Wheeler tells Moderators Conference that church needs evangelicals

LOUISVILLE -- Barbara G. Wheeler, the president of Auburn Seminary in New York, calls herself a liberal and strongly believes that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should not deny ordination to sexually-active gays and lesbians, and shouldn't cite the Bible as its reason for doing so. But here's some of what she has to say about evangelical conservatives, the people she says she disagrees with "strenuously" in the painful and continuing battle over homosexual ordination.

Evangelical conservatives – many of whom, she said, carry their Bibles with them as diligently as New Yorkers carry water bottles – have strengthened her faith by their own example of deep and committed belief, and have sent her diving back into the Bible, pushing her to admit that her own positions needed “much stronger theological support.” As Wheeler put it, speaking Dec. 1 at the Moderator’s Conference in Louisville: “I need my opponents to keep me honest.”

Evangelicals have shown her how much Christians have in common in their faith in Jesus Christ – even though they and more liberal Christians live day-to-day in very different religious cultures. Wheeler, who is one of the authors of a book comparing what the researchers found in time spent at two seminaries, one mainstream and one conservative, said the first sermon she heard preached at an evangelical seminary “went straight to my heart and it stuck there.” She has seen the Gospel lived out through evangelicals’ prayers, their lectures, their “acts of kindness and mercy” over and over again – and Wheeler said she has heard the truth of God “in the reverent lives and the holy words of ‘those people.'”

And Wheeler said she needs evangelicals in the PC(USA) because “you and your allies are better than I am.” She told Jack Haberer, an evangelical who shared the podium with her at the Moderator’s Conference, that while “you have some very hard-headed and I think hard-hearted comrades,” she also knows that “among the evangelicals I have found some of the best minds, some of the most generous spirits,” some of the most genuine souls she has ever encountered.

Wheeler acknowledges that God’s grace knows no limits, that “He came to provide peace even to me, an argumentative, bossy” and, as her husband would say, “rather crabby person who is passionate about her causes and confident in her opinions.” (Wheeler said her kindergarten teacher reported that “Barbie hates to share.”) But just as Christ came offering grace and redemption to her despite her failings, Wheeler said, Christ offers the same to all the rest of the world.

She also contends that unity in the Christian church is what God wants, that “God has told God’s real estate agent that any church strong enough to contain Me will be made up of all the factions,” and will be built on the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the church. To keep all believers together – as is called for in the 2nd chapter of Ephesians, part of which was the theme for this conference – is, Wheeler said, “the will of God.”

Rogers continues to criticize Lay Committee

Wheeler was only one in a long lineup of speakers at the Moderator’s Conference held in Louisville Nov. 30-Dec. 2 and convened by Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly. It was presented for people who are or will soon be moderators of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries. Usually, the conference has been held in the spring – but Rogers, knowing that many presbyteries will be voting in coming months on the controversial question of ordaining homosexuals, moved up the schedule, and organized a conference to give moderators ideas for how to lead fruitful conversations when people are deeply divided on controversial questions.

That’s not to say, however, that every word spoken here was conciliatory. Rogers continued his criticism of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, calling it “a well-funded lobby that each year creates an artificial crisis” within the PC(USA). Rogers said he understands that the confessing church movement – a movement among evangelical churches for their sessions to sign confessional statements – includes many who disagree with the denomination, and said, “I don’t doubt for a minute the sincerity of people who feel they must do something to stand up for what they believe.”

But Rogers said many of those critics have been influenced by coverage in the Presbyterian Layman, the Lay Committee’s newspaper – which he said has a history of “seizing on an otherwise not very significant event and turning it into a crisis.” Examples include, Rogers said, the Re-Imagining conference on feminist theology; the activities of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women; and the remarks of Dirk Ficca, a Presbyterian minister who heads the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, on religious pluralism at last year’s Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference.

Rogers said he is reminded of a story presented to him by a former student at Fuller Seminary, who gave him a tape used by medical students which described the increasingly elaborate attempts to rescue a group of people drowning in a fast-moving river – with the rescuers first jumping in to the water to catch people, then using rafts and motor boats. “What nobody asked,” Rogers said, “was who’s pushing these people in to the river upstream?”

