That and: “The worst thing that can be said about evangelicals I believe is true. If you can’t get us angry, you might not get us at all.”
Andrews was both making them laugh and making a point. This was a year in which evangelicals won big — turning back, by a bigger margin than ever before, another attempt to open the doors of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to ordaining gays, lesbians and unmarried heterosexuals who are not celibate. But this was no victory party in the Florida sun. Attendance was down about two-thirds from last year. And the conversations rang with the language of the exiles: of girding for battle, of a struggle for righteousness that might last more than a lifetime, of the arduous but God-driven fight to take control of a denomination that Coalition co-moderator Doug Pratt of Pittsburgh called “a broken organization” that “needs radical reform to be faithful to the world today.”
J. Howard Edington, the pastor of First church, Orlando, the 5,500-member church that hosted this gathering, spoke repeatedly of the “persecution” of his congregation and of the Coalition’s new executive director, Carmen Fowler. The committee on ministry of Central Florida Presbytery has denied Fowler’s request for membership, ruling that she “intentionally abandoned the exercise of ministry” when she left as pastor of Rabun Gap church in Georgia to become the Coalition’s executive director, which is not formally considered a “validated ministry.”
The dispute was not discussed in detail, and Ernest Flaniken, Central Florida’s interim executive presbyter, said he would not comment. But, at the request of Laurel Blanchard, an elder from Portland, Ore., who called Fowler “a new spiritual heroine,” Fowler came forward in the sanctuary on Friday and knelt, with the crowd gathering tight around, placing their hands on her in prayer. Pratt prayed: “God, there is not one person here who doubts that you have called Carmen Fowler.”
One of the themes the Coalition leaders stressed is how things have changed since the group met a year ago — drawing more than 1,200 people that time, compared to about 350 this year. But Houston pastor William Vanderbloemen contended during opening worship that that’s not bad, because “this gathering over the years has become the Presbyterian fire drill” — a measure of how concerned evangelicals are about the dangers to the church.
While some see this as a “season of panic,” Jesus preached a message of hope, Vanderbloemen said. People are hungry for spiritual answers — so it’s time to preach about eternity and truth and the powerful blood of Christ. And “isn’t it nice,” Vanderbloemen said, “to have a year when we’re not debating an amendment about how to keep our pants zipped?”
Despite their victory on homosexual ordination, however — and perhaps a sense that the denomination might not burn to the ground in the next few months — those who came to Orlando seemed anything but content. Many evangelicals are furious that some PC(USA) pastors and sessions are pledging defiance, saying they’ll ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians as a matter of conscience despite what the constitution says, and that the denomination does not seem willing or able to stop them. During a question-and-answer session, one man asked if the Coalition is “treading water on a national level . . . Are we waiting for something to happen?”
Fowler responded that treading water makes one ready to swim strongly when the time comes to do so. And the Coalition is prepared to act if church courts and governing bodies won’t uphold the Constitution in cases involving defiance that now are pending — particularly, she said, the one involving Don Stroud, a gay pastor from Baltimore presbytery who has publicly said he won’t comply with a constitutional provision he considers unjust. If that case isn’t handled right, “you will experience that as a precipitating event, Fowler said. “People will not stand by or sit by or tread if that presbytery is allowed to defy the Constitution.”
There also is immense distrust in the Coalition of the denomination’s national staff in Louisville, with open discussion of whether congregations should withhold mission funding, give money to the PC(USA) only if they specify exactly how it can be spent, or if they should refuse to even pay per capita, the per-member charge the denomination assesses — not in protest, Coalition co-moderator Peggy Hedden of Ohio said, but as a matter of good stewardship, of making sure that a congregation’s money is not spent in ways that congregation thinks are wrong.
Ron McHattie, pastor of West Valley church, Cupertino, Calif., said his congregation is planning to send a letter to San Jose Presbytery saying it will start withholding funds next year — or maybe he’ll send the PC(USA) just a tiny check, to show that only two or three people from the entire church would be willing to pay per capita.
McHattie said his congregation has been active in the presbytery, but he’s frustrated with what he called “a blatant refusal on the part of the denomination to listen to the person in the pew” — and by the failure of church leaders to recognize the human cost of what he describes as the PC(USA)’s “heretical stances.”
McHattie said at least one family a year leaves his congregation to go to a church they think is more truth-telling and biblical. And he said of denominational leaders: “I don’t think they care. I don’t think they give a rip” about the personal cost of losses like that. “Where would I choose to worship?” if he hadn’t given more than 30 years to the PC(USA), McHattie asked. His answer: probably not a Presbyterian church.
