Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flailing a Deceased Equine


A few added insights to the post below:

Before Sunday’s vote, church elder Eric Thomas heaped more direct criticism on PCUSA, accusing it of promoting “false teaching” and being “too often focused on social justice.”

"Social justice" is somewhat a euphemism for "concern for people who are NOK."  Evangelism, defined as a rigid emphasis on salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and one a narrow concern with salvation alone, is both a cultural standard of churches in the South, and convenient cover for not paying too much attention to people who are NOK.  The old phrase is "The preacher done stopped preaching and gone to meddlin'!"  It is never applied to questions of personal salvation.  It is always referring to questions of how we treat, and more importantly think about, others.

It is the latter that is the real flash point.

There is no on-line link, but the Pastor of FPC Houston was on the local NPR affiliate insisting the ordination of gays authorized by the PCUSA 3 years ago was not the driving force for this move.  It is hard not to hear that in the context of all the public officials in Arizona urging Jan Brewer to undo what some of them just did.  It could be the media is selecting quotes like this and making them seem more representative than they are:

 In particularly fiery testimony, one opposing member said she feared the switch would make her “a member of a congregation that distinguishes itself by its homophobia.”
And let's be honest, this is about bragging rights, and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) is headhunting:

 ECO, founded in 2012, is tiny by comparison, boasting just 112 member churches. But dozens of new congregations are in the process of joining the evangelical group, which has successfully recruited some of the largest and wealthiest Presbyterian churches in Texas to its ranks.

First Presbyterian of Houston was an obvious target for the fledgling denomination. The Houston church has roughly 3,100 members, owns property valued at more than $100 million and boasts an $18 million endowment. The church is 175 years old.
There is more going on here than purity of theology or polity.  "Evangelical" is also a cultural marker.  The great distinction in my childhood between Presbyterians and Southern Baptists was that the latter were far more "evangelical" than the former, but at the time the term referred more to worship style and evangelizing, not to political/social ideology.  On that subject there really wasn't much difference.  That, too, is what some refer to when they complain about emphasis on "social issues."

So some of this split in the church represents a replay of the division between generations I experienced 45 years ago:

 Those in favor of leaving PCUSA spoke of the national organization’s “theological drift” and called for a more “Christ-centered theology.” Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield led church staff in a unanimous call for the denominational switch. In a January meeting before the congregation, he expressed concerns about First Presbyterian’s ability to attract younger members, who he said would respond to the church’s focus on orthodoxy.

...

Opponents of the switch argued for theological diversity. PCUSA does not require churches to ordain openly gay pastors if they choose not to. They bemoaned what they saw as inevitable fallout from the decision, and said that appealing to stricter evangelist views would only further isolate young members from the church.
Which orthodoxy is the orthodoxy of the next generation?

Dig  a bit deeper, there were problems in FPC with PCUSA apart from the question of gays and lesbians.  One was a Presbyterian church in Austin accepting an admitted atheist into membership.   An odd bit of a one off, but an indicator that, once they started worrying, everything was on the table.  The broader question was the theological issue of salvation,  specifically the exclusionary doctrine of salvation which is going to promote more problems, not fewer, for Christianity in general going forward.  And the clearest indication that the times they are a changin' is the perception PCUSA was withdrawing from missionary work, here understood as taking the light of the gospel to the benighted peoples of the world (an extension of the soteriological question).  Which indicates both the age of the congregants concerned, and the fact that evangelism as a theological issue was behind some of the concerns of some of the congregation.

Interesting, too, that the Session of FPC insisted their concerns were with theology and especially Christology, and yet the "Statement of Faith" they produced in 2012 emphasizes the importance and inerrancy of Scripture.  The "liberal" UCC Statements of Faith of 1959 is extremely Christological, and none of the three make any no statement of faith on, or in, Scripture at all.  There is such a thing as idolatry of scripture.

On the other hand, the Session of FPC started questioning their relationship with PCUSA after the latter passed a resolution effectively allowing for the ordination of gays and lesbians.   The Rev. Birchfield may want to insist that three years later this was not a driving cause of the process, but it was clearly the producing, if not even the proximate, cause.  Again, I think of Arizona.

