There is general agreement in the group that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is like a well-loved but broken-down truck, where the parts that make it run don’t fit together anymore. But there also are divisions, polite but deep, in the evangelical house, mostly over where to go from here.
Some folks came to Portland expecting a fight over gracious separation: the proposal from Bob Howard, a lawyer from Kansas and former head of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, to initiate a process of negotiating the split of the PC(USA). Howard does have some support, particularly from those who have tried for years to reform the denomination from within and who now think that’s a lost cause. But so far, gracious separation seems to be more an idea than a potent plan.
And there were other ideas. The organizers of this meeting presented a lineup of alternatives for action, from withholding per capita (strangle the denomination financially until it comes to its senses) to a push for theological reformation to gracious separation, all possibilities, none yet recommended by the Coalition. There were workshops on each for those who wanted to know more. These aren’t necessarily new proposals and there’s not a sure sense of direction. The body “seems fractured and feels broken,” Carmen Fowler, the Coalition’s executive director, said as she prayed the meeting into session, asking for healing and restoration.
“We have found, my friends, that discerning God’s path is much harder than we first believed,” said Anita Bell, a pastor from Philadelphia who’s finishing a term, along with Pittsburgh minister Doug Pratt, as the Coalition’s co-moderators.
But there is a conviction that somehow, sometime soon, things must change — and that, at the local level, people are trying new things without waiting for everything to be figured out.
There was considerable energy, for example, around a report from the New Wineskins Task Force, a group that says it’s not advocating a division of the denomination but is planning for what will come when the time comes, as they say it inevitably will, that the PC(USA) in its current incarnation no longer exists.
The New Wineskins work is still in the early stages. But the task force is thinking of a whole new beast — where the current denominational bureaucracy is largely replaced by the formation of flexible covenantal networks, through which congregations are linked with others in relationships of mission and mutual accountability, sometimes centered around geography, sometimes around size or shared approaches, sometimes around a mutual passion for a particular kind of ministry. The group also wants congregations to commit to a statement of essential tenets, and of “ethical imperatives,” taking a position on significant moral issues such as opposition to abortion and the restriction of sexual intimacy to faithful heterosexual marriages.
Some pieces of this kind of approach are already being played with in certain presbyteries, where like-minded pastors have formed their own networks, promising to pray for each other daily, supporting one another, meeting regularly to study the Bible and share concerns.
There also would be an effort, said Dean Weaver, pastor of Knox church in Buffalo, N.Y., to have congregations use the list of essential tenets as a “gatekeeper for leadership” — meaning the congregations could say that someone couldn’t serve in leadership locally if they couldn’t affirm them. Some said the proposed document needs tweaking — to consider, for example, whether words such as “sanctify” are the right ones to use with younger generations. Others questioned the wisdom of whether the heart and complexities of Reformed theology, even the theology of Jesus as Savior, for example, could be captured in a one-page document.
And the Wineskins leaders cheerfully admit there are significant questions still to be resolved — involving funding, how and when decisions would be made nationally, how the idea of “mutual accountability” would work in practice and, it goes without saying, what happens with all those Presbyterian churches who don’t favor this approach at all.
David Henderson, pastor of Covenant church in West Lafayette, Ind., is up to his neck in New Wineskins thinking. “Part of what we are envisioning is something that is much more chaotic than the present,” he said — or maybe, Henderson said, a better phrasing would be “more flexible and creative.”
Some asked directly whether New Wineskins basically requires a split of the PC(USA). “It implies separation, right?” someone asked during a New Wineskins workshop, adding “there’s no way you could make this fly within the current denomination.”
While that’s not a goal of the task force, Henderson said, he acknowledged that for the New Wineskins dreams to become a reality, the networks must be held together by shared views of theology rather than polity, and that some Presbyterians who are now part of the fellowship would no longer have a place.
What about Presbyterians who disagree on issues such as ordaining gays and lesbians working together on mission, building bridges that way? Why would Presbyterians who can’t agree on central questions of theology want to do mission together — and what would they say about Christ as the source of salvation as they evangelized, Henderson responded.
