I won’t try to refute the points Dr. Gunn makes but respond briefly to them.
1. That we won’t succeed in rallying conservatives around “a concise, clear theological core.”
I believe that evangelically-minded Presbyterians really can agree on what goes into a concise statement of theology. Such statements have historically been highly contextual and in our day it is not that difficult to get together many evangelical Presbyterians who will rally around a core of Reformed theological statements. I hope that’s not because we’re not as “educated a bunch” (his words) that we conservatives will succeed in finding serious theological unity. I think we can.
Indeed a decade ago several hundred evangelical Presbyterians enthusiastically signed a carefully worded statement, Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church, whose writing committee of pastors, elders and seminary professors was chaired by Jim Singleton, one of our leaders (the statement plus study guide were published by Witherspoon Press).
The letter Dr Gunn writes underscores that we already have a Book of Confessions. We in the Fellowship wonder why it is not used more rigorously in determining whether one is fit for ordination.
2. That we’ve already got in place within the PCUSA what we need for “a nurtured leadership.”
While I’m not familiar with the Reformed Institute and I am sure we can celebrate all they are doing, what the Fellowship means by “nurtured leadership” is not holding workshops for troubled churches or providing continuing education for elders. We intend a focused effort in our churches to begin nurturing young people as early as high school to become transformational leaders for Christ both inside and outside the church. Promising candidates for ordained ministry especially will be mentored and encouraged as we seek to raise up a whole new generation of creative church planters and pastors. This is among our most cherished dreams for the future.
3. That we need to celebrate the decentralizing of mission into congregations.
We do have common ground in celebrating the flowering of diverse, decentralized mission throughout PCUSA congregations. Many of the congregations represented in the Fellowship led this healthy revolution in the 1970’s and 80’s over much protest from many that we were being unPresbyterian. We did believe then, as we do now, that we were on the right side of history. The signers have long believed in decentralized, congregation-based mission. Many of our congregations have been living in Thomas Friedman’s flat world for thirty years.
4. That we are not doing too bad a job at all in “multiplying healthy missional communities.”
While our letter describes the patient as “deathly ill” this letter seems to describe an aging person whose vital signs are as strong as can be expected under the circumstances. (While in some venues like National Capital Presbytery the old codger sparkles.)
The following did confuse me –
“The average lifespan of a congregation is 75 years. Unless a congregation rediscovers a renewed passion and makes the changes needed to reach unreached groups of people, it will not live beyond the generation that started it.”
Yes, that is the point! Hooray! That is our problem. But then came this –
“Looking at the whole PCUSA, our former success explains some of the numerical decline we are experiencing. The Presbyterian goal in the 1920s was to place a Presbyterian Church in every county in the United States. Many of those counties now have Presbyterian Churches but fewer people. People have moved into the cities. Many choose to do something else on Sunday. It’s not that they sought a concise, clear theology in some independent church. They preferred an early Tee-time at the golf course. The numerical decline of the whole PCUSA is more complex and many of the sociological trends are beyond our capability to change.”
I’m all for realism, but “beyond our capacity to change”? What about the power of the Holy Spirit? Is not the Church the Body of the resurrected Christ on earth? The danger of statements like “beyond our capacity to change” is they become self-fulfilling. What happened to the previous paragraph’s eloquent call to “rediscover a renewed passion” and “make changes needed to reach unreached groups of people.” Spiritual revivals have done that very thing within the Church for over two millennia. I can’t believe that we’re ready to normalize the laid back life at Laodicea quite yet.
5. That we may be biting off more than we can chew in trying to create “a new pattern of fellowship.”
Maybe so. But it does seem that we do have an emerging consensus around developing “parallel communities” of some sort.
Dr. Gunn uses the labels “conservative” and “liberal” which of course imply groups with differing clusters of values. These differing values spawn contrasting cultures and a whole range of different perspectives and behaviors in churches. This has been shown in many studies, but for the latest vivid illustration of this see the recent article on “Conservative vs. Liberal in the Pacific Northwest” in the journal Books and Culture.
Tom Peters in his book In Search of Excellence closes by saying unified values are critical to any successful body of people. He calls it “simultaneously tight and loose properties.” To be truly effective as a group, you need ideological unity and methodological diversity—which I think Paul was saying far more eloquently in I Corinthians 12. The Apostle is not celebrating theological diversity, but the diversity of gifts and functions in the Body of Christ. When groups of people share passionate core values they are able to trust, to understand, and are willing to mobilize with one another in amazing ways. That is not happening in today’s PCUSA. In most Presbyteries you cannot get a settled agreement where everyone goes home happy after a discussion of what is meant by Jesus’ “resurrection.” By allowing congregations to create parallel structures that avoid conflict over such basic issues as ordination, Biblical authority, core theology, abortion (for conservatives), gay ordination (for liberals) and on and on, we may build communities of shared values and mission that will glorify God under the PCUSA umbrella.
Finally, let me reflect on my last week. Someone in our Presbytery voiced criticism of me the other day because none from our Session was present at the Presbytery’s question and answer gathering on a Saturday morning, the week before the Presbytery’s big vote on Amendment 10-A. After all, there were more than 400 people present and the discussion was polite and civil, I was told, at what was essentially “the debate before the debate.”
I am in my fourth decade of this, beginning back in 1979. One of the differences I starkly recall from then and now was going home after Presbytery and watching local evening news coverage on the meeting and debate within Presbytery. What Presbyterians thought back then—about this and a range of issues— mattered to society.
Meanwhile here is what matters today to the people of Atlanta –
* We are the hub of the Mexican drug cartels for the eastern US.
* Georgia is the #1 source of death dealing “crime guns” exported outside our state because of our lax gun laws that have no limit to what a single purchaser can buy.
* Atlanta is the #1 city in the US for trafficking children in the sex trade with as many as 200 to 300 new victims each month.
* Georgia is one of only five states that do not track prescription drugs and is having an explosion of “pill mills” that put prescription drugs into the hands of teenagers.
* Georgia is #1 in bank failures with many allegations of fraud.
I remember when outraged Presbyterians would gather to address such things. I remember when we used to be relevant.
At “the debate before the debate,” 400 Presbyterian leaders from one region were gathered in one room at the same time.
Think of all the energy and potential to touch our community for Christ that was gathered. To what end?
History is sprinkled with what are now seen as long and futile battles of attrition which continued mindlessly long after the cost outweighed whatever outcome for either side. Looking back we scratch our heads in disbelief and wonder, “What were they thinking?”
For all our many flaws, the Fellowship is thinking—and prompting others to do the same.
By God’s grace, may this new thinking lead to fresh beginnings and serious change for the PCUSA.
Collegially in Christ,
Vic Pentz is pastor, head-of-staff at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Ga.