Who can imagine how the things we call ideas live in the world, or how they change, or how they perish, or how they are renewed?1
Marilynne Robinson’s question frames an essay on Montreat as a place of significant Christian influence in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and since reunion, also in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Conference Center in this privileged Presbyterian village near Asheville, N.C., has experienced rebirth in the past few years. Under the leadership of George Barber, an accountant who has just finished his tenure as president, the Conference Center (with the oversight of the Mountain Retreat Association Board) was put on a firm financial footing. More than $20 million in pledges and deferred giving have been secured for the Center during a time when General Assembly funding has dried up. That is a remarkable achievement in which the church can rejoice.
At the same time the Presbyterian Historical Society at Montreat (the PCUS branch of the Philadelphia office), which was a unique archive of personal and ecclesial papers, artifacts, and records of international mission churches, was closed at the behest of the Committee on the General Assembly and its operatives at the 2006 Birmingham meeting of the General Assembly. This controversial decision provides a vantage from which to examine the distrust that remains between the northern and southern streams after 25 years of reunion, even though the closing has now led to a remarkable convergence of cooperation, for — it is hoped — the upbuilding of the PC(USA). But that closing renewed once again the disappointment of those within the southern stream who worked for reunion with enthusiasm, and who have wondered in retrospect if we did the right thing. Were the losses worth it — not only to the PCUS, but to the church catholic? Can these losses be restored?
Such questions are born out of a clash of church cultures. On the one hand the southern culture is familial and confessional; on the other, northern culture is bureaucratic, “top down” driven, and legalistic. For example, since reunion we have entered into a frenzy of amendments to the Form of Government that are largely unenforceable. A continually amended constitution — without the powers of enforcement — makes little actual difference in shaping behavior, and often creates disenfranchisement, cynicism, bad policy, and fragmentation.
These different church cultures were adaptations to large historical forces over which neither denomination had control, yet these differences have not been acknowledged explicitly or even understood in governing body debates, or in the debate about the closing of the Montreat Historical Society. And these differences still disable decision making in the PC(USA). In the instance of the Montreat closing, the COGA argued for closure based on cost savings and archival merger and acquisition. Those who argued against closure knew that this unique institution drew more than 30,000 visitors a year to do research and to renew their connections to the Presbyterian Church. That experience was a strengthening of faith and an upbuilding of the church that would be lost if the holdings in Montreat were simply moved to Philadelphia. These are two divergent perspectives that grow out of particular historical experience. Was this ever addressed in the negotiations?
Another question still tugs at the sleeve: Who can imagine such a demoralizing decision in a denomination losing 45 thousand members and more a year with revenues decreasing, particularly when General Assembly leadership needs all the credibility it can muster?
I experienced a similar “culture clash” prior to reunion when I served on a committee to plan the National Peacemaking Conference at Montreat in 1982. The conference was a cooperative venture of the two denominations less than a year before reunion in 1983.
The planning committee met in Atlanta for one day. The first surprise was that the members from the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America were all paid staff. All from the PCUS representatives were volunteers.
Different agendas for the conference surfaced early, with the UPCUSA team wanting to organize “how to” workshops, and the PCUS team arguing for theological presentation and reflection, inspirational preaching, and rich liturgy. There was hard negotiating in the morning, with agreement before lunch to shape a conference that included both agendas. But in the afternoon, the same battles were re-fought because whatever ground had been gained by the PCUS team was repeatedly undermined by motions to bend the agenda back into what the UPC team had advocated from the start. In the end they were unsuccessful. It was a mercy, for very few PCUS Presbyterians would have attended a conference to teach Sessions how to organize peacemaking committees; yet they welcomed a conference that explored the theological, historical, and biblical possibilities of peacemaking for the sake of the church.
Another difference emerged: the UPCUSA would pay for representatives from synods and presbyteries to attend, while in the PCUS, people needed to be inspired to attend — and to pay their own way. A feisty and enthusiastic conference resulted from the planning. From the PCUS, attendance was voluntary, and though we did not promise a specific number of delegates, in the end, we delivered. In the national church, the bureaucracy could always deliver.
Before I turn to signs of hope for the future of Montreat as a place for healing the distrust that remains among us, I am compelled to remind the church of the significance of Montreat prior to reunion — of both the conferences and the Historical Society. Apart from The Presbyterian Outlook, Montreat Conferences of the 60s and 70s were the most significant energizer of commitment to the ordination of women, to the civil rights movement in much of the South as well as in the PCUS, and — most important — to Presbyterian reunion. The annual World Mission conference, which included the commissioning of missionaries, gave vitality to the PCUS and mitigated its too frequent lapse into sectional and provincial prejudice. The enthusiasm and broad-based support for the missionary enterprise of the church, which that conference encouraged among all ages, has never been duplicated, and the church is the poorer for it.
Yet, out of the ashes of defeat at the Birmingham Assembly has come new opportunity.
The Presbyterian Heritage Center is being established with the encouragement of and cooperation with the Mountain Retreat Association (the Conference Center). The Heritage Center is leasing significant space in the building formerly occupied by The Montreat Historical Society. In addition, as part of the closure, Columbia Theological Seminary has received and will archive many of the historic resources and artifacts that were formerly at Montreat, which were not transferred to Philadelphia. Some of the collection remains.
Last summer, Columbia Seminary, the Mountain Retreat Association, and The Heritage Center sponsored a conference, “Religion and the South,” which was led by Dr. Erskine Clarke, and which brought nationally and internationally known scholars to Montreat. Dr. Clarke was influential in convincing Columbia to secure as many of the historical archives from Montreat as possible.
The newly organized center is sponsoring lectures this summer, 2008, on Religion in Appalachia, with an accompanying exhibit. Other exhibits will feature the Great Awakening in Korea, Presbyterian Women in Leadership, and the History of Montreat. The Heritage Center, as distinct from The Presbyterian Historical Society now located only in Philadelphia, will continue with its resources and angle of vision to serve, inspire, and strengthen the larger church catholic — as well as the PC(USA). The treasure that was destroyed in the move to Philadelphia can never be replaced, but the future holds great promise.
Finally, the church would be further encouraged, and well served, by those currently holding power, and by those who recently have had great influence over the direction of the 25-year-old adolescent (dare we say infant) which is the PC(USA), to begin public conversations around the cultural differences that remain among us and continue to cause disagreement. Montreat does not need to be a sign of discomfort or defeat, but instead needs to regain its former role as a place of inspiration and promise — for as long as God needs the PC(USA) to endure. Who knows, we might even discover together how the things we call ideas are sustained in the world? We know far too much about what causes them to perish.
O. Benjamin Sparks retired in 2007 as pastor of Second Church in Richmond, Va. He is a former interim editor of The Presbyterian Outlook and the recipient of the Outlook’s 2006 Ernest Trice Thompson Award.
1 Robinson, Marilynne, The Death of Adam, Essays in Modern Thought, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1998, p. 289