The Fellowship plans to hold a “constitutional convention” in Orlando, Fla., Jan. 12-14 to make more formal decisions on structuring such an entity proposing overtures to the 2012 General Assembly.
What comes from that January meeting could be key for Presbyterian congregations, pastors and individual worshippers who are trying to decide whether, as a matter of theological conviction, the time has come to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).
This week, 1,900 Presbyterians have jammed into hotel meeting rooms in suburban Minneapolis for the Fellowship’s Aug. 25-26 meeting. Many of them are profoundly troubled by the PC(USA)’s decision earlier this year to change its ordination standards and remove a requirement from the denomination’s Book of Order that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.
The idea of creating a new Reformed body is one of several possibilities that Fellowship organizers are presenting this week. Other possibilities include creating non-geographic presbyteries or fellowships of like-minded Presbyterians within the PC(USA).
“We believe the purpose of this meeting is to begin to discern the mind of God,” said Jim Singleton, pastor of First Presbyterian church in Colorado Springs
At the same time, the Fellowship is moving forward. John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian church in Edina, Minn., told the Minneapolis meeting that the Fellowship already has created a legal structure for a new entity and will make additional decisions in at the January meeting.
“This new body does exist,” Crosby said, “but it’s an empty warehouse right now.”
FILLING THE WAREHOUSE
Lots of ground is being covered at the Minneapolis meeting – and this first gathering is more an opportunity to talk about ideas than to make decisions.
But from the presentations some details of how things might shape up are beginning to emerge. Here are some of them.
Essential tenets. Any new entity would include a theological statement of essential tenets that would be evangelical, orthodox and morally sound. “By golly, we’re going to stand on Scripture and its authority,” and not be embarrassed to describe essential truths, Singleton said.
Dual citizenship. A new Reformed body would allow “dual citizenship, at least in the near term,” Crosby said. In other words, people involved in it would both be in the new body and would retain some degree of affiliation with the PC(USA).
Less structure. The new body would be more like an association and less like a denomination – meaning “less control and command, more vision and mutual support,” Crosby said. But it would have enough structure so the PC(USA) could dismiss congregations to it. And it would have the ability to ordain ministers.
WHY DO IT?
Why do folks want another Reformed entity in a post-denominational age, in a world that already has 35,000 denominations worldwide and about two dozen Reformed denominations in the U.S.?
Because, according to the Fellowship’s leaders, what’s happening now isn’t working – the PC(USA) has not grown for 40 years, and back-and-forth voting by the General Assembly on controversial issues isn’t working.
“Continuing on the current path is futile,” Crosby said. “It’s a dead end. We’re not going to play that game anymore.”
He also said that “mainline Christianity is dying” and “denominationalism in America is not being sustained.”
Singleton spoke of adaptive change (asking whether this is the right house or town to live in) rather than tactical change (should we remodel or add on a room?). The kind of change needed won’t be accomplished by another General Assembly vote on ordination standards, Singleton said.
Some other themes:
Graciousness. “We’re not mad,” Singleton said. “Our best solutions, we are convinced, will not be made in anger.” Repeatedly, he commended the PC(USA) leadership in Louisville for becoming involved in the conversation. Crosby said: “We are not calling anyone apostate.”
High walls. The ideas the Fellowship is advancing won’t be for everyone. Some evangelicals will want to stay in the PC(USA), some will leave. “We are not interested in kicking anybody out,” Crosby said. “We want to be clear what’s at the center rather than police the boundaries.”
Excitement. Several spoke of their desire to create something new – something better. “I ache for a better future,” Crosby said. “I want you to believe that the best days are ahead.”
From the start of opening worship, there was acknowledgement that this is a diverse group – that folks may want different things. The 1,900 registrants come from 49 states and three countries beyond the U.S., drawn from 830 congregations.
Some are drawing connections with broader trends in the Christian conversation – about the idea, for example, that young adults particularly resonate with a commitment to mission; a less regulatory structure; the excitement of taking risks and doing ministry with others in authentic, faithful, creative ways.
Many of these evangelicals want a place where they can stand true to their convictions and also to stay connected.
“We need clarity and we need options,” said Duncan MacLeod at the start of opening worship. “We need a way forward.”