Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Sad, but true

It is possible, I think. Yes, the mainline Protestant churches that supported civil rights and opposed the war in Vietnam are mostly locked in a dreary decline as their congregations dwindle and their elders argue endlessly about gay clergy and same-sex unions. And the Catholic Church, for most of its American history a sturdy exponent of a "love your neighbor" theology, has been weakened, too, its hierarchy increasingly motivated by a single-issue focus on abortion. Plenty of vital congregations are doing great good works - they're the ones that have nurtured me - but they aren't where the challenge will arise; they've grown shy about talking about Jesus, more comfortable with the language of sociology and politics. More and more it's Bible-quoting Christians, like Wallis's Sojourners movement and that Baptist seminary graduate Bill Moyers, who are carrying the fight.

Bill McKibben

I have a friend from seminary who pastors a church which recently left its denomination after many years being a part of it. The congregation decided the denomination had left it, actually, and felt it was time to leave. I still receive her newsletter, and we remain friends, even as we go theologically in different directions and both, in our ways, leave the church that educated and ordained us. But it was the mission statement of the church, in its last newsletter, that struck me.

"Mission statements" are, as another pastor friend of mine pointed out, the detritus of management schools cast off by business that most Protestant churches pick up from the corporate ideas trash heap, and apply belatedly and pitifully to try to give our flagging enterprieses "purpose." They have long been abandoned by business, but churches continue to cycle through them, and they seem especially silly for congregations that are ove 100 years old. Still, everybody, sooner or later, has to have one, it seems.

This one struck me for the timeliness of its statements, statements made more in judgment than discernment, statements that reflect the pain of leaving the denomination, because so much of it defines the congregation in opposition to the larger church it left. But the one that really struck me, was the statement on "gay marriage."

It wasn't phrased that way; it was much more euphemistic. We have all learned euphemism in American culture, all become masters of the form. The euphemistic way around "gay marriage" in Protestant churches is to affirm that "marriage" means one man and one woman, and that chastity should be observed outside of marriage, monogamy within the marriage. It's not as blunt as "The first couple was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!," but the point is the same.

But still, I don't sit in judgment on this church and its decision on this issue: it's the issue that McKibben is getting at, and where I want to go, too. As a friend used to ask me: "Is this a hill you want to die on?" That's the question I hear McKibben asking. Is gay marriage (to pluck a divisive issue) the hill mainstream churches want to die on?

That this issue is intensely felt, and even being forced, on congregations, is clear from the "mission statement" of my friend's church. Gay marriage is a very narrow and very topical issue; it shouldn't be part of the definition of what a church is. There is no mention of homsexuality in the gospels, and only a few references to same-gender sex in Paul's letters (and most of those refer to the Greek practice of men using boys for sexual pleasure, what we sould today call "pederasty"). Why, then, does a Christian congregation feel the need to make that issue a part of the definition of who and what it is?

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