LOUISVILLE

Declaring the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “deathly ill,” a group of 45 Presbyterian ministers — including the pastors of nine of the denominations 15 largest congregations — said in an open letter to the church Feb. 2 that they will “…change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate.”

The group — all men and calling themselves “the Fellowship” —said they “are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry.

 “We hate the appearance of schism,” they said, “but the PC(USA) is divided already.”

The Fellowship joins a seemingly growing chorus of voices in the PC(USA) calling for dramatic new ways of being the church. These voices come from inside and outside denominational structures and from across the theological spectrum.

Two groups that formed in the mid-1990s on opposite sides of the gay ordination issue — the Presbyterian Coalition in opposition and the Covenant Network of Presbyterians in support — continue to hold annual gatherings, but their conversations now range far beyond whether the constitutional standard for ordination of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” should be retained.

The Fellowship — with several leaders from the Coalition among its participants — has invited “like-minded pastors and elders” to a gathering Aug. 25-27 in Minneapolis to further explore its movement.

Meanwhile, another ad-hoc group that includes leaders of the Covenant Network, is sponsoring a “NEXT Conference” Feb. 28-March 1 in Indianapolis to ponder the future of the church from a more progressive angle.

In their promotional material, NEXT Conference organizers say they have “…been in conversation about the ‘next’ PC(USA). We have focused less on denominational controversies and other matters and more on vital, faithful and connectional congregational ministry…There is strong interest in continuing and expanding the conversation to explore the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church and God's intention for the future of the Presbyterian Church.”

Two venerable institutions, The Presbyterian Outlook and the Montreat Conference Center, have for the past three summers sponsored a “Church Unbound” conference at Montreat to think broadly about the future of the PC(USA). Those conferences have drawn participants from a wide theological swath of the denomination.

Meanwhile, inside the denominational structures, the 173 PC(USA) presbyteries are voting on two proposals central to the proliferating conversations: a new Form of Government that seeks to make PC(USA) governance less regulatory, more flexible and more mission-minded; and an amendment to G-6.0106b — the commonly called “fidelity and chastity” ordination standard — that would replace the current standard with language tying ordination decisions more closely to the church’s ordination vows.

A second meeting of the General Assembly’s Middle Governing Body Commission was held last weekend in Orlando. That panel, created by the recent 219th General Assembly, is addressing issues and stresses around the denomination’s synods and presbyteries, which are greatly affected by the turmoil in the church. That commission is scheduled to report to the 220th General Assembly (2012) in Pittsburgh.

On Friday (Feb. 4), three denominational leaders issued a statement acknowledging that “this is indeed a rich time of ferment and deep discernment in the Christian Church and denominations like the PC(USA)” and urging all Presbyterians “to join in prayer and conversation, vision and leadership for the church in this exciting time.”

The three — General Assembly Moderator Cynthia Bolbach, General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and General Assembly Mission Council Executive Director Linda Valentine — said, “We are seeing a growing momentum across the church to foment a strategy of leadership, resources and polity which will inspire the transformation of congregations and the creation of new worshiping communities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

Citing the words of John Calvin about the unity of the church — “So far as I have it in my power, if I am thought to be of any service, I shall not be afraid to cross ten seas for this purpose, if that should be necessary” — Bolbach, Parsons and Valentine said, “We ask that those who would challenge us also join with all of us across the church as we work together to make that [unity] happen.”

There is evidence that various sides are in conversation with each other. At its recent gathering in Scottsdale, AZ, the Fellowship met with the Rev. Told Bolsinger, moderator of the Middle Governing Body Commission. “We want to talk and listen to everybody,” Bolsinger said.

The NEXT Conference organizers issued a public invitation to Fellowship participants to attend their Indianapolis gathering and the Covenant Network said it would send participants to the Fellowship gathering in Minneapolis.

Whether that will be enough to keep the denomination intact remains to be seen.

In their open letter, Fellowship leaders wrote: “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…our goal is not institutional survival but effective faithfulness as full participants in the worldwide Church.”

On Feb. 7, responding to criticism that the group lacked diversity, the Fellowship issued a clarification letter. It said, “Regrettably, the initial email we sent out on February 2, in which we shared our concerns and invited people to an August meeting, generated significant misunderstanding (and offense) for some, particularly in regards to a lack of diversity among the signatories.

“As people who communicate for a living, it saddens us to have created any misunderstanding. We hope people can focus more on what was in the letter and less on who signed it (and who didn’t). It is the content that will ultimately become important.”