The commissioners and delegates need our prayers. They are feeling the weight of a load we are asking them to shoulder during what could turn out to be a week of historic proportions — the gathering of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Pittsburgh. That weight is quantified in a letter to the editor (Page 2) written by church historian Richard Lovelace. In his words, the PC(USA) may be reaching a tipping point. My words, almost exactly.
Ours is not the first denomination to reach a tipping point in recent decades.
In 1990, after years of election setbacks, the defeat of Daniel Vestal for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention signaled total loss for the moderates in his denomination. The fundamentalist takeover was complete. The moderates were left with little choice but to submit to outlier minority status in the SBC or start something new. They organized the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Although several openly gay and lesbian persons had been serving as priests, it was the 2003 ratification by the General Convention of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to become Bishop of New Hampshire that tipped the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.). An “Anglican realignment” resulted as the Anglican Church in North America was formed out of 700 departing ECUSA churches, including four whole dioceses.
Ecclesiastical wars and rumors thereof reverberate through our denominational family, and they all shout, “Tipping point!” That is the right term. I’d amend Lovelace’s comment by saying the tipping point has befallen us already. All that remains to be determined is the extent of change to which it will lead.
The tipping began last year with the ratification of Amendment 10-A, which lifted the categorical exclusion from ordination of all persons sexually active outside the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Then followed the launch of two new presbyteries by A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) at its January 2012 gathering. The resulting acceleration of congregational departures to both ECO and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church pretty much guarantees that we are now in the midst of the largest division of the denomination since the Civil War.
What can we do?
What Presbyterians denomination-wide need to do is pray.
And how shall we pray?
First, we can pray that the commissioners will listen well to voices long silenced. At the GA many unfamiliar voices will plead for their attention. Some will don bumper stickers, placards, campaign buttons. Other will whisper. All those voices deserve a hearing. However, the commissioners also will need to listen for other voices: those of their far-away and long-ago Sunday school teachers. The voices of their grandmothers and grandchildren. Most especially the voice of the one they hear best in times of prayer. Listening to the voice of God won’t come easily amid the convention-style cacophony.
Second, we can pray that the commissioners find the courage of the prophet, the serenity of the monk or nun and the wisdom of the sage. Some matters require the church to speak up with a ferocious boldness. We cannot rationalize the injustices of tyrants or sins of infidels — especially if we can take effective action to counter them. Then again, some topics have been exhausted with words, words, words; they beg for us to take a speech Sabbath, so that we may listen to the Spirit who often speaks in groanings that cannot be uttered. The odds against 688 commissioners and 221 advisory delegates being able to discern in wisdom when to speak and when to keep silent may seem insurmountable, but prayer invades the impossible.
Finally, we can pray that by God’s grace this tipping point will not reach a point of no return. Both the SBC and the ECUSA are impoverished by the vanquishing of their opponents. The resulting lack of contrariness in leadership strips them of those white corpuscles that expose and counterattack toxins that sneak into their beliefs and practices. Unpleasant as are some of our exchanges in Presbyworld, they beat having one-party leadership.
We have entered a historic, tipping-point season. For that, and for those who will lead, let us pray.