What Way Ahead? Part One: Three Options
Written by Michael R. Walker, Theologian in Residence, Highland Park Presbyterian Church   
Friday, 22 August 2008 14:08
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For conservative Christians in the PC(USA), facing major challenges is nothing new. But the challenges we are accustomed to facing took on new proportions at the 218th General Assembly.

Though the technical implications of the Assembly’s decisions on sexuality remain unclear, the number and consistent character of those decisions speak with a clear voice. When the misguided statement on interfaith relations is added to the mix, not to mention the embarrassing lack of attention to Christian faith exhibited in the discussions leading up to these decisions, this GA has successfully pulled back the veil, so to speak, enabling us to see more clearly the situation we’ve been facing for quite some time.

For years, many have wondered if the PC(USA) shares a common understanding of the Christian faith. If we don’t, then what is the wisdom of staying together? This should be a reasonable question to address, except that we don’t even agree on how to address it. Forms of dialogue, appeals to tolerance and proposals for polity solutions that seem neutral in the eyes of some often reflect a de facto embrace of positions conservatives cannot embrace.

I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful. There is a new degree of clarity about our denominational situation. Many people across the theological spectrum are taking the challenges we face more seriously, and this is helpful. But the road ahead is a difficult one. Resolving differences over particular issues in a meaningful way requires a common goal, namely fidelity to the Gospel, and the meaning of the Gospel appears to be the very thing about which we are most divided.

I’ll share my own perspective on these and related issues in a series of articles, "What Way Ahead?" In beginning this series, a number of people have asked that I recognize two things: 1) I need to address some of the “bottom line” questions they have first. Fair enough. What follows here is a preliminary sketch of three approaches that conservatives have pursued and might pursue now. In the next article I will explore a fourth option, which I think is the preferred one. I am sticking with the “big picture” options. The renewal groups can provide particular suggestions about matters such as directing congregational funding, sending overtures to the next General Assembly, or organizing in your presbytery to defeat the proposed amendment to the constitutional ordination standards. 2) People don’t read long articles anymore. That one pains me, but I’ll do my best.

The following “categories” are used to provide a framework—a heuristic device. Nobody fits neatly into any one, but they do provide generalized options or patterns for how conservatives have responded and might respond now to the state of the PC(USA). I’ll describe each and explore the historical and theological foundations in future articles.

1) To Be Traditional Renewalists
One option is to stay the course in our current connectional structures and deepen our commitment to the classic practices that history has proven could foster long-term renewal in congregations and could effect change in the middle and higher governing bodies as well. This approach recognizes that renewal doesn’t come through decisions about church polity, but it is willing to engage in the polity debates because the corporate witness of the Body of Christ to the truth of the Gospel is important, because we have a responsibility to the wider denomination, and because, if left unchecked, the prevailing ethos of inclusion in the denomination might end up being one that eventually excludes us altogether.

At the moment, conservatives who take this approach seem to be diminishing in number in the PC(USA). To say that they are long-suffering is not to say that they have no limits. As the actions of governing bodies push the denomination further and further into the mode of accommodation to western culture, folks with this disposition pursue one of the next two options below.

Some traditional renewalists embrace a “free to be faithful” posture toward renewal: if God in his providence has placed us in the PC(USA), we should labor in and for it as long as we have the freedom to do so faithfully. When is one no longer free to be faithful? That’s a major, important question and I’ll explore it in a future article. The limits of other traditional renewalists are dependent upon the perceived possibility of success: if there is no reasonable hope the denomination will change courses in due time, then the effort is no longer a reasonable one to embrace. Obviously assessments of the reasonable chances of success are subjective. In addition, it should be noted that the limits of pastors in this group are often formed by the specific tension of being forced into deciding between two competing loyalties, namely to their congregation and to the denomination.

The approach of the long-suffering renewalist has much to commend it, and recommending this approach at this time would not be a retrenching effort. Rather, it would be a new call to engage afresh in the efforts that have characterized the renewal movement for the last several decades and still characterize one faithful expression of it.

Patient renewalists must, however, confront several significant realities:

1) What we experienced at this last GA was an advancement of a trajectory that shows no sign of abating. It’s not about the “liberal groups,” whose true effectiveness is, honestly, unknown. Rather, the actions of the San Jose Assembly reflect the power of western culture generally to shape the ethos of a denomination that does not have a clear sense of its mission to the culture. Unchecked and unchallenged, the “default” pattern of the PC(USA) will be to continue moving along with the prevailing spirituality of western culture (“moralistic therapeutic deism,” as it has been dubbed recently), and with its embrace of the culture’s obsession with variant forms of sexual expression.

The GA is hesitant to follow “cultural progress” only when an establishment-supported appeal is made to slow down in order to “give conservatives a little more time to catch up,” lest too many leave, catapulting the whole denomination further down the road of demise. (By the way, when we reach the year 2040, the time at which we’re supposed to have no members left if current trends continue, I’ll have yet to reach retirement age.)

