The other day I attended a meeting of my presbytery. There is, as I have discovered, no rubric in Robert’s Rules of Order for a howl of lament, but on this occasion I wish there had been. Four congregations had voted to leave the denomination and the presbytery had given them permission to do so (two to EPC and two to ECO). The congregations had fulfilled all righteousness in securing the requisite percentage of voters to leave, granting them the ability to depart along with their property. There was no debate about that. Indeed, there was no debate about much of anything. Rather, this was to be an “amicable divorce” — no expression of grief, no howl of lamentation, no expression of anger or hurt — simply a quiet prayer at the end asking God’s blessing on those who will be departing and on those who will be staying.
After the vote, a pastor of one of the departing congregations thanked the presbytery for being so understanding, expressing the hope that when he saw one of us in the grocery store, he could remain confident that there would be no “awkward moments.” Well, I hope there are some awkward moments. He and the rest of us deserve more than a few, if for no other reason than to bear witness to our mutual shame.
I understand no one wants a court fight. I understand that there is an agreed upon protocol, which in this case was followed to the letter. I understand that the time for a reconciling word to be spoken and heard had come and had gone and there were no more words to be said but “farewell.” But the occasion deserved more than that. It deserved some hot angry tears that we have come to such a place with each other; it deserved a voice wailing that we are so much better at hurting each other and separating from each other than we are at coming together in Christ’s service and at his table; it deserved a voice that could acknowledge the death in our midst and could grieve the loss of saints whose leaving will render those of us who remain (as well as those who choose to leave) lonelier, less interesting, and more broken than before.
There were one or two brave souls who voted against this divorce. Bless them. I don’t think their vote was really aimed at those who were leaving. And I don’t think their vote was a vote for hiring attorneys to defend the lawsuit that would result if these congregations were not permitted to leave. I think their vote was a witness that what these congregations were asking and what the presbytery was blessing was something quite impossible, and indeed, something impossibly unfaithful. “Gracious separation” or a “gracious dismissal” was quite impossible because as much as these congregations wanted to leave, and as contented as the rest of us might be for them to leave, they really cannot separate us from each other or destroy what Christ has joined together. Nothing, we are told, can separate us from the love of Christ; not even a presbytery vote dismissing congregations to other bodies. And to pretend that we can do so or even acquiesce in such a request is, in its own way, telling a theological lie. I know denominations are poor excuses for representing the body of Christ, but as weak and poor as they are, they do represent the energy and commitment involved in constraining us to listen to one another. Smaller, “purer” fragments of the church do not have to muster the energy or commitment to do such listening, or put up with the hard work of bearing with people and points of view that seem distasteful.
It is hard being the church. When has it not been? We would all like some easier way. But our wealth, our vaunted religious freedom, our own considerably refined resentments all encourage us to listen to our own inner voices rather than the voices of brothers and sisters in Christ. My howl of grief is not a howl of anger at those who have left. I do not blame them for leaving. There have been many times when that option has appealed to me too. Nor do I think my denomination, the PC(USA), is exempt from guilt here. A divorce is never the fault of one side only. And the PC(USA), in my judgment, has done many stupid and thoughtless and even unfaithful things in the past several years. But when has the church not done many stupid, thoughtless, and unfaithful things? Our ability to avoid such is not what keeps us united in Christ. Rather, it is Christ himself who holds on to his stupid, thoughtless and unfaithful brothers and sisters that keeps us whole and makes of us a church. And it is that reality that made me want to howl at a meeting where that reality was not even acknowledged or called upon or celebrated through our tears. Let me conclude this statement of grief by merely observing that in the end we shall all be united in Christ and find ourselves thrown together with others we have not chosen (1 Kings 13)! We need to get ready for that eschatological reality by practicing our life together now and even learning how to grieve faithfully when we are unable to do so.
Thomas W. Currieis Dean and Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte campus.