I think of Arizona because churches are creatures of their social location as much as any organization is, and even as FPC wants to reject the changing times and social mores, it is bound up in them and snubs them, or outright defies them, at its peril.  Perhaps from the comforting association of ECO the Rev. Birchfield would proclaim equal treatment of gays and lesbians a sin and a violation of the gospels; but now he wants to erase the issue altogether.  To do that, he needs to clean up his church's website.  Their "Report from the Session's Task Force on Denominational Issues:  Examining Changes in PCUSA Governance and Related Matters" is dominated by, and makes the catalyst of the concerns of FPC, the decision to allow ordination of gays and lesbians in the PCUSA.

Interestingly, the Rev. Birchfield signed a letter that put the question of who can be ordained in the PCUSA at the center of the reasons why PCUSA was going astray.  In the first paragraph of that letter to address this issue, there is this sentiment:  "There is no longer a common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.” "  To which I would answer:  this is what it means to be "Reformed":

Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.
I realize I'm coming down hard on something that is a non-story outside the confines of the Presbyterian church in Texas, or maybe just in Houston; but there's a national story here, too.  It's a cultural story, a story of how churches face pressures to conform with ideas that may well have lost their life, or have never had life.  One of the primary concerns of the pastor of FPC, from the letters he wrote to this church, was the declining membership of young people.  There are two universal solutions to that problem, and neither seems particularly effective:  be more traditional, or be wholly untraditional.  The church faced this problem 45 years ago, and it gave the same response then it gives now.  Funny thing, "traditional" still means "conform to the moral and social standards of the immediate community," and even in small town Texas in the '60's, that was a appropriate only for highly localized communities, communities defined by the church as much as by the community around those churches.

And in seeking a solution to that problem, the pastor of FPC lead his church to a precipice, but the church refused to go over it with him.  The question for him is:  whom does he pastor now, and how does he pastor them?  Because the real issues of pastoring involve pastoral care, and getting people to not only allow for our differences, but to think about those differences.  It is one thing to speak of groups in the abstract:  as gays or blacks or Hispanics.  It is another matter to think of them as human beings, rather than people we cannot allow to be fully among us.  How we treat others is not just a matter of thinking charitable thoughts, it is a matter of thinking of them as acceptable just as they are.  Turning the other cheek is a mental as well as a physical action.  Caring for the least among us is a spiritual, not just a charitable, act. Charity begins, not just at home, but in the heart.

It is not enough to just not mistreat people; you must treat them well.  It is not enough just to not think ill of people; you must think of them as well, as being as good as you.  And that, as I say, is the real flash point:  hospitality.

11 Comments:

Blogger rick allen said...

Seems to me that much of what is going on in mainline Protestantism isn't so much a new identification with evangelicalism as concern about the easy abandonment of confessional standards.

The issue of course is gay marriage. But, however much the concern with gay marriage is front and center, the handling of the issue by the denominational assemblies demonstrates what to some must be a distressing lack of committment to the source of the denomination's identity.

I know I'm being too general. To give two examples: The Book of Common Prayer contains the wedding service, plainly directed at the union of opposite sexes. The Westminster Confession plainly says that marriage is the union of a man and woman. Now I am aware that the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, at least here in the US, have rather deflated their authority. The Episcopalians put out alternative books, and have stuck the 39 Articles in the back of the Book of Common Prayer as a "historic document." The Presbyterians rather dethroned the Westminster Confession as far back as when I was a Presbyterian, putting it into a "Book of Confessions" (which nevertheless, when they mention marriage, refer to two sexes).

Historically it's arguable that Protestant churches have been defined by their confessions. If the confession can be ignored, and if sola scriptura is abandoned, what is the church then, but an organization whose faith is in the last majority of the last assembly or synod?

(I don't confine the problem to protestants. Part of the protestant critique of catholicism was the authority of the pope, his feared ability to simply decree the faith into becoming something it hadn't been before.)

So, yes, the main objection is to gay marriage. But behind that, I think (I'm admittedly an outsider here), is a great deal of anxiety about confessional identity, about the ease with which denominational authrrities can ignore the standards that define what it is that ordinary congregants thought they had assented to in joining the particular church. The fact that breakaway Episcopalians emphasize the Articles, and that breakaway Presbyterians emphasize the Confessions, tends to confirm for me this view of things.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And when the confessional identity excludes people because of who they are? Is that no source of anxiety? For anyone who matters?

