Meetings by foes of trends in church could hold portent for its future

They are coming to Minneapolis like stars flooding the night sky.

          It’s an open question whether changes in constellations might follow.

          Nearly 1,800 people have registered for the Fellowship PC(USA) meeting Aug. 25 and 26 – a big crowd for a meeting birthed just six months ago. Some are curious, some are angry, some are coming to observe. Some are trying to figure out what their relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should be now that the denomination has decided it’s permissible to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians.

          The Fellowship’s leaders, in a white paper released last winter and in other documents and videos, have described the PC(USA) as “deathly ill,” and set forth ideas for limiting the contagion. One such idea is to create  some kind of new Reformed body that would be in relationship with the PC(USA), but at least partially outside of it.

          So these are expected to be two intense days of prayer and discussion – followed immediately and in the same site by a gathering Aug. 26-27, not open to observers, that has been organized by a group of evangelicals from the Presbytery of Santa Barbara. That group has encouraged presbyteries to create “Committees of Correspondence”  to help individuals and congregations form a united front and a common plan of action. In Minneapolis, they also will talk about what to do next.

          The historical associations of that group’s name suggest resistance to some policy changes within the church. Shortly before the American Revolution, patriot leaders in the 13 colonies formed committees of correspondence to coordinate resistance to what they considered oppressive actions by the British colonial government.

          Anyone interested was welcome to sign up for the Fellowship gathering.  In a Web posting, organizers of the Committees of Correspondence say they have invited each presbytery’s committee to send ” designated representatives” to the Aug. 27 meeting. The extent of overlap between registrants for the two groups’ gatherings is so far unclear.

          Both those in sympathy with the Fellowship and those inclined to disagree with it see its August meeting as significant for the PC(USA). Coming a little over a month after the effective date of Amendment 10-A to the denomination’s constitution , which revokes the requirement that those being ordained practice fidelity if they are married or chastity if not, it’s a chance for evangelicals to hash out whether they can stay in the PC(USA), what changes they might need for that to be possible or whether it’s time for them to go.

          This is not, however, an easy-to-follow conversation – there are many voices speaking up all at once, saying different things. Some are meeting and forming strategy quietly. Some are building connections through social media – the Fellowship is active on both Facebook and Twitter, for example. Some are fired up and ready to take action now.

Those coming to the Fellowship meeting include both Fellowship supporters and interested observers – including some mid-council leaders (executives of presbyteries and synods); and representatives of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and of the PC(USA)’s national staff. “This is an important conversation in the church,” said Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly.

          As they prepare to converge in Minneapolis, here’s some of what’s being talked about.


Not all evangelicals think alike


Those at the meeting, even if they are unified by their opposition to 10-A, won’t all have the same sense of where to go next. For example, Mark Toone, one of the group of seven that released the white paper last February, is pastor of Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church in Gig Harbor, Wash., which already is formally exploring the possibility of leaving the PC(USA) – a move some others are not yet ready to make.

Some raise the prospect that the Minneapolis meeting might take on a Tea Party-like dynamic, in which the planners have a vision or proposals to float and some in the crowd have different ideas.

“We do have people who are coming expecting to be handed a solution they can vote up or vote down,” said Paul Detterman, executive director of  Presbyterians for Renewal, who is also working on a shared basis for the Fellowship. “As somebody said, we’re the Republicans and we’re dealing with the Tea Party. We do have those people – and they are going to be disappointed. That’s a fact of life.”

The meeting’s format is intended to keep presentations from the podium to a minimum and spend most of the time in small-group discussions, Detterman said.

“We will do as much as we can to try to mold understandings, and help people try to grasp beyond the current presenting issues what the larger possibilities are,” he said. “That’s the very reason I’m doing this. The possibilities that we have for working into what God may be doing at this time – that’s a fascinating conversation for me.”

While some individuals and congregations plan to leave the PC(USA) promptly, “this is not going to be a `30 ways into the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) without a hitch’ kind of deal,” Detterman said. “This is going to be, we hope, the launch of truly a new way for Presbyterian folks to relate to one another, (and) then a handful of contextually driven options.”

There will be paperwork presented for the formation of a fellowship and a new Reformed identity, if that’s people want, he said. There will be proposals that people can take home to the sessions of their congregations, and ideas for regional gatherings and networking.

“We want to walk in with leadership,” Detterman said, “but not a completed product line that you have to buy into, or leave.”

Many models

Options up for discussion include creating non-geographic presbyteries or synods, places where evangelicals could affiliate and support one another and agree not to ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians.

          At a recent meeting of denominational leaders, including those from the national staff and from mid-councils (the new name for presbyteries and synods), a handout summarized more than a half-dozen possibilities. Some would require amending the PC(USA) constitution. Among those options:

– The idea of a presbytery within a presbytery, with two committees on ministry – one for those who agree with the 10-A changes, one for those who don’t.

– An “anti-Kenyon” amendment to the Book of Order, to stop any attempt to prevent the ordination or installation of a candidate who would not agree to consider ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians. The name comes from a church court case involving Walter Wynn Kenyon, who was denied ordination as a PC(USA) minister in 1974 because he said he could not participate in ordaining women, although he would work with women who had been ordained. Kenyon contended the Bible forbids the ordination of women.

– Some sort of “union” bodies – similar to the union presbyteries that existed before the northern and southern branches of the Presbyterian church reunited to form the PC(USA).



Exactly how all this might work unclear. Some changes would require constitutional changes – approval from a General Assembly and a majority of the 173 presbyteries. Some ideas have been sketched out in broad brush strokes, with many details still to be filled in.

In a Fellowship video released several months ago, for example, Jim Singleton, pastor of First Presbyterian church in Colorado Springs and one of the seven pastors who wrote the white paper, described the idea of a new fellowship that would be partly inside the PC(USA) but also partly outside of it.

One idea is to create a new Reformed body that would be different from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Presbyterian Church in America, Singleton explained. That new body “would still try to relate to the PC(USA) in the way that we would share ordination expectations back and forth, and people could move in and out of the PC(USA) and into this new Reformed body, because we would still be in correspondence with the PC(USA), not running far from, but staying near to.”

What exactly it would mean, however, to have “shared ordination expectations” would still need to be worked through. Does that mean agreement on the ordination expectations related to 10-A?

Or that someone who was ordained in the PC(USA) could step outside the denomination into a new Reformed body, but still keep his or her ordination status and pension and health insurance benefits? Or something else altogether?


Middle Governing Body Commission

The commission, which is due to report back to the General Assembly in 2012, also is deep into conversation about the role of presbyteries. Part of that discussion is how to “create possibilities with real clear boundaries,” to find ways of “creating as much room for healthy expression as possible, rather than trying to regulate every potential dysfunction or misuse,” said Tod Bolsinger, the group’s moderator.

The passage of 10-A and of the denomination’s new Form of Government “changed the perception of what it means to be the church, particularly the centrality of the presbytery,” Bolsinger said.

Some will be watching to see how the task force’s discussions regarding the future of presbyteries intersect with or diverge from the fellowship’s ideas. Bolsinger speaks of “a much more apostolic community” rather than a corporate-style management structure.

“I feel like we could reinvigorate the evangelical side of the church,” he said, with a focus on covenant relationships and mission, rather than regulatory restrictions.