1. PUP barks but doesn’t bite.
When we recently asked you, in an online reader survey, what were the top ten Presbyterian news stories of the past decade, most of you listed the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (PUP) as number one. But, speaking as one of the members of the task force, I say PUP was a dud.
Folks from the left flank of the church shouted that it produced no real change, it just gave window dressing to a policy of exclusion toward lesbians and gays. Folks from the right flank of the church screamed that it changed everything, it sold the farm. In fact the right wing reaction was so shrill that folks on the left tempered their reactions, figuring that maybe they did gain something after all.
They didn’t. The 2006 GA adopted the PUP report after five years in development, but advocates of the ordination of monogamous gays and lesbians did not net any gains. Not one person who has scrupled his or her ongoing disagreement with and ongoing violation of the “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” behavioral requirement has been ordained to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In fact, the church’s top court ruled in February 2008 that that rule cannot be violated.
Things did change four months after the court’s ruling. The 2008 GA responded by withdrawing the constitutional interpretation of 1978-79 that ruled that “homosexual practice is incompatible with ordained service” in the church. And they declared that the scruple rule may be applied to all parts of the constitution — a decision that some contend essentially undercut the February 2008 ruling from the top church court. But, to this day, the few attempts to approve a candidate who declares a scruple to the “fidelity and chastity” language have been tied up in the church courts. The policies of the church remain essentially unchanged, at least so far.
Then again, PUP wasn’t really a DUD. It did change things. But it was the culture of a conflicted church that changed. In some places the reactions against PUP’s passage exacerbated ideological polarization (see #2 below). But in most regions, in most presbyteries, its model of seeking to discern God’s will via worship, Bible study, theological reflection, and ethical discussion has been applied with great effect, such as a new spirit of collegiality. Many advocates of inclusion of sexual minorities and many advocates of traditional marriage are now seeking God’s will together — case in point, the Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Unions and Christian Marriage that will report to the 2010 GA.
2. Threatened schism splinters.
After many leaders of the Confessing Church Movement refused to move, the New Wineskins Association of Churches organized an exit strategy for disaffected conservative churches. The 2006 approval of PUP provided the rationale and catalyst for a unanimous vote in February 2007 to encourage churches to join with them to form the New Wineskins Provisional Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. About 40 churches have taken action to withdraw from the PC(USA) to join with them — less than one-half of one per cent of the denomination’s congregations. Intense legal battles over church property have ensued, with some congregations winning in their states’ courts and some losing. Legal costs have been huge, and a few affected presbyteries have teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. The culture of contempt toward denominational leaders has hurt overall morale and tested denominational loyalty.
3. Presbyterian-Jewish relations unravel.
With little fanfare the 2004 GA adopted a resolution encouraging the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee to consider divesting denominational funds from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Shortly after adjournment, the American Jewish community got wind of the action, and an outcry erupted. Three months later a delegation of Presbyterian leaders met with Hezbollah representatives in Lebanon. A backlash through the church ensued, fueling on the almost-successful attempt to garner enough commissioners’ signatures to call the GA back into session. While the GA’s action had brought to the attention of many the oppressive conditions in Palestine — what former president Jimmy Carter would later label an Israeli apartheid — MRTI assured that they would only explore the possibility of divestment after exhausting other efforts to influence such corporations’ practices. The advocacy continues to this day, but no divestment has been implemented.
4. Missional movement revives.
After decades of decreasing personnel in overseas missions, a reversal began through the decade. A growing trend among congregations to designate missions giving redirected some national missions funds to other missions. Moreover, a century of declaring “Theology divides, mission unites” gave way to the integrated field of missional theology and to the meta-concept of “missional church.” This new identity is sweeping the church culture –—along with a trend towards congregations, presbyteries, and nonprofit groups engaging directly in international mission work via short term mission trips. The Presbyterian Global Fellowship, founded in 2005, is redirecting evangelical, conservative churches into positive ministry and away from the hot button controversies that had been sapping its energy. The decade ended with the General Assembly itself taking its first uptick in sending long-term mission personnel.
5. New church emerging.
Not ones to be early adopters of trendy changes in worship, one new trend is gaining traction among PC(USA) congregations: the emergent church movement. It’s fueled by younger adults who are reviving contemplative and liturgical worship, combining it with new music (mixing contemporary Christian pop music with the music of Taizé and Iona), and spreading their vision via social networking. While being very Christocentric, they also have grown weary of their parents’ ideological, polarizing battles, and are embracing a much more open-ended, less dogmatic mix of viewpoints on heretofore hot-button issues. Some, such as the authors Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass, describe Christianity as being at a crossroads — a time of fundamental change in which old structures will melt away and new ways of practicing faith will emerge.
6. New leaders signal change.
Gradye Parsons, a low key, stick-to-the-details stated clerk succeeded Clifton Kirkpatrick, the self-proclaimed ecumaniac. Linda Valentine, the lawyer, succeeded John Detterick, the banker, as executive director of the General Assembly Council (renamed “GA Mission Council”). A whole new set of senior staff was recruited from active parish life; the “distance” from Louisville to local church shrank considerably. The moderatorial elections of Rick Ufford-Chase in 2004 and of Bruce Reyes-Chow in 2008 signaled the rise of a youth movement in this mostly graying church. Ufford-Chase’s passion for peacemaking and Reyes-Chow’s for social networking have spread far and wide.
7. After Katrina, churches dig in to dig out.
After 9-11, the churches’ mandate was mostly emotional and inter-religious: helping church and nation come to terms with a different posture in the world. In many ways the 2005 arrival of Hurricane Katrina caused greater damage: the need to settle hundreds of thousands of refugees and to rebuild a whole region of the country. Christians across the nation rose to the occasion. Our family of churches was organized by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, who set up tent villages for volunteers who continue the work unabated long after other relief agencies have wrapped up their efforts.
8. General Assembly skips a beat.
More accurately, the General Assembly skipped a year, every other year. Beginning in 2004, the always-annual meetings of the commissioners became a biennial assembly. Costs have been trimmed and some controversies have lingered. But in 2005 and 2007, the first off-years, GA-sponsored national pastors’ retreats renewed many, and in 2009 the Big Tent event united several different conferences into one mega-gathering where Presbyterians of many stripes worship together before, after, and amid times of particular enrichment in the areas of their particular passion and calling.
9. New forms of pastoral leadership fill gaps.
A gaping split has developed between churches that can afford a pastor and those who cannot, with 40 per cent now lacking a paid pastor. The commissioned lay pastor program has grown exponentially to help fill the gap, but many churches that even can afford a pastor struggle to find one willing to serve them. New funding efforts from GA agencies are trying to make such calls more appealing to pastoral candidates — recognizing that there often is a mismatch between what seminary graduates want and can afford to do and the needs of local congregations.
10. Calvin is 500 years young.
Anniversaries of births usually function only symbolically, but the 500th of John Calvin generated a huge revival of study and learning of the Reformer. Even a “New Calvinism” Movement sprang up among non-Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. For all the claims of his dourness, many scholars exposed the public to a more enthusiastic, energetic, grace-filled Calvin than most had imagined.