A group of PCUSA pastors has sent out a letter that seems to be proclaiming the death of the denomination as its members know it, but also seems to be calling for a cloning of the New Wineskins Association and Evangelical Presbyterian Church. You can read it all at the Layman Online; here are the highlights:
Homosexual ordination has been the flashpoint of controversy for the last 35 years. Yet, that issue – with endless, contentious “yes” and “no” votes – masks deeper, more important divisions within the PC(USA). Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues. Outside of presbytery meetings, we mostly exist in separate worlds, with opposing sides reading different books and journals, attending different conferences, and supporting different causes. There is no longer common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.” Indeed, many sense that the only unity we have left is contained in the property clause and the pension plan; some feel like withholding per capita is a club used against them, while others feel locked into institutional captivity by property. While everyone wearies of battles over ordination, these battles divert us from a host of issues that affect the way our congregations fail to attract either young believers or those outside the faith. Thus, we age, shrink, and become increasingly irrelevant. Is it time to acknowledge that traditional denominations like the PC(USA) have served in their day but now must be radically transformed?
This sounds exactly right to me. Polities and official theologies, differ between the mainline churches, but it also sounds like an accurate description of the ELCA, the United Methodist Church, and to a lesser extent the Episcopal Church (less so there simply because liberalism has so completely triumphed that the denomination is now in the process of purging itself of dissenters, which while it will leave ECUSA irrelevant–Unitarianism in fancy vestments–it will eventually reduce conflict, as has happened in the UCC). Anyway, granting that the diagnosis is correct, the pastors offer the following by way of a new vision:
We need something new, characterized by:
- A clear, concise theological core to which we subscribe, within classic biblical, Reformed/Evangelical traditions, and a pledge to live according to those beliefs, regardless of cultural pressures to conform;
- A commitment to nurture leadership in local congregations, which we believe is a primary expression of the Kingdom of God. We will identify, develop, and train a new generation of leaders – clergy and laity;
- A passion to share in the larger mission of the people of God around the world, especially among the least, the lost, and the left behind;
- A dream of multiplying healthy, missional communities throughout North America;
- A pattern of fellowship reflecting the realities of our scattered life and joint mission, with regular gatherings locally, regionally, and nationally to excite our ability to dream together.
Our values include:
- A minimalist structure, replacing bureaucracy and most rules with relational networks of common purpose;
- Property and assets under stewardship of the local Session. Dues/Gifts for common administration should only allow and enable continued affiliation among these congregations;
- Rather than large institutions, joint ventures with specialized ministries as congregations deem helpful [PC(USA) World Mission may be a source of joint support, aspects of the Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Foundation, Presbyterian Global Fellowship, Presbyterians for Renewal conferences, Outreach Foundation, etc.];
- An atmosphere of support for congregations both within and outside of the PC(USA).
Once again, this is terrific, and I think it mirrors what we have in the EPC.
1. A Fellowship: The most immediate change we intend is creating a new way of relating in common faith, a Fellowship (name to be determined). The primary purpose of this Fellowship will be the encouragement of local congregations to live out the Good News proclaimed by our Savior, increasing the impact of the Kingdom of Heaven. This Fellowship will exist within current presbyteries for the time being, but energies and resources will flow in new directions. It is an intermediate tool to bring together like-minded congregations and pastors, to enable us to build a future different than our fractured present.
I’m not sure how this differs from the New Wineskins Association, or any of several evangelical groups within PCUSA.
2. New Synod/Presbyteries: In the near future we will need “middle bodies” that offer freedom to express historical, biblical values amid ordination changes in the PC(USA). More importantly, we long for presbytery-like bodies with theological and missional consensus rather than fundamental disagreement over so many core issues. We need new processes that identify and support the next generation of leadership differently than the current model, which unintentionally weeds out the entrepreneurial persons we so desperately need in our congregations. Many current functions should be removed; some, like curriculum and mission relationships, have become less centralized already. We will work with the Middle Governing Bodies Commission since changes to The Book of Order will be needed to step fully into this reality.