“As a group, we are not committed to any particular strategy,” he said, but “personally, “I don’t see how we can reform from within and get here.”
In an interview, Weaver said, “We think … at some point inevitably the denomination as we currently know it will no longer exist. We have no desire to cause that to happen or to make that happen …We do believe it is prudent for us to plan for that eventuality.”
Henderson also indicated in the workshop that he sees movement on this question: that it was only a few years ago that the idea of gracious separation was discussed publicly by the Coalition, and now some, such as Howard, who used to favor “stay-fight-win” now are saying it’s time for the denomination to split. “This is a passionate issue,” and “there is something of a significant divide among the evangelicals about this,” Henderson said. But the New Wineskins group is asking, “Would you just consider this as a picture of where God might be taking us?”
One of those listening to all this talk was Susan Andrews, moderator of the 215th General Assembly, who unquestionably does not want the denomination to split.
“It has been a sobering and saddening afternoon for me,” Andrews told the gathering later, although she also said the group had been “warm and inviting” to her. But Andrews said she finds in the New Testament a “passionate call for unity in Christ” and “it is my personal conviction that division or separation, no matter how gracious it is … is not what God intends for humanity.”
And despite the scorching debate in the PC(USA) over whether to ordain gays and lesbians, “we agree on the most central tenets of our faith,” the moderator said, including the Lordship of Jesus Christ, that the Bible is the authoritative witness in matters of faith and practice, and that, in personal life, monogamy and faithfulness are the nonnegotiable boundaries of all covenantal relationships.
Andrews also told the Coalition, “I want and need a church that includes every single one of you. And I hope and pray that you want a church that includes me.”
Presbyterians — as Calvinists, as Reformed Christians — believe that “our sovereign God is in charge and not ourselves,” Andrews said, and that “God can do the impossible,” even with a fragile denomination.
For all the “Where do we go now?” talk, the evangelicals did deliver some steam from time to time at this gathering — often when describing how they’re under siege from the culture or the misguided liberals. “Many of us have lost our taste for unity,” because what masquerades as truth “has been shoved down our throats,” Bell said during the opening session. And Jerry Andrews, a pastor from suburban Chicago, told the crowd he’s enjoyed “the horrifying and hilarious spectacle” of watching “to see how far into this century the liberal corpse will walk.”
Like offering tastes from a bag of bright jelly beans, the gathering also tried to showcase good news about what’s happening in people’s churches, and to celebrate new ideas about how things can be done. The worship showed what’s possible — the soloists let loose in praise to God, children danced like flappers to gospel music, “lyrical evangelist” Judah Israel recited rapid-fire rap poems inspired by Scripture. “I totally like had an epiphany about this,” he said, grinning an on-fire-for-Jesus grin.
And there was a recognition that not everyone comes to faith the old-fashioned Presbyterian way, not everyone went to Sunday school or was a preacher’s kid or memorized Bible verses growing up. People talked of how things look from the outside — of, for example, how Muslims who convert to Christianity often speak of having visions of Jesus (and how, if you’re trying to welcome them, it’s not a good idea to say, “No, we don’t do visions here.”) Dean Weaver said a woman from his church approached him one day saying she’d had a dream she wanted him to interpret, that God had told her he could interpret the dream, and that what transpired from that conversation has transformed mission work at his church and led them to start an orphanage in Sierra Leone and for families to adopt more than a dozen African children.
When asked what they are celebrating, to give tidbits of good news, people quickly stepped to the microphones. San Diego Presbytery has been working on a list of essential tenets. Presbyterians for Renewal and the Lay Committee are offering lines of Sunday School curriculum they say are biblically sound, easy to use, and better than what the denomination has to offer. There’s been celebration of the centennial year of Korean immigration and mission in the U.S. — the number of Korean Presbyterian churches has grown from 25 in 1970 to 379 now, a congregation in Los Angeles that has more than 2,000 members, 90 percent of whom come to worship every Sunday.