Andrews spoke of a decline in trustworthiness in the denomination. Someone recently gave him an older version of the Book of Order, slim enough to slide into a shirt pocket. But that copy was written in a time when there was not disagreement within the church on fundamental doctrinal matters and there was a higher level of trust in the governing bodies, he said.
One of the “Six Great Ends” that guides the PC(USA) is the preservation of truth, but that’s eternal truth, not of human design, Andrews said. “It is not clear if the Constitution will hold,” he said. “If it does not hold, we will not hold” as the PC(USA). Despite that unhappiness, however, the Coalition is not at all clear on where to go from here. Andrews admitted during the closing session: “It is entirely unclear to us what the Lord has in store for the PC(USA).”
So the Coalition — in recognition that its troops are not all in agreement — is pursuing a variety of different approaches. Pratt said it’s like evangelicals are in a complicated maze, and “we need to send scouts down a number of different paths in order to find the right one.” Among those paths: proposing 17 specific overtures for next year’s General Assembly; trying to put evangelical candidates into “key places of power;” working closely with General Assembly commissioners for next year so they can be “supported and equipped.” The Coalition also is exploring new approaches for funding international mission work, is working to build networks of evangelicals across the country and has established a task force of what Pratt described as “crack lawyers and other experts” to help pursue disciplinary cases.
But exactly how to pursue all those things is where it gets tricky.
For example, Charles Wiley of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship spoke to the gathering about the role of discipline in church life — about the history and theology of mutual accountability. Wiley argued that discipline in the church is not working the way it should, and that “the recovery of the exercise of church discipline in a biblical, Reformed manner is vital to the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
But he argues for a comprehensive rather than a narrow view of church discipline — and drew a distinction between what he called “ordinary” and “extraordinary” forms of discipline. Wiley defined “ordinary” discipline as “the practice of the church to assist Christians to stay true to their deepest desires — that is, to live a gospel life, to stay true to the vows they make at baptism.” He said it is congregationally focused — carried on by pastors and elders who are in relationship with their people and who put energy into developing the spiritual life of the entire congregation, and that such discipline is carried out by discernment rather than an adversarial legal process.
“This is not about Œgetting’ each other or holding each other’s feet to the fire; in ordinary church discipline we care enough about each other to treat one another with respect, with love and with the will to risk helping each other grow in Christ,” Wiley said. And ordinary discipline, he continued, is “irrevocably related to the worship life of the church.”
“I became a Presbyterian at Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C.,” Wiley said. “One of the most profound parts of that fellowship for my wife and me every Sunday was that we reconciled with each other and with others during the peace.” Sometimes, Wiley said, people in that congregation deliberately sought out others with whom they had been at odds. “To look someone in the eye with whom you are not at peace, extend your hand and say, ŒThe peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you’ — that is the fruit of the gospel.”
Most of the time, the offenses involved in ordinary discipline are not flashy — involving not sexual offenses or heresy, but things like hate or greed or cutting words, Wiley said. “When discipline is solely focused on extraordinary discipline and high profile offenses,” he said, “we have lost the ability to realize it is in our everyday lives that our sin seeps out.”
The last thing to remember, Wiley told the Coalition gathering, is that the appropriate exercise of ordinary discipline implicates everyone — “those who defy the Constitution and those who bring charges against them,” those of questionable character and successful pastors, small-church deacons and the denomination’s national staff. “All of us have lived for ourselves and apart from God. We have turned from our neighbors and refused to bear the burdens of others. We have ignored the pain of the world, and passed by the hungry, the poor and the oppressed.”
And he ended by saying that “the question for all of us is whether or not we as individuals in Christian community, our churches and our sessions are faithfully exercising ordinary discipline . . . a discipline marked by grace of a community of forgiven sinners. A discipline marked by a loving community, not by formal charges in an adversarial system. If you are not exercising ordinary discipline, then why are you so interested in extraordinary discipline?”
There were other challenges to the Coalition’s thinking as well.
Fahed Abu-Akel, the moderator of the 214th General Assembly (who is known at Peachtree church in Atlanta as “the other man from Galilee,” said Camille Josey of that congregation in introducing him) told his own story, of growing up in an Arab-Palestinian village, the son of Greek Orthodox parents, and becoming Presbyterian because of the influence of Scottish missionaries who lived for a time in his house, and whose English lessons turned inevitably toward the Bible.
