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NGPs and NGCGs

Maryland is thinking about letting gays and lesbians get married.

As you can imagine, some folks are for it and some are against it. Some fear there may be a mass exodus, with those favoring gay marriage flocking to D.C., where it is legal, and the rest of the state flocking to Virginia, where heterosexual monogamy is officially ensconced forevermore.

What do we do to accommodate the people so upset? So Maryland is thinking about something bold and new. We are thinking about the non-geographic county governments (NGCGs). Or… well… maybe not really a government that governs, but one that people can get in and either have married gay or lesbian neighbors or not. But there are some other values at play as well. County choice is based on “Missional affinity.” The idea goes that each neighborhood would get to pick its own non-geographic county to be in. I’m not sure if we would go for the one with more lax fence regulations (I really want a bigger fence across the back yard so I don’t see the high school football field lights), or a county where my taxes would be lower. Many of us are thinking about a non-geographical county where taxes are just thought of as suggestions, “moral obligations” (hint, hint), without any possibility that a county could actually impose a tax on anybody.

We really don’t want a county at all, but if we must be in one we want one that doesn’t cost us or require any sort of compliance from us and that lets us do anything we want. My neighborhood still wants garbage pick-up, police protection and fire houses, but this non-geographic approach may plop us in with another neighborhood 50 or 60 miles from here. Our fire truck may have to drive past five other fire stations to come put out a fire in our neighborhood. Water and sewer services are a little more problematic to sort out, but we know that geography doesn’t matter. Missional affinity matters. And that can be anything we say it is.

So this bold new concept, do you think it will work? Obviously if you have reservations, you must be against progress and change. You must not care that the whole of Maryland will soon be emptied out into D.C. and Virginia!

Then we wondered, what if we keep the counties geographic so the basic services of fire, police and garbage are covered? Those don’t really differ whether you are gay-OK or not. Water and sewer can flow equally among the just and the unjust, the right and the left, the self-proclaimed orthodox (as if everyone else isn’t) and progressive (as if everyone else is regressive). After all, different people can go anywhere they want and get together around whatever “affinities” motivate them. Different groups can self-organize and self-fund whatever mission they desire together. Shoot, they can even drive across state lines. Shucks, they can even have international mission relationships! But they still come to the geographic county to get the fence permit, police services, fire services and garbage pick-up. It’s permission-giving, efficient and effective. The pain is that I give up my aspirations for a 20-foot fence. So… I pull the blinds for football games.

So now the PCUSA is thinking about non-geographic presbyteries again (NGPs). This isn’t new. We’ve rejected the idea for good reason several times already. I fear the popular use of the term “missional affinity” has more to do with the opportunity for each congregation to do what is right in its own eyes. There is, after all, only one mission: God’s mission of reconciliation and salvation. Our singular affinity had better be to that and only that. Our longstanding covenanted identity has been that we best do that connectionally across our differing discernments. A presbytery’s part in God’s mission is to provide the minimum necessary oversight so that the congregation’s active solidarity with the mission of God can be discerned and expressed in creative and diverse ways. The presbytery’s task is not to enforce some narrow, homogeneous “missional affinity,” yet this very homogeneity seems to be the motivation for the proposed non-geographic approach. Instead the presbytery appropriately provides effective, efficient, basic services (water, sewer, fire, police, garbage pick-up) so that abundant life via reconciliation and salvation can be experienced in its congregations. A water and sewer system will be needed regardless. Why do we want to reroute all that when we can pursue mission passions already within and even across county lines? I do not see the necessity of reorganization when the same objectives can better be pursued with existing structures.

G. Wilson Gunn Jr. is general presbyter of the National Capital Presbytery.