The Session’s position on the theological changes within the PC USA has not changed in over 25 years of ongoing discussion, debate and distraction.What interests me is the problem of change, and resistance to it. For example, the pastor, the Rev. Jim Birchfield, insisted to KUHF that the primary issue in the congregation's concerns is not homosexuality or even same-sex marriage:
"No, at this point it's really not about gay marriage. It's really more about the fundamental differences in how we interpret scripture and how we view the nature and work of Christ."
The amendment of ordination standards comes after 35 years of debate and strife and permits individual churches and presbyteries to decide what ordination standards they will apply to ordaining pastors and church officers. As a result of the adoption of this amendment, some churches and presbyteries have chosen to allow the ordination of open and practicing homosexuals. In addition, many churches have reacted by leaving the denomination.To be fair to the Rev. Birchfield, the "talking points" generated from several church meetings doesn't get so specific about what issues are dividing the congregation from the denomination. The four areas of concern are identified as: "Theological Drift; Mission Drift; Denominational Decline; Ongoing Distraction." The first is
The Session of FPC has taken a firm and consistent stand on the issue of same sex ordination many times throughout its history.
We see these decisions [to ordain gays and lesbians and extend coverage of healthcare to same-sex domestic partners of PCUSA employees] as a departure from the historic, orthodox Christian understanding of how Scripture defines biblical morality. We recognize our own fallen nature. We are deeply aware of our continual need for repentance and for pursuing a radical conformity to the life of Jesus Christ. Our hope for conformity to Christ rests not in our acts, but solely in the gracious mercy of God. We also understand that it is an unloving act to condone actions which Scripture calls sin.
The fact that Amendment 10-A, permitting gay ordination, finally passed is by no means the end of the controversy within the denomination. [This sentence introduces a new discussion in the document, about PCUSA recognizing same sex marriages at some point in the future.]
defined as "A Theological Drift Away From the Confessions and Essential Tenets of the Reformed Tradition (Presbyterianism)," which is a matter that is always in the eye of the beholder. "Mission Drift" has to do with the decline in baptisms in the church, and the general decline in churches in the denomination since 1965. This is not a problem peculiar to either the PCUSA or to churches in America in general. This leads to the problem of "Denominational decline," and finally to the "distraction", which I quoted in full above. Apparently not agreeing fundamentally with your denomination is very distracting to the congregation.
And I know it is. This is not a unique problem of a conservative church in a declining congregation. I have a close friend who pastors a church which voted, many years ago, to leave the UCC (my denomination). These things happen. It's a fundamental of Protestantism. The church I last pastored suffered a split decades before I got there, over the issue of whether or not to spend the money to re-carpet the church sanctuary. Many members left and started their own church down the street (a church which has since lost all connection to those original members, at least from appearances; it's now a wholly Spanish-speaking church, which is in keeping with the neighborhood, anyway).*
No, what strikes me here is the reluctance of the pastor to name the concerns of the congregation, either on the radio or in the very vague talking points that he produced for the congregation. The only subject of concern in the "Report from the Session’s Task Force on Denominational Issues – Examining Changes in PCUSA Governance and Related Matters" is the ordination of gays and lesbians, and the prospect of the PCUSA sanctioning same-sex marriages. That will probably be the catalyst of many a lively discussion among the congregation members, but it's interesting that the love that once dared not speak its name is already becoming the hate (or disgust, or rejection, if you prefer a milder term) that dare not speak its name.
And so do the times change. I grew up hearing the word "nigger" used simply as a descriptive by elderly people, even as my parents refused to use it themselves and made clear I shouldn't use it. Now I even type it on this blog with trepidation. But is racism dead therefore? Hardly. This congregation is struggling with social change once again (one wonders how they felt about miscegenation, something only ended in law in 1967. The term itself has practically vanished from usage in a very brief time, and our first black President actually had a white mother, yet almost no one considers that an unholy marriage. Almost, I'm sure....). But they struggle with change even as they accept the change itself, and the inevitability of change. After all, to openly declare same-sex marriage a sin and something that will invite the wrath of God, is to ally oneself with extremists. First Presbyterian Church is undoubtedly very conservative (I would disagree with them on practically every theological issue, and align myself with the very claims of the PCUSA they find most troubling), but it isn't extreme; or doesn't want to think it is.
They want to think they are reasonable people holding to the historical witness. But that very witness is subject to review and reconsideration by the very principles of the Reformed movement they now want to preserve in amber. What's interesting to me is not that they want to preserve it (everyone does, in some measure or another, and I still believe one of the great challenges of the teachings of Christ is that everything you know is wrong. Now trust in God....), but that they cannot do it in full defiance of the culture around them. They may resent the intrusion of that culture into their church structure, but they also would resent they idea that they are extremists rejecting that culture wholesale.
*I'm not sure it actually hasn't become Korean. I really should check (living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods can be SUCH a chore!