Now that the 2012 General Assembly did not do as predicted — that is, it did not liberalize the PC(USA)’s marriage policy to allow same-gender marriages — will the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) go out of business?
Well, no — the most obvious reason being that the marriage policy remains in flux as long as some who oppose it flout the rules and presbyteries can overture future GAs to change them.
Many conservative congregations will vote to identify with the FOP while remaining in the denomination. Others will vote to take the more radical step to leave the PC(USA) to join ECO.
Yet an elephant lurks in the FOP/ECO living room. Many of the founding pastors of this new movement/denomination have young adult children who disagree with their parents’ disapproval of same-gender relationships. In other words, these pastors are forming an organization that likely will be shunned by their children and children’s children.
FOP/ECO has been organized to allow local congregations to differentiate or separate from the PC(USA) in view of the mother denomination’s liberalizing trends — most notably, its lifting of the categorical ban on ordaining persons sexually active outside the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Many members, mostly of the builder and boomer generations, have announced they will not participate in a denomination that “approves behaviors that God aims to change.” Many pastors, also of the builder and boomer generations (see p. 13), are counting the cost of staying: suffering the departures of some of their most committed workers, informed leaders and generous supporters.
As a result, those pastors are choosing to secure the boomers’ and busters’ loyality, even at the cost of their own children and children’s children.
To their credit, most of the founders of FOP/ECO are seeking to stifle rancor and minimize the points of policy differentiation from the PC(USA) because they hold onto the possibility of a future reunion. Some even hope the separation will resemble that of the New Side-Old Side split of 1741, which reconciled just 17 years later. They can’t imagine a way to resolve our seemingly irreconcilable differences, but they are serious enough theologians and historians to know that God’s imagination exceeds their own.
So how shall those of us who will remain deal with those separating from us? The explicit language of our constitution makes clear that those who disaffiliate have no right to keep church property. And those members who have given most generously to support their congregations’ ministries have not thereby become majority shareholders. As stewards, none of us owns any of it. Then again, the Prodigal Son had no right to demand his inheritance from his living father. But what did that dad do? He gave the inheritance anyway. And soon he was peering from the crest of the hilltop, looking for his son’s return. Might we do the same?
Those of you intent on leaving obviously are not seeking a life of dissipation. Might you choose, in particular, to adopt the mindset of the Apostle Paul? His relationships with Peter, John Mark, Barnabas and his faith family, Israel, were conflicted even to the point of separation. Yet he strove to understand them as well as be understood, to reconcile and restore, celebrating reunions and continuing to visit synagogues wherever he went, seeking to persuade them to place full faith in Jesus. He did not kick their dust off his feet.
None of us knows what the PC(USA) or FOP or ECO will look like a generation from now. But how we deal with one another right now will impact that future for better or for worse. As in the case of the Prodigal’s father, and as in the case of Paul and his frienemies, and as in the case of the Old Side-New Side Presbyterians, the unifying God aims to reconcile the children of God. Might we aim for the same, if only for the sake of our children and children’s children?