Future of Religion: The Summer of Presbyterian Discontent
By Rev. David R. Brown (Rev. Brown is the pastor at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma WA, a contributor to the website Futurist.com and former staff to the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education & Literacy. 2011)
This summer the outside temperatures are cooler than normal in Washington State but inside, at least at certain church meetings, it has been hot. On Sunday, July 10th, the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially removed a section from its form of government that prohibited gay and lesbian people as well as people who were not married but sexually active from being ordained church leaders. On July 12th, representatives of 11 of the 50 churches in Olympia Presbytery (a presbytery is a regional governing body) met to explore options for leaving the denomination. Olympia Presbytery, which includes Olympia, Tacoma and several rural areas, is not the only place where meetings like these are taking place. Across the country many conservative churches are exploring leaving the largest Presbyterian denomination. Just this week (August 25-26), a national meeting of “The Fellowship of Presbyteriansâ€ is taking place in Minneapolis. The “Fellowshipâ€ opposes the change in church policy on ordination and is looking for “a new way forwardâ€ which includes the possibility of leaving the denomination. A capacity crowd of two thousand people representing more than 830 congregations is expected to attend.
This is a summer of discontent in the Presbyterian Church. Not all of the 11 congregations in Olympia Presbytery or 830 congregations represented at “The Fellowshipâ€ meeting will leave the denomination, at least not at this time. But, something is happening within this historical mainline denomination. Something that I believe reflects the changing face not just of the Presbyterian Church but the future of Protestant Christianity.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is one of several Christian denominations that face conflict and possible division. On the surface the issues that are the catalysts for the conflict is affirming gay and lesbian persons as ordained leaders and the perception that the hierarchy of the church is imposing this change. Similar to the â€Tea Partyâ€ movement in national politics with its assertion that Washington has turned away from American values and is out of touch with local communities, members and leaders of conservative congregations accuse denominational officers and staff of turning away from Biblical values and being out of touch with local congregations. With echoes of the “Tea Partyâ€ call to “take backâ€ our nation, some conservative church leaders believe it is time to “take backâ€ their church. One letter from the leaders of a Presbyterian church in Tacoma complains about, “an institutional hierarchy that purports to represent the collective wisdom of the local church but in practice seems to function as a tool by church bureaucrats to pursue a radical agenda.â€
This distrust of hierarchy and the desire for more local control was center stage when a representative of conservative Presbyterian denomination met with representatives of the congregations in Olympia Presbytery considering leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA). Central to his presentation was an emphasis on local control and the limited influence of a relatively small national staff. There clearly is a distrust of centralized power. And there is disagreement about changes in ordination standards. But, in this summer of Presbyterian discontent, the heart of the story is not ordination standards or rebellion against hierarchy with people “taking backâ€ their church from out of touch leaders and bureaucrats. The conflict in the church is not hierarchical but horizontal; it is not between the local church and a hierarchy with a “radical agendaâ€, it is about dramatically different understandings of what it means to be Christian being played out in congregations across the country. The conflict is not about the distance between Louisville (headquarters of the PCUSA) and the values of local churches. It is about the different values in two churches, one conservative and one progressive, in the same city that are ten blocks apart.
The American Christian landscape offers a plethora of different Christian communities with a variety of understandings of Christian faith. Yet, with all that diversity, within what was once the Protestant Mainline churches, I believe it is possible to cluster congregations and individuals around two very broad labels, two poles. One might be called Progressive Christianity and the other Conservative Christianity. It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explicate the difference. I offer very broad strokes.
The Progressive Christian vision is marked by a non-literal understanding of scripture, acceptance of gay and lesbian people, separation of church and state, and openness to the idea that there is access to God, there is salvation apart from Jesus Christ.
The Conservative Christian vision is marked by a literal understanding of scripture, a belief that homosexuality is a sin, the belief that America is a Christian nation, and a firm commitment to the belief that there is no salvation apart from confessing Jesus Christ as a personal Lord and Savior.
Both Progressive and Conservative Christians engage in social ministries and care for those in need. Progressive and Conservative Christians employ a wide variety of approaches to worship. Both have expressions of Pentecostalism. Yet at their core they have radically different understandings of the essentials of Christian faith. It is these different understandings of Christian faith that is behind the conflict in the church and will shape the future of the Christian household
By identifying these two poles I do not mean to suggest that conservatives and progressives so not share some values and symbols. Nor do I suggest that there is no value in conversation and shared activities between conservative and progressive Christians. What I am suggesting is that these two very different visions of Christian faith and the Christian life can no longer easily co-exist in the same ecclesiastical bodies. And when they do they generate conflict. The summer of Presbyterian discontent is not about what “theyâ€ are doing to the church if “theyâ€ refers to denominational staff and leaders. It is local. It is about congregations and clergy in the same neighborhood who have radically different understandings about core Christian teachings and what it means to be Christian in today’s world.
In June I traveled through Europe meeting up with members of the congregation I serve for a spiritual retreat on the isle of Iona. We met in Glasgow. The secularization of Scotland was evident to us all. Church after church had closed and had become attractive offices, galleries, theaters and pubs. Many churches and cathedrals are great tourist sites with tiny congregations. A prominent theologian and author told me at dinner that he believed the Church of Scotland as we know it will cease to exist within the next two decades.
Our group wondered: Is this what the future of American Christianity looks like? Will the United States become this secular? Will the mainstream Christian church recede completely from public view? I hope not.
Central to the conflict within the Presbyterian Church and other mainline denominations is the question of identity. Perhaps this season of struggle and possible division within the mainline denominations will provide an occasion to recognize and then articulate clearly some of the key differences in the way individual Christians and their communities’ understand certain core Christian teachings. It is important to articulate these differences. I recognize that there is not one simple answer to insure a vital future for the Presbyterians and the other once powerful Protestant mainline denominations. Yet, part of the answer, is having a clear identity, a place to stand when inviting folk into community and engaging the world with acts of justice and hope. The old denominational configurations no longer provide that identity, in fact they create confusion since congregations within the same denomination send opposite messages about core Christian teachings.
Maybe this summer of Presbyterian discontent can be a catalyst for a change of focus and release of renewed energy as congregations get clear about what they believe and what they have to say to the world around them. Perhaps, in the long run, the conflict will lead to less time and money spent on denominational maintenance and dealing with denominational culture wars. Maybe new configurations linking communities with similar values will emerge. I do not have a crystal ball. Yet I believe that in a nation where more and more folks are moving away from Christian community the time has come where resources and effort must be spent not on denominational battles or upholding denominational identity but on nurturing spirituality, creating community and being a compassionate justice seeking voice in the public square. If something does not change, if we can not move beyond maintaining old structures leading to theological gridlock many congregations will continue to shrink. The beautiful church buildings in Scotland that now house offices, galleries, theaters and pubs may be a preview of what is next in our communities.
As much as I love unique pubs, something important will be lost.