Thursday, December 15, 2011

Does the Fellowship of Presbyterians Actually Make Sense (Part Two)?

In my last posting, I briefly discussed the appearance of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the reaction it engendered among some people in the denomination. I also expressed my cautious hope that perhaps the Fellowship was truly something "new" for evangelicals in the PC(USA) to support.

Now I would like to briefly write about the first big event held by the Fellowship, the meeting in Minneapolis held in late August. Almost two thousand Presbyterians came to this meeting. Most of these were supporters of the Fellowship to some degree, but there were also some important denominational and Presbytery officials present, as well as a few skeptics (most likely). By common consent, the worship and tone of the Gathering were hailed as generally positive and uplifting.

Some harder work was also being done. During the Gathering four possible "tiers" of involvement for evangelical congregations were presented for discussion. These were, as described on the Fellowship webpage:

• Tier 1: Some who are coming to Minneapolis do not want or need to change any part of their structural reality. They are either in a healthy and nurturing presbytery or they are called to ministry where they are despite a less than healthy presbytery environment. We honor and affirm this, and will be offering ideas and options for nurturing Christ-honoring ministry in place.

• Tier 2: Some who are coming are part of a presbytery where innovation, entrepreneurial vision, and creative leadership are enabling substantive change within the current presbytery structure. A few of these models will be explained and explored.

• Tier 3: For those who need more distance and differentiation from their current presbytery or the PC(USA), new possibilities for “affiliate” congregations will be introduced. We will provide information on how this new type of relationship could work and language for possible overtures to the 2012 General Assembly.

• Tier 4: There is increasing interest in the creation of a “new Reformed body,” distinct from the PC(USA) and distinctly different from any other existing “denomination” in its structure and focus. The idea is to recapture our core identity, believing that Reformed theology has much to say to our contemporary culture, and that Calvin’s original vision for the nature and role of presbyteries offers a better way of relating to one another than most of us are experiencing now. In forming this new Reformed “body,” there is also the opportunity to move with imagination and energy into the reality of a post-denominational world.

To my recollection, Tier Two ended up being about reforming existing Presbyteries to, for example, have two Committees on Ministry and Preparation for Ministry, one of each would be evangelically-oriented. I always thought that was a very poor idea. Whoever comes through a Committee on Ministry or Committee on Preparation for Ministry will still be part of the whole Presbytery. I think we have too many committees and bureaucracy as it is.

I have had the privilege of serving on CPMs in two Presbyteries (just started serving on the CPM of the Presbytery of Florida) and the experience has been fine. The Committees are theologically diverse. Possibly I was (and am) the most conservative member on them. It doesn't seem to be so bad. And even if there was a CPM that was 100% conservative or evangelical, I would still belong to a Presbytery that would have inquirers/candidates from the "liberal" CPM. Whatever.

I think there was also discussion of forming theologically oriented Presbyteries that could cross current geographic boundaries. I think that idea might have had more merit, but it seems to be going nowhere. I have the impression that, at the General Assembly level at least, the consensus is that we must have geographic Presbyteries, except for some racial-ethnic Presbyteries. Speaking purely personally, I think that is not a good exemption. I mean, it is explicitly based on race and ethnicity! It's like soft apartheid.

Well, that is another issue. In any case, Tier Two seems to be nearly moribund.

Tier Three, if I am not mistaken, would advocate for Union Congregations, where a congregation could belong to both the PC(USA) and the "New Reformed Body" which has not yet been formed. And perhaps this Tier includes different levels within it as well ... congregation "A" affiliates with the NRB but stays a member of the PC(USA); congregation "B" does the opposite; congregation "C" belongs to both denominations.

Again, this proposal seems to be going nowhere, at least in its purest form ... congregations belonging to both denominations. And I wonder if that is for the best. Despite all of the attempts to be conciliatory on the part of the Fellowship and the leadership of the PC(USA) (and I think the General Assembly Moderator and Stated Clerk have tried strike the right tone), a new Reformed denomination would be formed necessarily in opposition to the direction the PC(USA) has been on for decades. Belonging equally to both denomination seems akin to having one foot on the train as it is leaving the station while having another foot on the station platform.

For what it's worth, our congregation is most likely to stick with Tier One, remaining engaged on our Presbytery as it is while lifting up an evangelical witness. In November we released a Statement of Dissent and Disavowal to our Presbytery and all the Sessions within the Presbytery, in opposition to the recent change in ordination standards. No one has to guess where we stand. But we are still strive to support the Presbytery in different ways. That option will not be for everyone, but it seems to work for us. And I think that is a good Tier to advocate. Of course, I think we would have done this in any case. I don't think we needed the Fellowship to give us this particular idea. Anyway, Tier One is certainly a real option.

Finally, the other likely option presented by the Fellowship is for evangelical congregations to move to a "New Reformed Body." I will concentrate on the "New Reformed Body" in my next posting.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that this proposal of several "tiers" raised some misgivings for me, because they might serve to fracture the evangelical movement or witness in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I also have concerns about the cafeteria style of offering different options. It seems to me there are two choices for an evangelical congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA): stay or leave.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Does the Fellowship of Presbyterians Actually Make Sense (Part One)

I have tried not to spent much time commenting on denominational issues in this blog, but as someone who identifies as an evangelical pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I think recent events are worth discussing. Specifically, given these recent developments, I think the question must be asked if the Fellowship of Presbyterians enterprise makes any sense. You will recall that the Fellowship began in early 2011 and was revealed by the release of a "White Paper" which diagnosed serious problems within the Presbyterian Church (USA), going so far as to call the denomination "deathly ill." The initial Fellowship leadership was a group of tall steeple church pastors of the evangelical persuasion.

My first reaction to the news was "yet another evangelical group that probably will huff and puff and go nowhere." I had in mind the Confessing Church movement, which signed up over 1,300 congregations, held a huge "Confessing Church Celebration" in Atlanta, and then ... disappeared. I also had in mind the New Wineskins group, which sounded like a group that wanted to change ministry in the PC(USA) but developed more into a transmission belt for congregations seeking to leave for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination. Plus there is a plethora of conservative or evangelical groups in the PC(USA) that have been around a long time.

However, the vitriolic response to the Fellowship's initial documents from many theological progressives and PC(USA) institutional loyalists (one letter to the Presbyterian Outlook even criticized the drafters of the "White Paper" for calling it the "White Paper" because that showed racial insensitivity. Such a reaction is a self-parody.) suggested to me and others that perhaps this Fellowship was indeed proposing something that could make a difference ...