I asked a non-Presbyterian friend not long ago to read what has become not so fondly known by some as “The PUP Report,” and to give me his views as an outsider on what all the stir is about. He said, after a serious reading of the document, and an additional look at the actions of the 2006 Birmingham General Assembly, he was a bit mystified by why anyone would get upset over what our denomination had done. Nothing much seemed to have really changed. The Book of Order is still the same. The actions of the Assembly did not change the paragraph that seems to concern some so much.
I have to quickly add the proviso that my friend is a pretty good student of Presbyterian polity, even though he has chosen to be an Episcopalian. He is equally baffled by some of the same kind of heated rhetoric and threats of withdrawal by churches in his denomination. He is certainly no flaming liberal on most matters, but a conscientious, church-going, follower of Christ.
One of his comments stuck in my mind. He commented that it looked to him as though we have become denominationally obsessed with the “other P”- the one that stands for “purity.” In our rush to be “pure” we seem to have overlooked the reality that “unity and peace” are intricately inter-connected to our “purity.” In other words, they are part of an interlinked theological principle and process that many of us hoped would lead to adaptive change and new habits of behavior as faith travelers within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It would appear, however, that our old habits of infighting, name calling, and a general lack of not knowing how to carry on civil discourse have once again taken center stage. Frankly, many of the arguments that are haunting some of our churches and middle governing bodies are based not on real factual information, but are driven by misinformation and a deep-seated fear of change. To quote FDR, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Those of us who have studied church systems theory know, however, that fear drives anger and anger can cause depression if it is repressed. It also can lead to conflict. In some places across our denomination the fear has led not simply to angry name calling and recriminations, but focused attempts to cause, or join, the efforts of schism. In others it has actually sunken some into a state of helpless feelings of hopelessness, which I translate as a chronic state of depression. The problems seem so immense to some good folks that they have simply adopted a kind of attitude of “What can I do about it?” It’s sort of like the phenomenon of global warming. You either believe it’s a fact, or you don’t. If you believe it is real, and that it’s so big a problem that there are no solutions, then you may adopt an attitude of it’s too late for any of us to do any good. I am surmising that this describes some of our people in the pew.
Thankfully, I believe the majority of us in the mainstream of our mainline denomination either don’t know about, or don’t feel frightened by the transitions our denomination–and others– are going through. Indeed, there are many who feel hopeful that God is still doing a “new thing” with us. One also has to question our belief in the sovereignty of God which has always been one of our primary tenets of belief that sets us apart from others as Presbyterians, and whether we still feel a reliance on the providence of a divine Creator. Do we really still passionately believe and feel that God is in charge and is leading us into the future?
Much has been written about the post-modern, post-Christendom age in which we are living. Even Loren Mead, the past leader and founder of the Alban Institute who is among the first to put this concept before us, has to confess that he still cannot label the new age into which we are being called. Maybe that’s a good thing because sometimes labels become stereotypes and confine our thinking. They get in our way for having real dialogue, like the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Most of us don’t easily fit easy definitions or labels, but are a combination of many differing thoughts and feelings. One thing seems certain; we are indeed on a new journey into a future that we cannot easily predict.
There were times that those of us who have a few years behind us remember when life and culture were much more predictable. Life moved at a slower pace than it does today both inside and outside of the church. Even our better trend analysts these days have only about a fifty-fifty rate of success of looking much farther than a few years. The trends themselves are shifting more quickly than ever before. So what do we do with such rapid change, the stress it produces, and all the ways we culturally transfer what some have labeled as “free floating anxiety” into our congregational life?
I think one of the solutions is to create a variety of forums for open discussion of the various concerns that bother and concern us. I believe that the conference among middle governing body representatives that will be held in Albuquerque, N. M. this month is at least a model at the national denominational level of how we can have such discussions. This happens, or can happen, regionally at the presbytery level, and it most certainly can occur in every one of our churches. It’s largely a matter of taking the risk of addressing our fears. As a trained pastoral counselor, I know the deep value of how transformative conversation alone can be in relieving our stressors, lifting our depression, and stilling our anxiety. It sometimes also keeps us from saying things to one another that we later regret, or “casting the first stone” of judgment.
So let’s be imaginative and inventive in how we learn new behaviors that lower the volume of rhetoric. Let’s find some creative, as well as recover, some traditional ways of talking with one another, not “at” each other. Let’s learn how to listen before we speak. But, perhaps most of all, let’s seek a balance for all of the elements intended by the adoption of the “Peace, Unity, and Purity” Task Force report. Let’s recover the “P” that stands for “Peace,” and the connecting word, “Unity.”
Phil Leftwich is executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee in Franklin, Tenn.