"He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in."
Within Presbyterianism during the 20th century, there was a great movement towards unity. In 1958 the Presbyterian Church of North America merged with the Presbyterian Church in the USA to form the United Presbyterian Church USA. In 1983 the UPCUSA merged with the mostly southern Presbyterian Church in the United States to make the current Presbyterian Church (USA).
It is now clear to most people that the latter merger did not end the civil war. Beliefs and practices which had been southern-regional were adopted nation-wide. Ultra conservative groups in the south now had a national audience and broader base, and united with conservatives in the UPCUSA to make mischief everywhere for decades. Whether this mostly reflected broadly national political and social divisions or was the expression of the lower spirits of our Presbyterian natures is still at question.
Every year or two in my career there has been a new issue which has rallied the conservatives to accuse the rest of us of apostasy. Every year or two there is a new organization of conservatives (and then of liberals) to do battle. The Layman, organized in the ‘60's to combat the adoption of the Confession of 1967 and a Book of Confessions (as opposed to the Westminster standard), is a constant gadfly and worse. They have been urging congregations to leave the denomination over each conflict. And so we have seen the creation of the Presbyterian Church in America (they won’t ordain women and use the Westminster Confession) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (they assert that each congregation owns its property). Both disliked the denomination’s involvement in civil rights, opposition to the Viet Nam War, and official adoption of a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Now we have the creation of a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. “ECO” is cleverly modern. Proponents aren’t sure whether they will be a separate denomination or whether they will try to exist somehow within the PCUSA. How many would join is a question. Few are willing to take the big step of cutting ties with the PCUSA. For clergy it is often a question of pensions and insurance. An insurance plan has been worked out (Each will pay his or her full cost at a flat rate, rather than as the current percentage of income). An abbreviated Form of Government has been written. The piece de resistance is the written “Essential Tenets” of the new group.
Since the 18th century some Presbyterians wanted all clergy to “subscribe” to particular expressions of the faith. Others emphasized freedom of conscience to interpret scripture and express faith in newer ways. Peace has been bought with the formula that all must answer this question:
Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?
However, no formal definition of the “essential tenets” was given. The perceptive reader will understand that “essential tenets” are the “fundamentals” of fundamentalism fame.
I see great problems ahead for ECO. You can’t write an essential that everyone will accept. At least not everyone will understand it the same way. Grace will not abound. Irony already does. ECO values the unity of the body of Christ and predictably quotes I Cor. 12. (Everything is better when supported by scripture.) The covenant to be signed includes this: “I will hold my personal preferences lightly and guard the good of the whole. (Philippians 2:1-4).” These are the same people who are breaking with the body to which they have belonged.
Another covenant statement is “I will honor the sanctity of life above the claims of human freedom. (Psalm 8:4-5)” Is this about abortion? What about the great many whom we regard as heroes and saints died for greater human freedom. And what does this Psalm have to do with it? It is a puzzlement.
Many clergy have felt tied to the denomination by the Board of Pensions. No. They were and are tied by their own need for financial security. If you leave, you keep your pension. You just don’t add to it. Even if you stay in the denomination and leave your “call,” you need to buy your own medical insurance. If you want to live by faith, the church won’t stop you.
Some people just want their own institution. They want control and power. They don’t want to be only part of a larger institution in decline. The reality is that some evangelical churches grow, and so do some progressive churches. If they want to start fresh, without all of the stick in the mud traditionalists who won’t change (this is most of the churches and members of the PCUSA), that may be the best thing about leaving. What happens when the conflict begins again, and aging members of the new body don’t want the new music of 2050? What happens when someone sniffs new freedom from the restrictions of this new church?
One of the leaders of ECO is John Ortberg, a former Baptist minister from the Willow Creek church, now pastor in Menlo Park CA. [This demonstrates the dark side of liberalism: You allow everyone in and then they tell you that you aren’t pure enough for them.] Somehow many people are attracted to this kind of preaching: "The problem is not denominational ambiguity or ecclesiastical dividedness or even ineffectiveness. The problem is that people are going to hell.... Our problem is hell; our job is to put hell out of business.”
Few speak of the deeper problem at the core of the churches: It is found in this statement of what ECO is about: Presbyterians they say, affirm “education and the life of the mind.” Even John Calvin didn’t see the seed of destruction in valuing education. First, someone will notice that the gospel of John is not like the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which have similarities. From there, Biblical studies are deconstruction incarnate. I am now reading 381 A.D. by Charles Freeman. How can we continue to do theology in the old ways when we know the political machinations behind the Nicene Creed?
Of course the new church folks are not institutional or theological in the old ways. They are “missional,” which means that the church will serve others and not itself. To complete the quote from Ortberg: “I have zero desire to be part of a church that is OK with doing OK while hell is winning.” The image of hell aside, I can applaud those who want to be part of a church that is about more than being OK.
I came into the church as an idealistic young man for whom the teachings of Jesus were all important and pretty much all consuming. My question was “How do I live in the world as a witness to Jesus and the peace and justice he stood for?” That question never was answered because I became an official church leader (!) Now things have moved so far that I have adopted the question Bob Funk asked me: “What happens if people stop being interested in Jesus?”
The PCUSA will have a better chance at the future without those who want to leave. Good-bye. Then the PCUSA needs to hire someone like Bain Capital to come in and write down all the crap that keeps the church in the 17th century (even in the 20th!). There are plenty of would-be church consultants, but I know of none who are honest enough to be up to the task: We need to build a church for a world where science is the predominant myth, where mystery and wonder can still be found in life itself, and people still need to belong to communities of caring. The question is always about which symbols and which traditions to keep, and how.