It's not just Mubarak who's asking the question these days. 45 big steeple Presbyterian pastors recently signed their names to a proposal for a "radical (transformation)" of the denomination which could pave the way for a schism.
There is much in this letter that I welcome. I agree with the signatories that, "We need new processes that identify and support the next generation of leadership differently than the current model, which unintentionally weeds out the entrepreneurial persons we so desperately need in our congregations." I am weary of bloated bureaucracies that cannot re-tool themselves for the emerging missionary field, and bureaucrats who sulk when recalcitrant congregations force the next best thing, retrenchment, by withholding mission dollars.
And I do agree that there are theological problems with our denomination. Liberation theology has yanked the blinders of race, gender and class off of our interpretations of scripture and tradition. It's an indispensable corrective to theology as usual, but it is not a stand-alone project.
Unfortunately, that seems to be what has come to pass in mainline Christianity. I agree with a colleague and mentor of mine who believes that mainline Christians have stopped asking first order questions such as, "Is there a God? Is this God my friend or my enemy?" (Or Gauguin's question, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?") and we have settled for second order questions.
But there is more to the gospel than peace, justice and identity politics. Not less, to be sure. But more. When Paul writes to a mutinous congregation in Corinth, he doesn't appeal to them to be reconciled to himself, but rather to God. Who is this God to whom we need to be reconciled? And by what means? Mainliners kind of mumble about these questions.
All that said, I do support same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians. And so I am out of luck.
Where is the coalition of those who can say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers behind their backs and who support progressive values when it comes to sexual orientation? I suspect that some of them are lurking in the Covenant Network, and so I hope that these guy's appeal to the Covenant Network is not just a sop but a genuine overture to work together (with the Holy Spirit) to make something new.
In short, I'd like these 45 pastors and whoever they can work with in the Covenant Network to take over the denomination, but give in on sexuality. But alas, that probably won't happen.
The paragraph that struck me the most in this document is this one:
Homosexual ordination has been the flashpoint of controversy for the last 35 years. Yet, that issue — with endless, contentious “yes” and “no” votes — masks deeper, more important divisions within the PC(USA). Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues. Outside of presbytery meetings, we mostly exist in separate worlds, with opposing sides reading different books and journals, attending different conferences, and supporting different causes. There is no longer common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.” Indeed, many sense that the only unity we have left is contained in the property clause and the pension plan; some feel like withholding per capita is a club used against them, while others feel locked into institutional captivity by property. While everyone wearies of battles over ordination, these battles divert us from a host of issues that affect the way our congregations fail to attract either young believers or those outside the faith. Thus, we age, shrink, and become increasingly irrelevant. Is it time to acknowledge that traditional denominations like the PC(USA) have served in their day but now must be radically transformed?
You can hear a genuine sense of bewilderment and pain in this paragraph. Do you know what this reminds me of? The guy who grows up in a small town, surrounded by narrow minded, reactionary people, who somehow escapes, discovers a whole new world, thrives, but has to return home every Thanksgiving and Christmas. And he sits at the dinner table and grits his teeth as racial epithets and petty digs fly back and forth. He thinks, "Am I really related to these people?"
Yes, you are. Your family are those people with whom you have nothing in common AND with whom you get together on a regular basis. We are family, the Presbyterian Church (USA). We are brothers and sisters in Christ. And I hope these 45 pastors keep showing up for the food fights that are presbytery meetings. Because that's where they belong. (And to head off any misunderstandings, let it be noted that I am not calling the Presbyterian establishment racist or small-minded. IT'S AN ANALOGY, OK?)
Whether there is anything more than pensions and property holding us together is largely up to the people who are contemplating leaving. They can demonstrate that there is more simply by staying. Leaving is the Protestant way. We always sacrifice unity for peace and purity. But you can chose to stay and suffer the sinners. No one is going to kick you out. If you stay long enough, you may rub off on them.
I suspect that the peace and purity that lies down the road of schism is a chimera. If the denomination splits over ordination standards, the new denomination will include a lot of rural folk, sunbelt suburbanites, and conservative college town hipsters revolting against their secular and leftist environment. Those people don't have much in common, apart from a commitment to heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman. In 20-25 years, their presbytery meetings will start to feel as awkward as some of those Thanksgiving dinners out there.