2) Some say the GA is unrepresentative of the denomination as a whole, and that this can be changed. It’s a nice thought and probably true as far as it goes. But changing GA representation involves 173 different established processes in 173 presbyteries, the key decision-making structures of which are often as unrepresentative as the General Assembly. Further, the already slim majority of Presbyterian pew-sitters who answer multiple-choice questions in a way that reflects traditional Christian beliefs and morals is getting smaller. Further still, it is not at all clear how many of those Presbyterians who check the boxes for the “traditional views” are worried about other views becoming a normal part of the church’s beliefs and practices. Many are content with the new brand of diversity, even if they will personally stick with traditional views.

3) Another major factor is that the traditional renewalists have fewer and fewer companions. Many have drifted into the “defect in place” mode, and others have left or are ready to leave the PC(USA). This appears especially to be the case after the recent General Assembly.

Traditional renewalists have sometimes employed the unfortunate slogan, “stay-fight-win.” This is not a felicitous phrase, because it can imply that the goal of renewal is for one group to beat another one. This is both rhetorically damaging and a misrepresentation of the primary intent, namely faithfulness to God, whose “victory” alone it would be should the PC(USA) pursue a faithful course. In addition, it leads folks to become impatient whenever it looks like the conservatives are not going to “win,” prompting the counter-slogan, “stay-fight-lose,” which fails to inspire, to say the least, and often represents the anger and bitterness of disappointed expectations.

2) To Defect in Place
The second option is to “defect in place” or “ignore the denomination.” As the label indicates, the goal of this approach is basically to leave the PC(USA) without tackling the feat of technically leaving it.

This has been a common approach for years. Under the banner of “post-denominationalism,” this approach would expedite the functional congregationalism that characterizes many conservative congregations. We could feel set free from going to presbytery meetings very often, and pastors/sessions could do their best to shelter their congregations from the bad news of the denomination. Those who have taken this approach often cease funding the efforts of the middle and higher governing bodies, and sometimes remove references to the PC(USA) from their signage and congregational literature.

This approach is typically easier for larger, more self-sufficient congregations. Smaller congregations often do not have the wherewithal to stand on their own, especially if they are in a “hostile” presbytery, which maintains the ability to intervene in the congregation’s business when certain (ambiguous) criteria are met.

Some congregations are “happy defectors,” who seem glad to let go of any ill will toward the denomination and just move ahead with their own ministries. Some are “angry defectors,” who seem to be shaped more by a deep sense of alienation from a denomination in which they have invested much of their lives.

I have found wisdom in the words of Ephraim Radner, a conservative theologian in the Episcopal Church: “There is no point dying with the church, unless one is ready to struggle for the truth. But there is no point struggling for the truth if the struggle leaves one bitter and hostile, aimed against adversaries instead of praying for them in love. If one is not called to the radiancy of joyful sacrifice, it is better to leave.”

Radner’s comment is really intended for individuals, for whom leaving is easy. It is far more difficult for a whole congregation to leave, if it is not practically unanimous in wanting to leave, and if the congregation wishes to retain its property. This all depends on the presbytery and the particular circumstances, of course, but the end result of these factors is that we have many congregations who have basically “left,” though they are still technically in the PC(USA).

3) To Leave the PC(USA)
The third option is to leave the PC(USA). A great many individuals have left in recent years, preferring another nearby congregation that does not have the baggage of the PC(USA). Only 44% of current PC(USA) members come from a Presbyterian background, which likely means that a majority of our members feel little spiritual attachment to the PC(USA) as such. Given that the Scriptures teach that Christ intends to guide the church through elders, however, it would be better for individual members to discern their ability to be a part of the local congregation, while allowing the session to provide guidance about the whole congregation’s participation in the denomination.

Several dozen congregations have recently left the PC(USA), including a handful of our largest congregations. Nobody knows how many are in the process of leaving in the wake of the recent Assembly.

I would not question the faithfulness of congregations who are united in their resolve to leave, if they arrive at this conclusion after careful and patient discernment, and out of concern for their faithfulness to God and their witness to the Gospel.

But I do think many conservative congregations go through that process without a clear sense of the nature and purpose of a “denomination” – what they are leaving – and without considering the implications for Christian unity and witness beyond the PC(USA). I believe those factors are significant elements in discerning whether or not to leave the PC(USA) at this time, so I’ll reflect on those issues in subsequent articles.

Up Next, a Fourth Option: Realignment Within - and Beyond? - the PC(USA)
Each of the three approaches above, on their own, presents significant difficulties. In addition to those mentioned above, they do not provide a way forward that gives much hope for the long-term health and witness of the PC(USA), they leave conservatives fractured among themselves, and they cannot well address the major issue of our future relationship to the global Church.

While no approach is free of serious difficulties, in the next article I will present the basics of a fourth option, a “realignment” within the PC(USA) that would allow congregations to become a part of middle governing bodies that are geographically flexible and free to establish standards that would apply to their own members. But the polity angle is only one piece of a vision that is much bigger. I realize there are plenty of questions surrounding such an approach, and we'll need to address them together. In the next article I'll offer initial thoughts that rise out of many discussions over the last two months.

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