Robert W. Patterson
served as a welfare adviser in the Corbett administration
When Philadelphia Magazine compiled 76 reasons "Why We Love Philly" in December, the editors placed Tenth Presbyterian Church's Christmas Eve service in the 23d spot. "The spine-tingling, haunting sound of the congregants' collective a cappella 'Silent Night,' " the monthly observed, "is as serene and unifying as . . . Christmas. You feel chills, and not from the night air."
Yet, just as Philadelphia gets lost in the shadows of New York and Washington, the historic church that graces the southwest corner of 17th and Spruce Streets rarely competes in the media's estimation with such better-known Protestant houses of worship as Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, the popular Southern California megachurch, and Riverside Church of Manhattan, the iconic cathedral of liberal Protestants founded by John D. Rockefeller.
But Tenth Presbyterian still fills its neo-Byzantine-style sanctuary for two services every Sunday morning, while drawing a smaller, yet respectable, number for Sunday-evening worship. Most important, the Center City church exerts a calm, steadying influence amid the exhaustion of a waning American Protestantism as obsessed with being relevant as high school girls longing to travel with the popular crowd.
The mainline Protestant establishment can't parrot fast enough the groupthink of the Upper West Side, jettisoning the Augustinian view of human nature for Gnostic delusions of gender egalitarianism and same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, evangelicals flirt with another twist of Gnosticism, presuming that cultural forms and music used in public worship do not matter. So their churches trade "reverence and awe" for Jay Leno-style informality and "praise songs" that cater to adolescent sensibilities.
In contrast, Tenth remains content to follow the confessional standards of the Reformation - the Westminster Confession and Catechisms in particular - and let the chips fall where they may. To suggest a Catholic analogy, Tenth might be considered pre-Vatican II.
Careful not to jump on intellectual, theological, or cultural bandwagons, Tenth has stayed anchored on scholarly, expositional preaching of the Bible as the Word of God and robust hymn singing that would swell Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley with pride. Nor has its leadership entertained any illusions, which animate both religious right and left, that the church can make America more Christian.
Proceeding from these bedrock commitments, Tenth last month once again hosted the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, a weekend gathering that attracted 480 largely lay leaders of other churches. Having attended these April conferences since 2010, I have yet to be disappointed with the caliber of guest preachers, among the finest in the English-speaking world. (Full disclosure: I'm a former Tenth member who met his future wife at a 1977 evening service and whose two sons were baptized there in the 1980s.)
Marking the 40th annual conference, Derek Thomas and Richard Phillips, Presbyterian ministers from South Carolina, were among the pulpiteers pushing back against assaults on the historicity of the Book of Genesis. Debunking secular dogma, the scholars laid out a compelling case that Adam and Eve are not mythological figures, but the mother and father of the entire human race, a foundational truth of the Declaration of Independence's assertion that "all men are created equal."
Neither preacher made the connection, but as they elevated the status and dignity of every human being as the climax of God's creative handiwork, I could not help but wish that Dr. Kermit Gosnell had sat under such illuminating preaching before the butchering of newborns commenced at his West Philadelphia clinic.
The legacy of both the conference and present-day church is in no small measure that of James Montgomery Boice, Tenth's most recent long-term pastor, who served from 1968 until his death from liver cancer in 2000 at the age of 61. With degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Basel, Boice commanded a pulpit presence that inspired college students, everyday parishioners, and theologians. Preaching two different sermons every Lord's Day - a rarity among Protestant clergy - Boice repurposed those rigorous treatises into more than 50 books.
Boice would surely hope his life's work is known for more than sentimental feelings at Christmastime. He once told me that he found Christmas and Easter services the least effective, relative to ordinary Sundays - and Sunday-evening services perhaps most effective - in mediating redemptive grace. Indeed, his ministry confirms the observation of British historian Herbert Butterfield that "the church has best served civilization not on the occasion when it had civilization as its conscious object, but when it was most intent on the salvation of souls and most content to leave the rest to Providence."
With that focus on the City of God, Tenth Church remains a hidden jewel that indirectly keeps Philadelphia the best-kept secret in America.