This sounds very much like the proposal that came from Beaver-Butler Presbytery at the last General Assembly that my friend Toby Brown helped bring forth. It went nowhere.
3. Possible New Reformed Body: Congregations and presbyteries that remain in a denomination that fundamentally changes will become an insurmountable problem for many. Some members of the Fellowship will need an entity apart from the current PC(USA). It is likely that a new body will need to be created, beyond the boundary of the current PC(USA), while remaining in correspondence with its congregations. The wall between these partner Reformed bodies will be permeable, allowing congregations and pastors to be members in the Fellowship regardless of denominational affiliation. All kinds of possibilities exist, and much will depend on how supportive the PC(USA) can be in allowing something new to flourish.
This sounds like what already exists, namely, the New Wineskins-EPC partnership. Lots of New Wineskins churches have come into the EPC, but a lot of them have not, and the NWA has a foot in both worlds. This simply sounds like a duplication of something that already exists.
4. Possible Reconfiguration of the PC(USA): We intend to continue conversations within the PC(USA), and have met with both Louisville’s leadership and that of the Covenant Network in the past few months. We believe the denomination no longer provides a viable future and perceive that the Covenant Network also sees a broken system. We hope to work together to see if some new alignment might serve the whole Church.
The Covenant Network may see things this way, but I suspect that most of its allies on the left do not. That’s why they continue to bring up the same issues over and over again, and will continue to do so until they get their way. In fact, they would rather destroy the denomination than not get their way, thinking it an evil institution that deserves to die if it can’t be forced to serve The Cause.
These folks are hosting a meeting in Minneapolis in August. Perhaps they’ll invite NWA and EPC leadership to discuss their efforts, perhaps not. In any case, I wish them well.
Where Are the Names of Women/Minorities/ Small Churches/ Elders on Your Letter?
The letter distributed on February 2, 2011 is just the first public sharing of a conversation that started several months ago between pastors who had known one another for many years, and who decided to step forward in faith, inviting all who would to join them. We are deeply committed to the leadership of women in ministry. Three of the seven people on the steering team have theologically trained/ordained spouses in ministry. This commitment is part of what distinguishes us from the EPC.
A gathering in Scottsdale in January 2011 – an annual meeting of larger church senior pastors – was simply our first step toward broadening the conversation. We recognize and acknowledge the urgent and unquestioned need for the voices of younger and older leaders, men and women, small church and large church leaders, people of all races, and clergy/ non-ordained to be equal partners in the conversation and this Fellowship. Our desire is that by the time we gather in Minneapolis in August, we will have a robust conversation going, profiting from the rich diversity of the Body of Christ.
How Is This Fellowship Different Than the New Wineskins?
Many of us were part of the founding of the New Wineskins, and chose for various reasons not to depart the PC(USA) at that time. Part of our hesitation was a desire to draw together a larger group of churches rather than splintering over time. At this point, we have not decided to affiliate with any particular organization; we have a strong desire to make the boundaries of this “new thing” as broad as possible.
Why Not Go With the EPC?
We wholly respect the ministry of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and may forge some partnership down the road. For the present, we want to honor their distinctiveness rather than “swamping them” with a large group of churches that may change the DNA of their institution, especially in the sensitive area of women’s ordination. We have no desire to cause strife or step immediately into another contentious discussion over ordination. Additionally, we hope to be “radical” in our understanding of the unique needs and opportunities in the rapidly changing culture around us and to structure our organization differently than traditional denominations have been understood.
How Is This Fellowship Different than All the Other Renewal Organizations?
We commend the work that so many of these renewal groups have been doing within the PC(USA), and members of our steering committee have been involved in their efforts. We share these organizations’ commitment to faithfulness in the work of Christ. Our desire, however, is not to spend more time trying to resuscitate our denomination, but to live into a new, 21st century reality. Our energies will be focused on living in a new configuration and deciding how to accomplish that rather than expending effort on the existing PC(USA).