In Wisconsin, a youth group from First church in Oostburg has started Youth4Truth, encouraging young Presbyterians to sign confessional statements, to get information from the Layman and to “be involved with the battle for truth,” said youth pastor Nate Leaman.
Hudson River Presbytery in New York, consistently considered liberal, is bringing in more evangelical pastors, said Paul Leggett of Montclair, N.J. “Liberals don’t go to church,” he said triumphantly. “Liberals are like blacksmith shops on the New Jersey turnpike.”
And in Texas, evangelicals are planning to start their own seminary. Ron Scates, pastor of Highland Park church in Dallas, said about three years ago, 11 pastors from the Lone Star state who were dissatisfied with theological education offered at the PC(USA)’s seminaries, and even at evangelical flagships such as Gordon Conwell and Fuller, began meeting together to talk about creating an academic program that would be combined with mentoring, so seminary students would spent time learning from pastors at churches that get it right.
They approached “an unnamed seminary in the capital of Texas” — that would be in Austin — and offered the “carrot” of three endowed chairs in exchange for the seminary naming an evangelical as president, but that didn’t work out, Scates said. So now they’ve said, “Let’s start a new PC(USA) seminary” in Houston, he said — initially with the blessing of, and accreditation from, an existing seminary, but ultimately spinning off on its own.
In an interview, Scates declined to name which seminary he thinks will help the group out — it’s too early, he said. But he said the group does hope the new venture will be up and running in 2004.
So that’s about it. Lots of ideas, some steam, no clear direction.
People noticed that attendance was down at the gathering this year: maybe 300 showed up, compared with 1,200 fired-up evangelicals two years ago in Orlando, when the presbyteries were voting on yet another challenge to the denomination’s constitutional standards, which limit ordination to those who practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are not. One reason for the slim turnout might have been distance — Oregon is a cross-country trek for many folks — but there also was clear questioning of what role the Coalition continues to play at a time when the General Assembly will start meeting only every-other-year and there isn’t always a vote on ordination standards staring them in the face.
Henry Wells, a Coalition board member, joked before passing the collection plate that the Coalition responds to crisis. When there’s no immediate challenge to “fidelity and chastity,” then “we just sort of fade back into the hills,” he said, and when there is, evangelicals are like Superman stepping into the telephone booth, “and we come out and fight.”
Others say, more privately, that the Coalition feeds on controversy — if there’s nothing to fight about, evangelicals just won’t show up. As one pastor put it: “Without a common energy, we implode.”
While this was the eighth consecutive national gathering, the Coalition does not intend to hold another one next year — that is, unless “the General Assembly does something stupid,” said Jerry Andrews, a pastor from Glen Ellyn, Ill., who’s the Coalition’s new co-moderator, along with Nancy Cross, an elder from San Antonio. Instead, it’s planning a Congress for Renewal, a “y’all come” gathering of the clan, more theological than political, Andrews said, where people would “get together to exult the Savior” and to share best practices.
And it was announced that Carmen Fowler, the Coalition’s executive director for the past two years, is leaving to seek a call to parish ministry. It’s not clear whether a replacement will be named for her position.
All in all, this gathering seemed smaller, not so high in energy — even some of the speakers chided evangelicals for complacency. “The real problem lies with us,” because “we are inert and apathetic,” said Bob Davis of the Presbyterian Forum.
Terry Schlossberg of Presbyterians Pro-Life said she understands that people feel discouraged and frustrated with political battles that have to be “fought and refought.” But she called for a commitment to church discipline — insisting that the PC(USA) Constitution be followed — and for the hard work of reformation, remembering that changing the church has never been easy.
While some want to leave, they should not imagine they could leave “and not find our own weakness facing us squarely wherever we go,” Schlossberg said — echoing what was said often in the hallway huddles, that if the evangelicals split and go off by themselves, they will almost certainly still find ways to fight.