“This year the Lay Committee has gone further in their destructive course than ever before,” Rogers said, speaking in California Nov. 2 at the annual gathering of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that wants to remove the PC(USA)’s ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians.
Rogers did not flinch in criticizing the Lay Committee’s advocacy of the confessing church movement — which encourages congregations to sign short confessional statements about the Bible, salvation and holiness, and which Rogers said offers “a hastily drawn up, rigidly-worded, three-point creed tied to a political agenda.”
He pointed out that Bob Howard, chair of the Lay Committee, spoke at the Presbyterian Coalition meeting in Orlando in October and outlined a plan “on how to make war on the denomination. War was his word — he acknowledged it and said it was appropriate,” Rogers said of Howard. And Howard “outlined the strategy by which the Lay Committee plans to take over the denomination,” describing the confessing church movement as “a shadow church,” Rogers said, and urging congregations to consider withholding funds from the PC(USA).
But Rogers — who identifies himself as an evangelical — emphasized that he does not mean to chastise all evangelicals or all congregations involved in the fast-growing confessing church movement.
“To be evangelical or conservative is not to be a fundamentalist,” Rogers said. And he added later: “I want to be very careful. Just as we should not stereotype all Arabs or all Muslims as terrorists, we should not characterize all conservatives or evangelicals as militant fundamentalists. There’s a very significant difference between evangelicals who want to change the church in a more conservative direction and fundamentalists who want to tear it down and refuse to work within it. I believe that most evangelicals and I believe most members of confessing churches want simply to affirm their faith and remain within the denomination as a conservative and constructive presence. Why then would they consider aligning themselves with what I think is a potentially schismatic group?”
In recent weeks, Rogers has grown sharper in his criticism of the Lay Committee — and openly raised a question that has long been discussed behind-the-scenes in Presbyterian circles. Privately, some evangelicals acknowledge that they are not always comfortable with the Lay Committee and its tactics or with its newspaper, the Layman — but they have usually been unwilling to publicly break with or criticize the Lay Committee.
And despite those rumblings of internal disagreements, there also is a sense of new determination among Presbyterian evangelicals — some of whom say they’ve never been more united in their conviction that the PC(USA) is moving in directions that they consider not in accord with the Bible and no longer acceptable.
Conservatives are determined to defeat Amendment A — a proposal that would remove from the PC(USA) constitution language that limits ordination to those who practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single. They are outraged that last summer’s General Assembly, which elected Rogers as its moderator, did not speak more strongly to say that salvation can only be found through Jesus Christ.
And the Coalition’s meeting in Orlando drew 1,200 people — compared with 350 at the Covenant Network meeting — for what Joe Rightmyer, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, described at the time as “the clearest gathering of people with resolve to see something different happen in the life of our church that I have ever experienced.”
Rogers and Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, both attended part of the Coalition’s meeting — and they acknowledged in Pasadena that it is likely that some conservatives have become so disenchanted with the denomination that they will leave. Kirkpatrick said he recognized “a much deeper sense of alienation” and “I have come reluctantly to feel that we may indeed be losing some members of our family.”
But Kirkpatrick also said that “we need not to be concerned with threats, with issues of pressure” — and that the denomination should continue with its work of mission and outreach even if some are saying they may leave or withhold money. In criticizing the Lay Committee so directly, Rogers seems to be to raising the possibility that some evangelicals may not choose to follow where the Lay Committee tries to lead — what one speaker later referred to as “a chance of isolating the Lay Committee.”
Rogers also is appealing for evangelicals to rely on the Presbyterian system — which he described as a democratic process that involves the whole church in the development of creeds and which offers confessional statements about Jesus and salvation that are “much richer” than the confessing church statements.
Rogers said he’s read the Bible daily since he was a boy, and studied it throughout his career as a seminary professor. “I can tell you with complete confidence that the real Bible is much deeper and richer and more challenging than the superficial literalism that passes for believing in Scripture in some quarters nowadays,” he said.
And he asked, “Are we ready to toss aside the wisdom of the church, and a democratic process, for the dictatorship of a special interest group with a self-serving political agenda?” — to which some in the crowd responded, “No!”
After Rogers spoke, Michael Bruner of Malibu, Calif., came to the microphone during a question-and-answer session, describing himself as someone who’s been involved with the Coalition but was speaking only for himself. “Not everyone on the Coalition side supports the Layman,” Bruner said. “I don’t. I think they create schism in the church.”
Bruner also said he does not support the confessing church movement, and “I don’t think we should split.”
But Bruner also asked Covenant Network members to recognize that many evangelicals “care deeply” about gays and lesbians in the church, and “there are thoughtful people on the other side.”
Kirkpatrick said he had encouraged, in the past, the Coalition and the Covenant Network to find ways to meet together, for worship and conversation. And Rogers also in his remarks challenged the Covenant Network — whose leaders say they are determined, to keep pushing the issue of ordaining homosexuals, whether or not they win a constitutional change this time around.
Rogers called for restraint — especially in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which has taught him that “we must stand united” in a time of trouble. “In my heart, I wish we could all take a Sept. 11 pledge, not to put forth any more legislation nor to take any more judicial action until the task force” — the just-created group responsible for looking at what unites and divides the PC(USA) — “reports in 2005,” Rogers said.
In response to a question about criticism he has endured, Rogers said, “I sleep well at night,” but his hope of being a bridge-builder for the denomination “has not proved to be true.” So Rogers said he’s decided “to be a truth-teller,” and he asked for prayers “for wisdom and judgment as well as strength and courage. Because I want to do the right thing, and it’s hard to know.”