What if, he suggested, it really is some sort of a new day in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? The 173 presbyteries are preparing to vote, yet again, on ordaining gays and lesbians — specifically, whether to amend the denomination’s constitution to take out a requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if they are single.
But Reyes-Chow, who has made his views known on gay ordination but has not made that his premiere issue, suggested that however that vote turns out, some Presbyterians want things to be different. He described a “bubbling-up demographic” of Presbyterians who are attaining some positions of authority in the church, but declining to become invested in the all-out battles over gay ordination, which have consumed so much of the church’s attention and energy for several decades now.
It’s possible, Reyes-Chow said, “there might be a war thrown and a lot of people might just not show up.”
Reyes-Chow is not alone in suggesting something like this — that the direction the PC(USA) will take may be affected by more than the up-or-down outcome of the next vote. Certainly that vote will be important, but he and others are noticing other places of energy that could have an impact as well.
– Michael Walker, the former executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal and now theologian-in-residence at Highland Park Church in Dallas, is publicly discussing the idea of establishing non-geographic presbyteries or synods. That idea — versions of which the General Assembly has repeatedly voted down in the past — has gathered some traction as a way for evangelicals to stay in the PC(USA) but still align with integrity with those who share their views on gay ordination and other matters of orthodoxy.
– A letter released this summer by a group of evangelical students at Fuller Theological Seminary reflected opposition to more splintering of the PC(USA) and a desire for conversation among those with different points of view. The letter stated that “evangelical Presbyterians of our generation are less likely to think of the sexuality question as a fault line in the denomination, and more likely to consider issues like witnessing to a just society and restoring creation as defining points in the church. Consequently, a statement or action by pastors without input from our generation might alienate the very people who represent the future of the church.”
– One blogger, Shawn Coons, a pastor from Houston, wrote about that letter: “I think this is happening on the ‘other side’ as well. I think us younger liberal-ish types are less likely to officially align ourselves with groups like the Covenant Network and the Witherspoon Society — not because we disagree with them, but because we aren’t willing to see the party platforms in black and white, or to polarize ourselves that much.”
– Some veterans of the long debates within the PC(USA) over gay ordination say this campaign feels — at least for now — different to them. Along with organized campaigns to vote the proposal up or down, there are signs of attempts to cultivate discussion across the lines of division both within presbyteries and in the Web 2.0 world. The interest groups within the church, while still significant, are by no means initiating all of the conversation, which increasingly is focusing not just on political questions but on what it means to be a “missional church” and on how the PC(USA) can be more responsive to the energy of Presbyterians at the grassroots.
Tom Taylor, the PC(USA)’s deputy executive director for mission and formerly the pastor of an evangelical congregation in California, told the General Assembly Council that “I know many of these folks” who “are having conversations very deliberately with people from the other side of the aisle. … In some ways, that’s unprecedented.” Taylor described himself as “cautiously optimistic” because of these conversations.
Council member Roger Gench, a pastor from Washington, D.C., described himself as a “card-carrying liberal” and being “unrepentant about that.” But Gench said “I am a repentant polarizer,” in part because of the work that his wife, Frances Taylor Gench, a professor of Biblical interpretation, did as a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PC(USA).
“There has been a great deal of pain for almost three decades” over the gay ordination debate, Roger Gench said. And now “I see a new movement” of reconciliation in the PC(USA).
Reyes-Chow led the impromptu discussion in Snowbird, Utah, when asked by Carol Adcock, the chair of the General Assembly Council, to talk about “the elephant in the room” — the unhappiness of many evangelicals over the GA’s proposed deletion of the “fidelity and chastity” requirement.
Reyes-Chow said he always starts from the position of believing that people are faithfully trying to follow God as they consider this issue. If he can’t affirm that, “we are already done,” the moderator said.
In listening to evangelicals in the aftermath of the assembly, “there’s anger, there’s hurt, there’s righteous indignation,” Reyes-Chow said. And that’s being expressed at a time when some evangelical congregations have already left the PC(USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Reyes-Chow said that at the Presbyterian Global Fellowship meeting last August and in other conversations, he heard ideas being floated, but “I don’t think there’s any agreement” yet as to the best approach.
“People are talking about a lot of different ways of relating, structurally and missionally,” said Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Council. “There’s just a swirl of things going on.”
Many evangelicals “just don’t want to continue on to infinity with the status quo,” said Clark Cowden, executive presbyter for San Diego Presbytery and a General Assembly Council member. “Somehow things have got to change, they’ve got to get better.”
Walker, who is advancing the idea of non-geographic presbyteries, said in an interview that a benefit of that approach would be “to create a new context for ministry in the PC(USA) that did not require us to be constantly debating this particular issue at this superficial level.”
If conservatives could express their own theological and moral commitments through governing bodies willing to uphold those commitments, “then I think that conservatives could envision a longer-term future within the PC(USA) and it would establish a different basis … from which to engage it” – a basis that would not involve withdrawal, Walker said. He’s been laying out his ideas for a non-geographic approach on the Presbyterians For Renewal Web site, in a series he’s calling “What Way Ahead?”
Cowden, in an interview, said he is sensing some shifts. “It feels like we’ve passed some sort of tipping point, where people are saying, `It’s not worth it to get all worked up about this,” Cowden said. “All the arguments (about gay ordination) have already been made, there’s nothing new left to be said. We’re going to do this vote because we have to. But people are just kind of checking out of the system.”
Instead, he said, the conversation seems to be more about how people can work together despite their differences.
“People on the right and the left are maybe not being as judgmental as they used to be,” Cowden said. “They’re saying, ‘OK, we disagree, we’re not going to change each other’s minds, so what does that mean? Is there a way to move forward with our ministry without fighting each other?’”