Gracious Separation: just an idea for now

PORTLAND — A sprinkling of people wore buttons that said: "Gracious Separation, A Faithful Choice," and a workshop to discuss it was packed, but it was far from clear whether people were just curious about the idea or willing to actually support it. The Presbyterian Coalition board has not endorsed it — it’s presenting options but not pushing openly for any — and the Lay Committee, where the idea reportedly has some support and some opposition, hasn’t voted yet.

“I don’t think it’s a very strong possibility,” Coalition co-moderator Jerry Andrews said in an interview. “I don’t see the support nor do I see the viability, but others do. It requires among other things negotiation with the left and their good will. The first is inadvisable, the second invisible.”

Doug Pratt, in a speech called “State of the Church,” argued that it is the special interest groups — the politically active Presbyterians on the right and the left — who will determine the future of the PC(USA). Some say the people in the middle, the moderates, are “the real Presbyterians” who are being tormented by those in the special interest groups, like ants or mosquitoes attacking a group of picnickers. But it’s a fantasy to say “if the extremists would just shut up or go away,” folks could return to the Presbyterian church they remember, Pratt said.

Instead, the denomination is more like a two-party system, he said, with the two parties (“We may be completely different faiths,” Pratt said) driving the national debate and swaying those in the middle — the independent, the undecided, the apathetic and the “I don’t knows.”

At the workshop, some said Bob Howard, the Kansas attorney and former Lay Committee leader, has exactly the right idea — they’re fed up with trying to reform the denomination from the inside and convinced it won’t work. “When I talk about gracious separation, I do it with no joy,” Howard said — but those who think victory can be achieved through reformation from within are “kidding themselves.”

He also predicted that if the denomination splits, about 60 percent of the congregations would go with the evangelicals and about 40 percent with the progressive side.

But some pastors pointed out that it’s not reasonable to assume that every congregation will naturally go in one direction or another — some will be divided and torn apart.

“It’ll be a huge fight — at least in my congregation it’ll be a huge fight,” Phil Moran, pastor of Covenant church in Boise, Idaho, said in an interview. “If somebody said you have to vote about which denomination (to go with), it would split my church right down the middle.”

One pastor told Howard in the workshop that his congregation is mixed — he’s an evangelical, but “every Sunday I preach to people who are convinced and unconvinced.” If the PC(USA) divided, “I see it as a 30-30 split,” the pastor said — with 30 percent going to each of the new denominations and 40 percent leaving the church.

“The orthodox evangelical side is not of one body, one mind,” Bob Davis of the Presbyterian Forum said in an interview. “It would not simply be a split into two. It would be a split into an explosion.”

It was also said plainly at this Coalition gathering that evangelicals aren’t putting their faith in the impending report in 2005 of the Theological Task Force for Peace, Unity and Purity.

Jack Haberer, an evangelical pastor from Houston and a member of the task force, said he does give thanks for the representation of evangelicals on the panel — that they weren’t cut out of participation as they sometimes have been in the past; for the willingness of the task force to study theology “with ferocious intensity,” and for a presentation of theology that so far has “been orthodox, it’s been biblical, it’s been Reformed through and through.”

Others were much less upbeat and some called the theological task force irrelevant.

Asked what his hopes are for the task force, Andrews said in an interview: “Not much. And there is no inclination on the part of the Presbyterian Coalition to wait until the task force speaks” to figure out where to go. Henderson, of New Wineskins, called the task force “a stopper in the bottle” of the discussion that needs to take place, saying he’s not confident they’ll have “an effective solution for all of us to be together” and “we don’t want to sit and wait.”

Bob Davis, a persistent skeptic, said, “the greatest disaster we could inflict on ourselves is to wait for the Theological Task Force,” which he has repeatedly dubbed the “Yugo” of task forces, an underpowered vehicle that’s pushing the hopes of everyone up the mountain and that inevitably “will overheat and break down.”

Some — including Adolpho Moreno of Colombia, who preached on the last morning of the gathering — said the answer, for now, may be no answer at all. Sometimes, God’s word is WAIT, WAIT, WAIT — a very hard message, Moreno said through a translator, John Bueno.

“To wait gives us uncertainty. Waiting fills the heart with worries. Waiting loses hope.”

Sometimes, the church wants to move faster, the church wants to run, the church shouts, “We’re going to go crazy!” but God still says to wait, Moreno preached.

“We just need to be patient,” said Moran, the pastor from Idaho. “Look at church history. Look at how long it’s taken us to work out disagreements in the past … Just be patient. Trust God.”