Editor’s Outlook: Year in view 2011

Leslie Scanlon provides a succinct summary of some of the major news stories of the year (see pp. 10-12). But what about the subtexts, the personal impacts, the emotions unleashed by each story?

For some confessionalist Presbyterians the failure to ratify the proposal to add the Belhar Confession to our Book of Confessions stood as a lone victory amid a season that piled up the losses. Belhar’s abbreviated summary of Trinitarian theology and the possibility of being construed to support alternate lifestyles demanded its repudiation, so they believed, and so they felt relieved over its defeat.

However, Belhar’s rejection stunned many an altruist and activist Presbyterian. They shudder to think that the PC(USA) — with its checkered history of racial and ethnic prejudice — would have squandered the Belhar moment to assert its commitment to reconciliation and human rights. They console themselves with the fact that it was approved by a simple majority, but lacking approval of the required two-thirds, it remains a stranger to our Constitution.

For some evangelism-minded Presbyterians the approval of the New Form of Government in the Book of Order opened wide the gates for missional ministry that can now take many forms and expressions long hindered by a regulatory mentality. And it counters creeping clericalism by empowering ruling elders, deacons and all members to exercise their God-given spiritual gifts.

Then again, for other evangelism-minded members the adoption of nFOG is seen as compromising the message of Christ alone in favor of a bland universalism — thereby dulling the impetus for global mission.

Then there was the adoption of Amendment 10-A. The change in ordination standards signaled the possibility of openly gay and lesbian persons serving as teaching elders and ruling elders. For Scott Anderson, the possibility became reality as he became the first gay man to be ordained under the changed policy. After striving for two decades to overturn the church’s rejection of his sense of call, his approval and ordination brought joy to him and to the many who shared that dream.

For conservatives, adoption of the new paragraph (G-2.0104b), which requires examination “of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation,” falls short of the explicit delineation of disqualifying sexual practices for ordinands and thereby casts the denomination adrift in waters of heresy or even apostasy. The feeling of betrayal has been expressed openly and widely.

In fact, the other really big news item this year was the launch of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, an organization seeking to provide an umbrella of oversight and connectedness to those congregations that feel the need either to transfer out of the denomination into another Reformed body or, at least, to differentiate themselves from the mainstream directions and policies of the PC(USA). Its overnight sizzle — the release of its white paper last winter generated about 100 times the level of typical traffic on the Outlook’s Web site — drew nearly 2,000 to an organizing event, as the vision cast by these leaders touched very raw nerves in so many of their evangelical colleagues and friends.

Then again, the fact that this new movement was launched singly by white, male, tall-steeple pastors kicked up a firestorm of reactions from many who don’t fit into that crowd.

Result: the unity of the PC(USA) hangs in the balance as 2011 leads into 2012. Some predict that the largest split since the Civil War may ensue. Ecclesiast Presbyterians — many of whom had voted to support Amendment 10-A, if only to bring the three-decades’ war to an end — are grieving in advance for the bloodletting such separations inevitably bring.

In the meantime, the devotionalists know what to do. They are praying for God’s grace and mercy to fall. May it be so for all of us, whether we count 2011 to have been good, bad or otherwise.

JHH

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