The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has issued a Call to the Church that presents an unprecedented opportunity to re-think how the PCUSA is organized, how it operates, how it treats those seeking to realign with other Presbyterian denominations and how it bears authentic witness in the world today.
The call for a restoration of trust is a public admission that trust has been breached. The Moderator has made that admission but he has done so on behalf of agencies, bodies and judicatories that have not, to this point, admitted that they have violated the trust of their members and congregations. Nor have the trust violators indicated a willingness to repent and commit themselves to a “whatever it takes” posture in order to restore trust. That is not to say that it won’t happen. That is just to say that to this point, the trust violators are not the ones calling for a radical change of course.
The Moderator’s call centers on a process that he hopes will restore trust. In the statement, he says, “I ask our … people who have felt disenfranchised, people from different theological positions … to participate actively and expeditiously in order that we might gather data which can help our Portland General Assembly next June to make informed and healthy decisions about our future.” The Layman accepts the Moderator’s call to participate in such a process by raising up disenfranchised evangelical, conservative and theologically orthodox voices and concerns. We are initiating here “active engagement” in the Moderator’s call with the hope of stimulating others to join in the conversation.
So, what is trust and how can it be restored?
What is trust?
Trust implies truthfulness and requires honesty. Organizationally the word is “transparency.” So, the Moderator might start by posting the full line item budget of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and Office of the General Assembly so that the members of the church can actually see what their monetary gifts are being used to fund. A second step of transparency would be releasing the million dollar report produced by Alston-Byrd that resulted in the removal of four members of the PMA staff earlier this year.
But we all know that trust is a deeper and more personal issue than transparency in governance. Trust is a mutual peace, freedom and ease in a relationship where both parties are committed to each other in such a way that the interest of the whole is set above the interests of the parts. In the spirit of Philippians 2, it is regarding others as better than self and sacrificing self for the good of the whole. The Moderator points out the necessity of the restoration of this when he talks about the reality of “teritoriality.”
How can trust be restored?
#1. The question must be honestly asked and answered, “Is there a willingness to be reconciled?”
For some, on both sides of the breach, the answer to that question is “yes” and for others, on both sides of the breach, the answer is “no.” It’s not just theologically conservative Presbyterians who feel betrayed and disenfranchised. Those who consider LGBTQ concerns as a genuine justice issue are not — and should not be — satisfied with a denomination whose mind is split on the issue. Allowing for gay ordination and allowing for same-sex marriage is not full acceptance and it is not celebration. The trust chasm is wide and there are those on both sides who are not genuinely interested in seeing it bridged. As much as the right wants to evangelize the left, the left wants to evangelize the right – and both believe that they have discerned the mind of Christ on the matter – which means they are not likely to give up their position for in-so-doing they would be betraying their conscience.
#2. For those who genuinely do want to be reconciled and participate joyfully together in the resurgence of a renewed, redesigned PCUSA, the first step may be to allow those who do not want a future together to leave peaceably. So, where the restoration of trust is possible among some within the PCUSA, there are others who need to be allowed to leave in order that those who remain can rebuild trust among a willing, committed body that intends to be the PCUSA in new ways in the future. On both ends of the theological spectrum, exit ramps may need to be created and blessed.
A few concrete steps the Moderator might lead the denomination to take in that direction include:
- The creation of a safe space for teaching elders to pursue their calling without threat of trials, defrocking, other vindictive actions by their presbyteries, and loss of productive pastoral calls. The transferability of evangelical clergy in the PCUSA is virtually stagnated. Committees on Ministry that are using pro-gay-marriage litmus tests and fidelity-to-the-PCUSA pledges prior to allowing a candidate to be considered for a call must be reigned in.
- The provision of a reasonable way for churches who desire to depart to do so peaceably with their property. This might be accomplished by a time delimited (2-3 year) suspension of the “trust clause” and the implementation of a fair process. This would necessarily include the relief of churches who wish to enter discernment from punitive and unreasonable administrative commissions. This might also include the creation of a route to appeal unreasonable actions by AC’s.
- The development of a means of and encouragement for the expression of our divided denomination within local churches that find themselves theologically divided. Teaching elders across the theological spectrum, should be encouraged to express the intrinsic unity of the Body of Christ universal, while recognizing – rather than ignoring – the very divided understanding and application of His message to us today.
Speaking from one identifiable side of the trust divide
The position of The Layman has not changed but we recognize that the PCUSA has changed substantially in recent years. We will continue to speak the truth about Jesus as the only way to salvation, the Bible alone as the Word of God and the call to holiness that includes all aspects of human life, including sexuality. We recognize that we do what we do in a broken denomination and in a culture that is broken in many of the same ways. We believe that the Word of God must be restored to its rightful place in the life of the church, that the church might be restored to the rightful place in the life of the culture, that the Lord might be glorified and people edified. So, we will love our neighbors regardless of the disagreements that arise as a result of conflicting beliefs about marriage and ordination and we will participate in the process envisioned by the Moderator with those who may disagree with us for the sake of the common good.
The Moderator has indicated that the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly will take the lead, admitting that trust does not even exist among PCUSA agencies. The Moderator said,
“I hear the concern that some people feel which suggests that if we rely on one area of our denomination to take the lead in this process, they may be tempted to control the outcome so that their interests will be served. They feel the same way about any other agency or body taking the lead. This is not a specific condemnation of COGA. Instead it is a general suspicion and unrest with our organization. When the Committee on the General Assembly (COGA) discussed tackling this issue, they recognized that their position needed to be clear and that any bias or preferred outcome from them should not have any more influence than those of other bodies. I am convinced that they believe this and will utilize objective processes and procedures including resources outside of our denomination which can help us hear the will of our membership.”
While The Layman sees the importance of hearing from people, this is the Church and hearing God’s authentic and authoritative voice through the Scriptures must come first. Coming to one mind in the matters before the PCUSA is useless unless the one mind arrived at is the very mind of Christ.
Additionally, for those within the PCUSA who now see The Layman as “outside of our denomination,” we welcome the Moderator’s inclusive call that the disenfranchised not be excluded from the conversation about the positive possible future for the PCUSA. We look forward to being invited to participate in the process on behalf of those in the PCUSA who feel disenfranchised by a myriad of changes in the denomination’s theology, practice and witness over the past 50 years.