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The Divided Church: Moving Liberals and Conservatives from Diatribe to Dialogue

By Richard G. Hutcheson Jr. and Peggy L. Shriver

InterVarsity. 1999. 224 pp. Pb. $12.99 ISBN 0-8308-2223-2

Reviewed by Lewis S. Mudge

 

This is a rich and nuanced study of voices on both sides of the well-known right-left division of American Protestantism, with special emphasis on the PC(USA). Richard Hutcheson and Peggy Shriver personally represent the "evangelical" and "liberal" wings of the church, respectively.

They have researched and written this book together, modeling in spite of differences the spirit of collaboration they recommend for all of us. Neither has been converted to the other’s views. Both say they have been changed by the experience.

“We seek not to devise solutions of our own,” they write at the outset, “but to learn from people actually struggling with the turmoil of church life today.” The many interviews are combined into a text that, for this reader, rings true to what life in American mainline Protestantism is like these days. The vast majority of members do not want to divide the church. The angry, recriminatory determination to win at all costs is characteristic of exceedingly small minorities on right and left.

The authors affirm that “a theology that accepts and affirms diversity as well as unity is an essential starting point for the project represented by this book.” But such a theology is only implicit in these pages. Were it to be written out, the focus would no doubt be in the field of ecclesiology. It would need to affirm that the church’s nature permits and embraces sharp theological differences, especially when the surrounding culture is radically pluralistic. It would need to be an ecclesiology of our mutual need for one another in such a diverse world, overcoming the partial and inadequate ecclesiologies implicit in our present lines of partisan argument. It would need to express a wider and deeper sense of the church as a divine gift not to be trifled with for the sake of competing human opinions about it.

As a denomination, we are not there yet. Can we, then, even reach the above-mentioned “starting point”? Not without practicing the good will and practical wisdom the authors recommend. In effect, they advise us to begin to act out the needed vision before attempting to articulate it. By their very method of deep listening to others and to each other the authors themselves have begun to do that. But finding ways to express the resulting sense of “church” will be difficult. Other, larger challenges will supervene, such as saying and acting out together who Jesus Christ is in a pluralistic world.

Our present practices for settling differences in the PC(USA), the authors argue, are not leading us in this direction. At the General Assembly level, we take up too many contentious issues, deal with them in overly short time frames and suppose that we can resolve them by majority vote. The Assembly offers little opportunity for commissioners to know one another. The very context encourages the impulse simply to win, not to build communion. Whatever the topic, we are told, documents should be written, votes should be taken, only when reasonable consensus already exists, not before. The congregation has a great advantage in this respect. The will to win can take over there too, but living together in the long term helps.

Are national church bodies nonetheless worth having? Or would we, ironically, have greater ecclesial integrity in a post-denominational age? One senses here that Shriver has more to say for denominations, providing as they do for global ecumenical links, than does Hutcheson, who sees the congregation as the principal center of action for the years ahead.

But this excellent book is itself a source of hope. If we could put its practical wisdom to use we might eventually find ourselves living and articulating a larger vision of the gospel.

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