-point memo, Rock defended the PCUSA process of funding Avodat Yisrael and the validity of the mission.
"Many Presbyterian congregations and individuals support such efforts out of their general concern that the Gospel be made known to all people, and/or out of a more specific interest in Christian ministry among Jews," he said.
"Each step of the long review process for approval and funding of this project was carried out carefully."
The Mission Development Resources Committee of the General Assembly "thoroughly reviewed the proposal" … regarding the style and tactics of Rev. Sparks’ church. "One condition is that the church clearly identify itself in its signage, advertising and Web site," the memo said.
Rock said the Philadelphia Presbytery, the local church organization, is setting up an oversight committee for the messianic church.
He contended that "the affirmations of the Presbyterian Church [USA] in regard to evangelism and to Christian-Jewish relations remain unchanged."
"The fact that the PCUSA has given support to a messianic new church development does not change the commitments of the church, either to bring the good news of Jesus to the whole world, or to build positive and respectful relations between Presbyterians and Jews," Rock said.
He then cited several church statements validating evangelization.
But several clerics criticized the memo as a whitewash.
"I’m very disappointed," said Rabbi James Rudin, who in 1987 worked with church leaders to draft a liberal mission statement that failed to be adopted.
"I don’t see that things remain unchanged. This is a big thing, using $345,000 of hard-earned Presbyterian money for one church to convert Jews. [Rock] is trying to say two things, and the circle doesn’t square."
Rev. Jarvis questioned how "many" Presbyterians support evangelizing Jews, as Rock stated. She also questioned the "thoroughness" of the church’s review process, since Rev. Sparks deceptively promoted his congregation.
"This [memo] just makes it clear that the orientation of the national church is dancing fast to make sure the conservatives are happy," she said.
In a related matter, one of Rev. Andrews’ better-known congregants in Bethesda, Md., was verbally lashed this week for making anti-Jewish statements.
Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, was criticized for writing a column that called Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., and Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax, "Jewish executives who worship money above all else."
His Internet column was criticizing the new film "Kill Bill" and its violence. The film was released by Miramax, which is owned by Disney.
Following sharp criticism from the ADL, Easterbrook apologized Monday for "mangling words" but stood by the substance of his column, which the ADL did not accept. New Republic editors also issued a lengthy apology, which the ADL did accept.
Rev. Andrews called Easterbrook "one of the most compassionate, open-hearted, pluralistic-loving people." She noted that her church has a strong positive relationship with the neighboring synagogue.
Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik said Weinstein is satisfied with the ADL’s acceptance of the straightforward apology by New Republic editors.