Out in Presbyterian-land, the calendars for January and February are full of presbytery meetings at which overtures will be discussed and voted on — perhaps giving as good a sense as any of what the mood of the church might be.
It doesn’t seem particularly settled. Some early-arriving overtures have the General Assembly revisiting a controversial decision from 2004 involving divestment and Israel. Others want the assembly to take stands on gay marriage and on ordaining homosexuals.
Debates on controversial matters seem inevitable in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the months to come.
But some are hoping that the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA) may have nurtured a climate within the denomination in which the differences can be talked about with less rancor, with more civility and open-mindedness.
“If these people can work it out and come to a unanimous agreement, it seems the church ought to be able to do that too,” said Bill Gannaway, a retired minister from Topeka who works part-time for the Fund for Theological Excellence, trying to raise money for seminaries. “That’s the hope I have.”
In October, Gannaway helped lead a question-and-answer session in Northern Kansas presbytery, featuring Task Force Co-moderator Gary Demarest of California. Demarest and the task force’s other 19 members have been answering invitations all fall, speaking at presbytery meetings and before other interested groups, trying to explain what the task force is recommending as the culmination of its four years of work.
The task force will meet in Atlanta Jan. 11-13 to assess how the report it made public last August is being received and to decide how most effectively to work toward approval of it from next summer’s General Assembly.
It’s also expected to consider a major paper on human sexuality from task force member William Stacy Johnson, who teaches systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Johnson earlier had presented material describing a range of approaches Christian theologians have taken in considering sexual orientation and the ethics of human sexual behavior, and this new paper will be considered as an addition to the resource material the task force has provided for the church.
How the church is responding to the task force report is a matter of some debate.
Some in the church are pleased with the task force’s ability to present a unanimous set of recommendations. Others contend that the task force has come down in exactly the wrong place, particularly with its controversial fifth recommendation. It would allow local governing bodies to determine whether candidates for ordination have departed from those ordination standards — and whether a departure in a particular case “constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.”
Some are heartened by the task force report, others are ready to leave the PC(USA) if the assembly approves the report in June.
Michael Walker, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal, said he expects some presbyteries to propose modifications of the task force recommendations or alternatives to its report. “Commissioners will have some difficult decisions to make, discerning which proposals are the best,” Walker said. “The task force proposals aren’t going to be the only proposals in front of them.”
But some in the denomination are using this time to do exactly what the task force has called for — to form discussion groups that cut across theological lines of division, and to see if such face-to-face conversations can change the climate in which discussions on controversial matters are held.
When Demarest spoke in Kansas in October, “people were very favorable,” said Dian McCall, presbytery executive. “They liked him and they understood what he was saying” about “how the task force believes the church has to change its way of doing things. … We’ve just got to stop trying to change the constitution all the time” regarding the ordination of gays and lesbians.
Last summer, Northern Kansas created a discussion group of close to a dozen people, representing a variety of views on the ordination issue.
“I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” said Carol Rahn, pastor of two small churches in the towns of Colby and Hoxie in western Kansas, about fifty miles from the Colorado line. About once a month, Rahn drives three hours one-way to attend the discussions — a cherished chance, she said, to talk about theology with other Presbyterians who take it seriously and who challenge her thinking.
Before moving to Kansas, “I was in a much more contentious presbytery,” she said, where “we barely spoke to each other” if people figured they were on different sides of a controversial issue.
Now, “we still know who thinks what about what,” but the conversations give her a chance “to know why and where people are coming from, and to get to know them as people,” Rahn said.
The group started off by using video materials the task force had produced and by discussing Christology — outlining “what are your non-negotiables in terms of your theology and your Christology,” Rahn said. They found significant areas of agreement, as did the task force members during their own discussions.
Even in areas of disagreement, if you get a chance to know the person who holds a differing view, “you’re listening with less judgment,” Rahn said. “And whether we admit it or not, when we listen, we listen with our own prejudices.”
In Greater Atlanta presbytery, Demarest and Lonnie Oliver, task force member and a Georgia pastor, spoke about the report on September 17, shortly after it was released.
At that meeting, lists were posted creating 12 new theologically-diverse discussion groups — stemming in part from the successful experience with a similar group formed about a decade ago by Ted Wardlaw, then pastor of Central church in Atlanta, and Scott Weimer of North Avenue church.
As a result of that early effort, “I don’t think there’s a place where people respect each other more and dignify each other and hug each other after debates,” said Edwin Albright Jr., presbytery executive. “That group made a powerful difference. Now we have 11 (more) groups,” plus a new one led by Weimer and Gary Charles, who’s now the pastor at Central.
Charles said of the new group: “We have found the time together to be a rich one. We are not a deliberative body, so there’s not the posturing and positioning to win a vote. It’s more an opportunity to listen to the stories and to hear the real concerns.”
These are all small initiatives — a few people here, some over there, a smattering of attempts in what remains an intensely divided church. What difference will these groups really make?
But, said Rahn, “we’ve got to start somewhere.”