I know it was not in the "confessions", but what of the church support for marriage being only between a man and a woman of the same race?

And I don't recall any confession in Presbyterianism about the inerrancy of scripture, or the heremeneutics that are, or are not, allowed. Yet the "Statement of Faith" of this Presbyterian church says as much, or more, about scripture than it does about each person of the Trinity. As a former Presbyterian I find that change bizarre and disturbing and not really in keeping with anything to do with Calvinism or Reformed traditions.

So the question is not really change, but who gets to make it. Change we like is fine; change we don't, is dangerous to the faith.

I think the problem extends well beyond the issue of gay marriage (and, to be accurate, the change was to the restriction of pastor's to chastity in marriage, or complete chastity if single. The PCUSA didn't recognize gay marriage in 2010. I'm not sure defining the appropriate sex life of the pastor was ever in any of the Confessions. And I find it a rather bizarre standard to write into church law; but that's another discussion.)

11:35 PM  
Blogger JCF said...

Historically it's arguable that Protestant churches have been defined by their confessions. If the confession can be ignored, and if sola scriptura is abandoned

Well obviously, I don't think this applies to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Episcopal Church, rick!

...but of course, I think TEC is part of "reformed and reforming" tradition as well. Some of the 39 Articles still fit this (worship being in the "language understood of the people" for example). As we're a still-reforming tradition, however, other of the Articles (see re "Black Rubric" on the sacrament of holy eucharist) have been reformed right outta there. "Historical Documents" is the perfect place in the BCP for the 39s.

Re this blog topic: when I was doing my research on the churches of Central Pennsylvania, I quickly learned of the "Bible Church" phenomenon: that almost every congregation calling itself a "Bible Church" was a breakaway from an existing congregation (often a Mainline congregation. The 1930-50s was the boomtime of such splits). Then as now, the older pre-existing congregation got to keep the historic property, and the "Bible Church" built a shiny new "modern" (!) edifice in the 'burbs or outskirts of town.

3:45 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"Well obviously, I don't think this applies to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Episcopal Church, rick!"

Hi, JCF. You most certainly are more familiar than I with the present self-conception of the Episcopal Church. But my impression, historically, is that the U.S. Church has, until the last decades, been, emphatically, as its formal name implies, the Protestant Episcopal Church (however much the Oxford Movement muddied the waters).

Still, I would say that, if a Protestant Church is defined by its confession, catholicism is constituted by recognition of tradition as normative.

8:24 AM  
Blogger rick allen said...

" I don't recall any confession in Presbyterianism about the inerrancy of scripture."

In a way I agree and in a way I disagree. "Inerrancy" has come to mean, from American fundamentalism, a literal understanding of, primarily, the first chapters of Genesis, and a denial of the Darwinian account of the origin of living species.

But, as I read the first article of the Westminster Confession (which treats of holy scripture first, and in more detail than in the next article on God the Trinity), it seems to me to plainly assert the inerrancy of scripture, while at the same time acknowledging that the help of the Holy Spirit is necessary for the admitted difficulties of interpretation.

I recently purchased a copy of the second edition of Barth's Letter to the Romans, and though I doubt I'll get to in anytime soon, when I was looking at the preface I noted that he defended his not doing a historical-critical commentary on the basis that historical-critical work is always merely preparatory to actual exegesis. Barth is perhaps the best example of a Reformed theologian who, entirely apart from any fundamentalism, still sees scripture as fully authoritative.

10:56 AM  
Blogger alberich said...

One of the primary concerns of the pastor of FPC, from the letters he wrote to this church, was the declining membership of young people. There are two universal solutions to that problem, and neither seems particularly effective: be more traditional, or be wholly untraditional.

