Many of us can remember when General Assembly meetings were filled with thoughtful debate about great issues confronting the church and the world. We struggled with issues of war and peace, of human and civil rights, of the church’s role in society. We were not of a single mind, but there was widespread agreement that these issues were of consequence, worth our time, energy and prayer. As recently as 20 years ago, we decided that the ministry of peacemaking, internationally and locally, was a calling of our denomination.
Following reunion in 1983, our concerns became more parochial. We were, after all, bringing two large institutions together. We needed to get used to one another, meld two cultures, two bureaucracies, two “streams.” It was essential to pay attention to the organizational details.
And we did. We structured and restructured. We shaped and formed, “shaked and baked”; relocated, dislocated, downsized, right-sized and discovered that this was so much fun, we should restructure again.
Our attention was increasingly taken up by issues of churchiness, subjects that much of the world found it easy to ignore. The only times we got in the papers were for our debates about sex. Even these arguments were not about large human questions of sexuality and the relationship of sexuality and culture in a rapidly changing world. They were petty parochial debates about who’s in and who’s out. They were family squabbles about purity and privilege. They spoke no words of healing and inspiration to a hurting world. They revealed only our capacity to hurt one another and the poverty of our ministry of reconciliation.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, this year’s Assembly demonstrated our ability to shrink things even further. We have now moved to period of “micro-parochialism.” The hot button issues at this Assembly were things like demonstrations at Assembly meetings, procedures for nominating the nominating committee, open vs. closed meetings for personal sharing. These are not unimportant issues, but they are trivial.
An institution must have rules and procedures, but for a great denomination to devote hours of debate and discussion to these questions of “process” is a huge waste of time. The spiritual cost is enormous.
“What great theological issues did you deal with at General Assembly this year?” “Well, by golly, we banned demonstrations and said church bureaucrats can go to certain meetings they couldn’t go to before.” How does that build the Kingdom?
Even our highly publicized decision about “holy unions” is really a debate about whether sessions and presbyteries have control over church buildings and ministers, or whether a new form of triumphalism will become the new “bishop” in the Presbyterian church.
We have gone beyond contemplating our own ecclesiastical navel. We are now fighting over the lint.
In his bizarre novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon wrote, “If they get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. “Whoever “they” are, they have succeeded in diverting this denomination’s attention from sharing the gospel and announcing the reign of God, to petty arguments about process and control.
One of the startling and refreshing departures from that tendency was last year’s report from the Church Growth Task Force, calling upon all of us to discern God’s new thing. Very little of the floor debate at this year’s Assembly reflected the concern or the enthusiasm of that vital challenge.
There’s a world out there that is hungering for a healing grace-filled word from somewhere. There are millions of people who want to know that they are loved and that God desires peace and justice in God’s creation.
If we keep focusing on the wrong questions, those millions won’t give a damn about us or our answers.
William P. Saum is executive presbyter, Newton Presbytery.