Chorus for change in PC(USA) grows louder across spectrum

February 8, 2011


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.”

  1. Rachel Ward's suggestion is a good one, but unfortunately the advocates for the homosexual ordination will not give it a rest. In the past, it has been proposed that a hiatus be called, but they just come right back the next year with the same amendment of the ordination standard. I pray that the Presbyterian denomination discerns the will of God and gets back to the focus on the Great Commission.

    by Linda Shockley

    August 22, 2011

  2. This comes as a "breath of fresh air" and a "light at the end of the tunnel". I pray that with God's guidance we can achieve what this promises to become. If it does happen, churches will no longer feel the need to leave the denomination to find their way on a different path to be in accord with God's word.

    by George Scheer, Elder

    May 13, 2011

  3. The PCUSA has a “theological core aligned with classic biblical, Reformed/Evangelical tradition.” What we don’t have is unity. We don’t all agree on or embrace that theological core, thus the infighting and schisms. So, how do you maintain the openness of God and the welcome of the Church if you restrict participation only to those with whom you already agree? Isn’t that how the one Church became the many denominations? I think we all long to see a Church wherein all its members subscribe to and pledge to live according the teachings of the Church. But, when have we EVER had that? It seems to me that the Progressive Church has continued to fight for its views and understanding to become the core of the theological understanding of the PCUSA. Regardless of how many no votes their amendments have received over the years, they’ve kept on fighting and pushing; they did not bend to the view of the majority. While those who chose to adhere to the traditional understanding of scripture and confessions have been the majority of the PCUSA, the margin has grown narrower over the years. Soon, it seems the Progressive arm of the PCUSA will move to the “winning” side of their debates; they will be the majority. So, while the Progressive movement has not left the denomination, but stayed in the fight, now that the Conservative arm of the PCUSA appears to be losing ground in the battle, this group seems to say, “We give up. You can have the PCUSA. We will take our biblically grounded theology and make a new church.” Maybe that is the solution. Maybe we don’t need a large, bulky denominational structure to bind diverse groups into one body. But, is a loose collection of folks who all think alike, believe alike and know the truth alike, the answer? I doubt it. We’ve done it over and over again: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anabaptist, Methodist, etc., etc. Another fracture in the Church won’t shock anyone, least of all God. But it won’t promote the Kingdom of God. It will likely please the people who form this new group, but who knows how long a new group will hold together before there is a new faction who has a different understanding of scripture or baptism, or the Eucharist. I don’t know what this looks like from outside the church. But from inside, it looks like more of the same: We’re right, you’re wrong; we’re in, you’re out. Oh, see how they love one another!

    by Rev. LaVonne Alexander

    February 12, 2011

  4. We have become a very loosely related group of churches each one following their own path. Yet claiming to be a denomination called Presbyterians. It suffers from what I call the Burger King afliction. That is, Burger King told us we could have it our way. Out of this comes the rancor because I am always right If you don't believe this just ask me. Caleb, I do not claim to know Gods design except that we are created out of love and are called to share that love with the least of human kind. Jay, we build the organizations to try to share Gods love however I don't think God is through with anyone of use. We are created to be a blessing to all. If those who make up the organizations work to be a blessing to all people then we will have taken up the journey of Jesus.

    by Roger Shoemaker Elder

    February 11, 2011

  5. It is good to read that both the Fellowship and the Covenant Network will be having meetings in which forward-looking thinking will take place (read"progressive"). The questions are: " What is the goal toward which progress should be made?" and, "How do you know when you have arrived at the goal?" Grace and peace, Chuck Jenner

    by Charles R. Jenner

    February 11, 2011

  6. I'm sure the Fellowship enumerates these among their values, but one would think that these high-powered leaders in the Body of Christ might have included 'to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick/imprisoned, treat the widows and orphans and aliens with justice, proclaim good news to the poor' (to paraphrase) in at least the top 4. I guess not. And what about the early church members actions of 'selling everything and seeing to all those who have need'? Some how I'm seeing that in conflict with one of the 'Fellowship's' #2 Core Value. I appreciate the sentiment expressed in the 'letter of clarification' that these white/male/ecclesially privileged pastors issued, but maybe there's more they missed than simply the inclusion of female signers.

    by Rev. Mike Foster

    February 10, 2011

  7. Rachel sentiments are appealing. If the conflict over homosexuality can be likened to a simple upper respiratory virus that will clear up without treatment, her approach certainly has merit. But if that conflict has more the character of a cancer, ignoring it for a period of time will simply allow it to metasticize throughout the body, eventually killing the host. We need to understand the nature of the conflict before we can decide whether to let it be or treat it aggressively.

    by John

    February 10, 2011

  8. Bravo, Rachel Ward!

    by Rev. Fran Beyea, Ames, Iowa

    February 9, 2011

  9. I am a presbyterian for 20 years and the wife of a presbyterian minister. I began my career at the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville and have since followed the debates of the church. Over the past two decades I have found the church headquarters/general assembly to be obsessed with the question of homosexual ordination almost to the exclusion of effectively supporting the local congregations in ministry and evangelism. My suggestion is that we all agree to table this peripheral issue for one decade and focus instead on the central work of teaching the gospel, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner.

    by rachel ward

    February 8, 2011

  10. Homosexuality, Bestiality, Polygamy, etc... is not God's design and is therefore and abomination to Him. God made Adam and Eve. Let us stick with Scripture Alone! Amen.

    by Caleb Carter

    February 8, 2011

  11. This is wonderful news! I look forward to seeing how God uses "The Fellowship" to generate real reform in the PC (USA). Maybe God's not through with our ol' denomination after all!

    by Jay McGhee

    February 8, 2011

  12. This sounds wonderful! I look forward to seeing what "The Fellowship" can do generate real reform in our denomination. Perhaps we'll see real leadership in obedience to Christ take root in this ol' church body yet!

    by Jay McGhee

    February 8, 2011