Moderator's Note: The following appeared on Presbyweb and are presented for thoughtful examination.
The peculiar Presbyterian vice of having such a high view of how to do a given thing but a low view of the thing itself has not played well over the last thirty years and it certainly has not enabled us to overcome our profound differences. Our society is in a state of moral confusion, our inner cities are demilitarized zones, the poor are getting poorer, and there is a tremendous hunger for spiritual things. The Presbyterian Church (USA), rather than being a light in this dark time, reflects the confusion of the secular society. We are a deeply divided mediocre institution that does its best work in managing dead people's money and building retirement facilities for its increasingly aging population. We can defend our personal Jesus and "God alone is Lord of our conscience" but one thing that evangelicals, moderates, and liberals share is a poorly developed understanding and love for the mystical Body of Christ. In reality we hardly function as a church, but rather more akin to an ecumenical movement with a pension plan.
I would like to suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) has come to a Paul and Barnabas impasse (Acts 15:36-41). Luke's account of the story should be familiar to you: It is decided that it is time to revisit the churches established in their initial missionary journey. Barnabas sees in John Mark a gifted individual, who deserves another chance to serve. Paul finds John Mark's behavior and character deficient. It is also reasonable to speculate that the theological and church ordering controversy at the church in Antioch (see Galations 2:11-14) had put a strain on Paul and Barnabas's working relationship. Holding mutually exclusive opinions they were unable to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution. They did not start two new religions, but there is no record of them ever working together again. A great team separated and that is unfortunate. But both men went on to do vital ministry. In spite of their division great mission was accomplished with more people included in the work and more communities were evangelized. The kingdom of God benefited from what at the time must have seemed schismatic and less than what God intended for the saints gathered at Antioch.
My purpose is not to argue who was right or wrong then or now, but to say it is time to stop pretending there is a middle ground in the current impasses in our denomination. Our denomination has a great tradition and there are many good people even now working hard to preserve our ecclesiastical way of life. I respect them and I am convinced that most of them are much better Christians than I will ever be. But their sincerity and spirituality does not change the fact that our connectional system is not working. The people in the pews do not care and the majority of pastors view the upper courts at best as an obligatory waste of time. It is time we begin a process of deconstructing, so like Paul and Barnabas, we can move forward to carry out vital ministries. We in the developed West are in a post-modern, post -denominational, and I would argue a post-Protestant world. It is time that we stop fighting about sexual issues and admit that there is not enough shared epistemology to sustain a denomination in the classic sense and particularly in the post World War II bureaucratic form. I do not want to fight anymore; I do not want to use coercion on congregations who have a majority of people who hold positions contrary to mine. But neither can I compromise on issues that for my branch of the church would undermine essential elements of the Faith and the gospel delivered by Christ and the apostles. Neither is there integrity in forcing accountability relationships among presbyters, who because of their theological differences would not be assigned to teach each other's kindergarten Sunday school classes.
Given the American Church culture at the dawn of the 21st century, the only connectional system that will be meaningful and sustainable is one that is voluntary. We must rewrite our polity from the ground up. Obviously this would need to be done gradually and there would be many important details to be worked out in such a process. But it is time that every congregation is given local autonomy in ordering its life and every congregation is allowed sovereignty over its property and future. Congregationalism is not a heresy and there were Presbyterian churches in this country for decades before there was ever a meeting of a presbytery or General Assembly. Allow like-minded congregations to form small more organic presbyteries and hopefully these presbyteries could find ways of maintaining some connection under a radically reduced General Assembly. There would need to be a return to the model of an independent mission board or boards, but that would be a great opportunity to renew interest in mission both foreign and local. Both the Foundation and the Board of Pensions possess enough savvy to build plans around new models. On the national level, we have two very capable individuals in Cliff Kirkpatrick and John Detterick who could give leadership in Louisville during such a major overhaul
During this time of shifting allegiances and rethinking of traditional boundaries, it is hard to predict what will evolve. Moderate liberals will probably get some form of their COCU vision. Non-denominational groups and conservative mainliners will most likely form new ties and arguably the most interesting ecumenical dialogue in years is the ongoing dialogue between renewal minded Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Regardless of what the future holds for American Christianity, it is time for our little sect to desist in wasting energy jockeying for position, protecting turf, and engaging in patronizing bullsgeschichte.
I do not want to hear any more propaganda of how great we are from either side of this controversy. Do not send me any more General Assembly position papers attempting to reeducate me or pop psychology group dynamic exercises to help us all get along. Do not ask me to pray for the renewal of an organization that in its current form has outlived it usefulness. We are the body of Christ; the temple of Holy Spirit; we stand on the prophets and apostles; we have the living witness of the blood of martyrs; we have two thousand years of a living tradition. We can do so much better than this. Let us with Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas repent where we have been wrong, regret the loss of colleagues, pray for the other's good, and get on with God's work in our respective arenas of service. And ironically, I bet a beer and a lunch, God might even be able to use us for vital ministry together again some day.
Rev. Bill Borror is the senior pastor of
the Media Presbyterian Church, Media PA
Bill Borror, an excellent pastor and a faithful presbyter, suggests that it is time to stop talking and go our respective ways, maybe in many directions as we link up with like-minded churches for mutual support.
Maybe he's right. Certainly we do not need another round of debates on Book of Order G-6.0106b, nor do we need to tear ourselves apart over the fate of a small group of Presbyterian young women. But, regrettably, we seem to have chosen up sides, ready to fight some more.
If we could agree to accord each other freedom on issues of conscience, such as the ordination question, that might bank the fires a bit, but it does bring into focus the question of whether there is then any point in our denominational identity. Bill answers this question in the negative.
I would deeply regret the loss of faithful colleagues like
Bill Borror, and others with whom I might be forced to part company,
since it is certain that I cannot follow both Paul and Barnabas.
preference would be to carry on together, to agree to disagree, to accord a wide latitude for differing views, and to avoid taking stands for which there is not an overwhelming support from all parts of the denomination. We might then be as bland as oatmeal, but I like oatmeal.
If we are to separate, however, let's try to do it elegantly and with mutual respect and love. We are going to be talking about how to divide the denomination's great wealth, and we should do so openly, with all of the cards plainly in view, and with a goal of fairness and faithfulness.
I do thank and congratulate Bill for raising the level of the debate from "If you don't like it, get out" to his suggestion a cooperative and peaceful disaffiliation.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of Philadelphia
(and frequent contributor to Hesed)
Hesed Home Page