We Don’t Want to Talk About It!
I posted John Shelby Spong’s “Manifesto! The Time Has Come!” the other day (http://wp.me/p1aZj-36). My friend Will McGarvey commented on that post, wondering “if enough of us ministers would go public – not just on our blogs, or congregations, but on the floor of presbytery – if we could change the conversation. Perhaps we are too silent in the fact that we won’t participate in the spiritual abuse of the ongoing conversations in their current form.”
BTW, I served for some time on the board of a now-defunct inclusive church organization, the Lazarus Project, that had made the same prophetic we-won’t-debate-because-it-gives-legitimacy-to-their-arguments decision twenty-some years ago…
But Will’s comment triggered a connection in my brain about Spong’s thinking and the counterpoint of an overture that is being proposed by a church in my presbytery. Here is the text of that overture:
Presbytery of San Gabriel
630 N. Dalton Ave.
Azusa, CA 91702
Dear Mr. Wendel,
Re: Overture to the Presbytery of San Gabriel
The Session of Glenkirk respectfully overtures the Presbytery of San Gabriel to overture the General Assembly to charge the Moderator of the General Assembly to appoint a Task Force to evaluate the correlation between the debates over G-6.0106b and the accelerating decline of membership and congregations in the PC(USA) over the past 43 years and to estimate the number of congregations that are likely to leave the PC(USA) in the event that G-6.0106b is eliminated or significantly revised; also that the General Assembly declare a moratorium over debate of G-6.0106b until reasons for decline are identified and a strategic plan is developed to stop the decline of the PC(USA).
According to the denomination’s reporting (pcusa.org), the denomination has lost 399,645 members since 1997. The same source states that the PC(USA) has lost 475 congregations since 1997. At the end of 2008 there were 10,751 congregations and 2,140,165 members in PC(USA), a net loss of 69,381 members from 2007 and a loss of 69 congregations during that period.
In a 2006 research paper entitled Recent Changes in Membership and Attendance in Mainline Protestant Denominations by Perry Chang of Ministry Services of the General Assembly Council, Chang states that the decline of nearly 200,000 members between 1999 and 2004 in the PC(USA)’s membership is noteworthy since this was the steepest decline of members of any mainline Protestant denomination during that period. Chang points out that one of the causes for decline may be debates over social issues, and he urges that the decline merits further research and discussion and that such discussion may in turn slow the continued decline of the denomination.
The movement of the PC(USA) from a straightforward interpretation of the Scriptures to a “progressive” one which accepts ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals has created publicity for the denomination which is potentially a deterrent to growth. It may likewise have a significant impact on the financial strength of the denomination. Because of the defeat of the movement to revise G-6.0106b by the denomination’s Presbyteries in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2009, and because of the accelerating decline of the denomination, a moratorium on further debate is appropriate until an assessment of the correlation between this long standing debate and church decline can be made.
As we watch the debate within and the decline of the Episcopal Church in the United States linked to the same issues with which the PC(USA) has struggled for so many years, it is incumbent upon our leaders to evaluate the role this issue has had on the continuing decline of the denomination and to develop strategies to stop the flow of members and congregations in order to ensure the stability of the PC(USA) and its missions.
Very truly yours,
Clerk of Session
[This overture comes from a large, rich church that refuses to pay their per capita assessment (“dues”) to the PC(USA) because they disagree with actions that have been taken by the denomination, despite the fact that the conversation has been going on for over thirty years and they have prevailed at each step along the way. Ironically, funds for their proposed study would be taken out of per capita paid by other faithful Presbyterian congregations–but not by them. A further irony is that their pastor’s sermon yesterday was entitled “Why Are Christians So Legalistic?”]
The PC(USA)’s Book of Order (constitution) on ordination standards reads (in part):
“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledge practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” (G-6.0106b, The Book of Order)
This overture to the presbytery that would be sent on to the denomination’s General Assembly next summer is a very unhealthy attempt to squelch debate, particularly on the ordination of openly same gender-loving people in the church. The Presbyterian Church has a history of conversation–indeed, it is considered to be part of our “call” as Christians to try to work things out.
I am reminded of a scripture passage from Matthew 5:
“If you bring your gift to the table and there remember that your sister or brother has a grudge against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go to be reconciled to them, and then come and offer your gift. Lose no time in settling with your opponents—do so while still on the way to the courthouse with them. Otherwise your opponents may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the bailiff, who will throw you into prison. I warn you, you won’t get out until you have paid the last penny.”
How is it that I can justify Spong’s call to squelch debate while rejecting Glenkirk’s call to do the same thing?I will list only three most basic ones here, but there are more:
- First of all, Spong has been involved in conversation and debate on this topic for many years. His decision is one to discontinue further debate. Glenkirk (and many others who have adamantly supported keeping LGBT people from full participation in the church) has always done what they could to keep the conversation one-sided, systematically excluding the voices of LGBT people.
- More importantly, Spong recognizes and honors the people who are impacted by the exclusionary policies and actions of church and society, while Glenkirk et. al. talk instead of the “homosexual issue” as if it weren’t something making a difference in the lives of real people, but instead mere theory.
- Bishop Spong is saying that HE, HIMSELF will no longer participate in such conversations; Glenkirk is saying that they want to mandate that all of us–THE WHOLE CHURCH–shut up while a study (which is impossible to successfully conduct) is done.
[The most current civil parallel is that of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue policy of the US military; thousands of people are serving and have served this country proudly and honorably, and when they are kicked out for being gay or lesbian, not only do they lose their current livelihood–they lose all accrued pension benefits and other post-service benefits that their straight counterparts receive after leaving the military. But many who want to retain DADT speak as if it were an issue in a vacuum.]
As always, let me know what you think…