He reminded the evangelicals that “we have been an Anglo church” but said people from many countries, speaking many languages, are now on their doorsteps of churches in the U.S. “Can we experience Pentecost,” Abu-Akel asked, in welcoming people from all corners of the world?
While immigrants are looking for a place to worship, the PC(USA) is losing thousands of people a year, some of whom die, some of whom drift away, often not going to any other denomination, Vanderbloemen said. Presbyterians often love their church and their traditions deeply — but truth be told, there are people whose pulses do not race when the talk turns to such heated issues as whether the General Assembly should meet once a year or every two.
Bill Hybels, who leads the Willow Creek Association — which has led the way in envisioning church for people who don’t normally go to church — said he’d borrowed Edington’s office to do some work and noticed heavy black robes hanging up with red stripes. “I thought, oh, they must be having a drama production here,” Hybels told the Coalition Friday night. “Then all of a sudden (he realized) — hey, you guys still wear those things.”
Vanderbloemen played snippets from a video of on-the-street interviews in Chicago. “What do you know about the Presbyterian church?” people were asked.
Not a lot.
“What do you think of church leaders?”
They’re missing integrity and honesty. They need to do what’s right, not just talk about it. They need to get out on the streets.
“We’re keeping the aquarium but we’re not fishing for men and women,” Vanderbloemen said. “Friends, God will hold us accountable for that.”
Hybels called all church leaders to courage, integrity and compassion. He told of being in South Africa to work with pastors there, staying in a waterfront hotel that looked out at Robbins Island, once a prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years. By chance, a tape of Mandela’s trial was being broadcast for the first time in decades. In that hotel room, looking out at the old prison, Hybels heard Mandela say: “Ending apartheid is a cause for which I will gladly spend every day for the rest of my life and a purpose for which I will gladly die.”
Imagine if every church leader felt that way — they would build a church “the gates of hell could not prevail against,” Hybels said. That matches the passion of one elder who spoke Saturday, of his dream of turning all elders into “bulldogs for Jesus.”
Despite the periodic efforts to look outward — to bring in speakers to color outside the lines, as Vanderbloemen put it — much of the energy at this meeting focused inward, at lamenting what is wrong with the PC(USA) and asking God to help make it right. For example, at a regional breakout session one evening, Carl Lammers said evangelicals are organized in Baltimore Presbytery, but “collectively we lack moral courage. We fear men more than we fear God,” and the evangelicals hold back because they don’t want to come across as mean-spirited bullies, don’t want to be accused of being “homophobic.”
The participants stood in prayer for more than 10 minutes, some with their hands raised to the heavens, rallied by Shirley Prey of Riverside, Conn., who described herself as a conservative in a presbytery, Southern New England, that she said clearly is not. Prey asked the evangelicals to “stand firm and put on that armor of God and pray against the forces of darkness that are trying to bring us down.” One man prayed about synods “which seem constantly embattled,” another for boldness and steadfastness and the courage to stand for truth.
Lammers asked for God to “pour out holy fire on everyone who has come here to Orlando” and to be with those “called to the task of disciplining our brothers and sisters,” to give them “the supernatural powers of reaching out in love but also reaching out in firmness.”
So there were calls at this meeting for courage to bring the defiant ones to discipline; for taking control of the system by systematically nominating evangelical candidates for important committees and positions in the PC(USA); and for changing the rules of play — for example, to not allow youth advisory delegates to vote in General Assembly committees or retired ministers or those serving in specialized ministries to vote in presbytery. The Coalition also named its co-moderators to lead the charge for 2003 — a Pennsylvania duo, Pratt, the Pittsburgh minister, and Anita Bell, a pastor from Philadelphia.
There also were calls for Presbyterians across the country to use their financial might to help the cause of Carmen Fowler and First church, Orlando.
Edington said during a workshop that “our church is now being battered by this presbytery” — there have been a series of disagreements, he indicated. His session is considering withholding not only the General Assembly portion of per capita — First church started doing that last year, refusing to send about $38,000, Edington said — but also may withhold another $60,000 annually from the presbytery if the disagreement involving Fowler isn’t worked out. Asked what others can do to help, Edington responded they can pray — and also consider having their own sessions withhold or redirect money, telling their presbyteries that Central Florida’s treatment of Fowler is at least part of the reason why.
Fowler “has been pushed around by a committee in a way that is just unforgivable,” Vanderbloemen said during opening worship. He urged the crowd to send the denomination a message that that behavior won’t be tolerated, to “say you’re coming after all of us if you’re coming after one.”