The Tie That Binds
Not long ago, I had a lifetime member of my church ask that he and his family be removed from the church's membership rolls. He told me that he no longer felt that he could remain a member of The Presbyterian Church (USA) because he felt the denomination had moved too far away from what he believed to be true Christian doctrine and praxis. Interestingly, he said that he didn't want his request to jeopardize his relationship with the church that he had called home for his entire life. Essentially, he told me, he desired to withdraw from the denomination as an act of conscience, but wanted to continue journeying with us in our particular aspect of the Body of Christ---as long as we would have him, he added. I assured him that we wanted him to continue journeying with us as he felt led. I also expressed my admiration for his desire to act with integrity while making what must have been a very difficult decision. I was inspired by his act of conscience, I told him---an act that did not result in his severing his relationship with the congregation he loved so dearly. Instead of leaving, he was able to find a way to stay in community while expressing his beliefs. We agreed to keep checking in with one another, and to continue our conversations.
Toward the end of our exchange he told me of a time in the late sixties when he was serving as an elder in the church. He said that he lived next door to a fellow elder and they would share a ride to the Session (church governing body) meetings each month. At that time the (Northern) Presbyterian Church was embroiled in a variety of controversies, and both he and his neighbor often found themselves on opposite sides of these issues. Sometimes the disagreements would be sharp, and the debate would be intense. "After the meetings," he told me, "my neighbor and I would get back in the car and drive home together." He paused. "People would always ask us how we were able to do that." He indicated that it had never occurred to him to act any differently. The man was his friend, his neighbor, a fellow elder and a brother in Christ. It was natural for him to want to stay in community with him, despite their disagreements.
Recently, my church received a letter from an organization called the Presbyterian Lay Committee. The letter essentially urged churches to stop giving money to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and to redirect their giving to a legal fund that the Lay Committee has established. This fund has been set up so that individual congregations within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who want to leave the denomination can have the money to sue their governing bodies to do so. The Lay Committee has asserted that the PC (USA) has gone to great lengths to set up legal funds to sue churches, and their fund is just an act of self-defense.
The fact of the matter is, there is no great, secret conspiracy on the part of the General Assembly to tort congregations out of their property or church buildings. Far too many folks have painted such a dark and brooding picture of the General Assembly of the PC (USA) that you would think they were referring to the Imperial Army from Star Wars. On the other hand, it would also be easy for many of us to paint the leaders of the Lay Committee as a group of right-wing extremists, who, if they don't get their way, are bent on the destruction of the Church rather than its preservation---an "if-I-can't-have-her-no-one-can-have-her" kind of thing.
I love the image painted by my former(?) parishoner. At the end of the day, we are all neighbors. At the end of the day, we need to be able to ride home together and talk about what tomorrow brings. At the end of the day, we need to be able to join together in ministry and mission and realize that disagreements between reasonable people---brothers and sisters in Christ---don't have to end in separation. We might fight like cats and dogs during the meeting, but when the votes are cast we move on, and then get busy demonstrating the kingdom of God together because that is what we are called to do and to be. We don't take our toys and leave. We don't keep lobbing verbal hand grenades at one another. We don't demonize those who disagree with us just because they disagree with us. We show the world that we are Christians by our love, and not by our locked and loaded legal funds.
So many people are talking and thinking about the shape and form of the "Emerging" Church---the Church of the 21st-century. Not all of the assessments of the Emerging Church have been good ones. There are plenty of folks within the Existing Church, who have drawn lines in the sand, and who have taken up a "scorched earth" mentality when it comes to change within the Body of Christ. There have even been moments of intense disagreement among those who have been part of the Emergent Church "conversation." Sometimes disagreements can be painful and difficult, but we can't be afraid of them and we can't get mad and leave in a huff when they happen. There will always be anxious people in the Church, who will go around trying to find other anxious people so they can be anxious together. If we are going to move forward and find a Way together, we need to move beyond anxiety and into something more productive.
In my opinion, the shape and form of the Emerging Church needs to look a lot like that carpool I referred to earlier. Despite the differences we may have with one another from time to time, we are riding together and headed in the same direction. We may not always agree with what radio station to listen to, or which road to take to get there, but we need to get used to the idea that we are in the same car and our destination is Home---the kingdom of God.
In a few short weeks, the Central Florida Presbytery will be voting on several constitutional amendments that the General Assembly of the PC (USA) has placed before the presbyteries of our denomination. Some of these amendments address perceived and real inconsistencies as well as divisive issues within our denominational ordination standards. Others address alternative translations and interpretations of our historic confessions. Some are just as simple as replacing the word "sympathy" with "compassion" in our constitutional description of what it means to be a deacon. There are church leaders in my presbytery who are even now preparing for a fight over some of these matters. Letters have been sent out to their church members, detailing all of the reasons why they should be anxious. Countless conversations and meetings are taking place where some of these same leaders will utter the word, "separation," within the context of possible solutions to ease their anxiety. Some may even leave the denomination altogether and go their separate ways.
Interestingly, not much has been said about the four ecumenical statements from the General Assembly of the PC (USA) that are also part of this important vote. First, there is a "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism" with the Roman Catholic Church---a huge step forward in the ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Reformed Church. Second, there is an ecumenical statement between the PC (USA) and the Episcopal Church that moves both bodies even closer together---hopefully toward a day when the reconciliation of our churches will include the full interchangeability of ministers. There are also two other detailed ecumenical statements that move toward deepening the covenant relationships between the PC (USA), and both the Korean Presbyterian Church and the Moravian Church.
One of the quotes that occurs in the constitutional language within these statements is a hope that these steps will help us all move "toward the full, visible unity of the Church."
That's just a much cooler way of saying that we are all in the same car, and we are heading for Home. Sometimes the signs of the way the Emerging Church will be shaped seem so close that we can almost touch it.