Rogers asked the moderators to remember that the Presbyterian church has faced deep rifts before – where the church felt just as passionately and apocalyptically as some seem to feel today – on issues such as slavery, the ending of Prohibition, the removal of “blue laws” on Sunday shopping that some feared “would destroy the church and civilization,” and the ordination of women.

Rogers encouraged the church to “fight fair,” to see the PC(USA) as being like “a family that doesn’t get to choose its members, but has to find a way to get along.”

Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, reminded the moderators that the denomination faces great challenges beyond the ordination question – including a continuing loss of membership and a growing number of churches, many of them small congregations, that can’t find or afford to hire the pastoral leadership they need.

‘Not as bad as it seems’

Richard Hart, of Flint River Presbytery in Georgia, said he came hoping to get a sense of what people in other parts of the country are thinking, to find out “is the negativity as widespread as it seems?” In his area “we’ve got folks who are concerned about it, but I don’t think the mood is at a crisis level,” Hart said. “Coming to a meeting like this kind of confirms for me, maybe it’s not as bad as it seems.”

Glenn Gilstrap, of Warner Robins, Ga., said “a lot of the people in the pews don’t understand what the denomination is doing” and are inclined to say “charity begins at home” – so pastors have to try to explain the importance of sending resources from local churches to the presbytery and the denomination.

People may not understand, for example, how funding from congregations can support mission work internationally or help start new churches for immigrant groups in the U.S. “All they see is the newspapers, which have these big headlines: ‘Presbyterians approve homosexual ordination,’ ” Gilstrap said. “Then they’ve got to go to their coffee club at McDonald’s the next morning and explain all of that.”

Joseph Small, who leads the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, said he entered Pittsburgh Seminary in 1963 as an outsider to church life – “my family never went to church” – and he came to seminary out of intellectual curiosity.

What he found at Pittsburgh at that time – a seminary formed in 1959 from the consolidation of two predecessor institutions from two different denominations – was “a place of great quarrels, arguments, divisions and dissension,” and a place that “puzzled me greatly. For me as an outsider to Christian faith, it was apparent that what was being shared was so much deeper and wider and more solid than what they disagreed about.”

Small encouraged the moderators to think of controversial issues as possibly having more than two sides, as being more nuanced, and to consider models in use internationally for trying to reach consensus without turning to the formal use of polity – in other words, without forcing people to vote “yes” or “no” on particular proposals or amendments.

“What we need to be talking about is God and God’s way in the world” – about theology, Small said, not about polity or politics. Presbyterians need to be “asking ourselves who’s God and what is God like? And who am I – really, honestly, who are we? . . . What does God have to do with us and what might we have to do with one another?”

During question-and-answer times, some people indicated they’re seeing the tensions of the national denomination played out at the local level. Stephen Michie from Long Island, for example, said he worries that some in the confessing church movement seem to want to build not an enclave of like-minded believers, “but a garrison, a fortress of righteousness.”

Talk at local level

Haberer, a pastor from Texas who has been involved in national evangelical groups, urged people to initiate conversations at the local level that cut across theological and doctrinal lines – to really get to know people with whom they disagree, to find out what they care about and are concerned about and why.

Wheeler said she talks and visits regularly with evangelicals, including some whose views she considers damaging to the church. “I do not do it because I am nice,” Wheeler said – adding that her husband of 30 years would say “excessive niceness is not one of my problems.”

But Wheeler said Jesus came to proclaim peace, and she does not want to limit “where the Holy Spirit will show up.”

She stressed that the differences in the PC(USA) are “important differences – they are about real things” and on the questions she cares about, including the ordination of gays and lesbians who aren’t celibate, “we can’t wait forever . . . I think our stance is sinful” and that telling some people God didn’t create them quite as fully as others is “a travesty on the Gospel.”

At the same time, Wheeler said, “one of the least charming aspects of our denomination these days is how whiny we have become,” with people on both sides saying they’re tired of the endless fighting. Struggle over important questions of theology – struggle that’s conducted with love and civility – is normal and ordinary in the Reformed tradition, “and we do not quit until we know the mind of Christ,” Wheeler said.

She added later: “The world is broken by sin. Thee is not going to be any easy slide to the right way to do God’s will . . . I don’t think we should whine about it too much. God’s given us great issues to solve in our time, and in part, we should be grateful.”