Like mainline Protestantism, my religious denomination also faces challenges of declining membership in religious institutions, and we have similar discussions (although somehow that we face the same challenges as mainline Protestantism, rather than our troubles being unique to our religion and denomination, is almost always ignored even though our denomination is historically self-consciously supposed to be the Jewish version of High Church Anglicanism*, so I am aware of these "solutions"

And, funny how the "solution" is always "we need to be more 'traditional'" or "we need to abandon tradition completely". The "solution" never seems to be "even if the niche filled by our movement is shrinking, it is still an important niche to fill -- so let's work on filling it the best we can fill it". Nor does the solution ever seem to involve identifying how/why "traditional" movements are growing and emulating those features of "traditional" religious movements that fit into our distinctive approach. Nope ... it's always, "let's be more stringent to compete with the fundamentalists" or "let's abandon tradition entirely". And it's funny how the whole conversation is held along lines of "competition" and effectively along lines of "market share" as if houses of worship were commercial entities ...

* although, in my experience, the vast majority of prayer groups in the growing "chavurah" (fellowship) movement use our movement's prayer books and follow our movement's opinions on Jewish law -- so we are at the same time the most "High Church" of movements as well as the most compatible with "Evangelical worship"

11:19 AM  
Blogger rustypickup said...

Your last paragraph brought to mind readings that I have found personally helpful over time. The first is a chapter from An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin, "Tolerance is not Enough". It goes directly to "It is not enough just to not think ill of people; you must think of them as well, as being as good as you.". His point is that tolerance is really just ignoring people. It is the absense of hate but it isn't really understanding or love. Tolerance can easily tip back to hate under the right circumstances. Something more meaningful and permanent requires more.

Along the same lines, the 10th step of the The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of AA has this interesting quote about real love: "Such a radical change in our outlook will take time, maybe a lot of time. Not many people can truthfully assert that they love everybody. Most of us admit that we have loved but a few; that we have been quite indifferent to the many as long as none of them gave us trouble; and as for the remainder- well, we have really disliked or hated them. Although these attitudes are common enough, we A.A.’s find we need something much better in order to keep our balance. We can’t stand it if we hate deeply. The idea that we can be possessively loving of a few, can ignore the many, and can continue to fear or hate anybody, has to be abandoned, if only a little at a time."

This is a path I struggle along to genuine hospitality.


2:53 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I recently purchased a copy of the second edition of Barth's Letter to the Romans, and though I doubt I'll get to in anytime soon, when I was looking at the preface I noted that he defended his not doing a historical-critical commentary on the basis that historical-critical work is always merely preparatory to actual exegesis. Barth is perhaps the best example of a Reformed theologian who, entirely apart from any fundamentalism, still sees scripture as fully authoritative.

Except the idea of "inerrancy of scriptures" is not to keep historical criticism apart from exegesis, but to keep it apart from any consideration of scripture whatsoever. I may accept the authority of scripture, but I don't use it as Luther did, to be a rabid anti-Semitic (one reason he loved the Gospel of John). I may accept the authority of scripture, but when it says Jesus fed 5000, I accept it as wild exaggeration, not inerrant accuracy (especially since my faith depends neither on the accuracy of that figure, nor the historicity of the conflicting nativity stories). Barth may distinguish his efforts from Bultmann's for confessional purposes; those who proclaim the scriptures "inerrant" consider Bultmann a dangerous heretic, if not worse, and would discard his work altogether.

Besides, if we cannot change the confessions: homoousias, or homoiousias?

Authority to adjust confessions is given to the General Assembly under the polity of the PCUSA (Not that they changed any confessions). Does the polity also say that if you don't like the outcome of a GA resolution on rules governing ministry you can take your ball and go home? Or write your own rules?

Isn't that a bit more like the SBC, only with written creeds and confessions? Which, worse, would make the PCUSA into the UCC!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And it's funny how the whole conversation is held along lines of "competition" and effectively along lines of "market share" as if houses of worship were commercial entities ...

Yes, isn't it? One of the many influences of secular culture I could do without, yet seldom is it criticized.....

2:57 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

rustypickup--thanks.

3:16 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"I may accept the authority of scripture, but when it says Jesus fed 5000, I accept it as wild exaggeration, not inerrant accuracy...."

It is a significant contrast, that between inerrancy and authority. Inerrancy calls for assent, authority for obedience, a costlier claim. It was that renewed call for obedience to the word of God that make Barth and Bonhoeffer, for me, the greatest Protestant theologicans of the last century.

7:48 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home