Friday, January 25, 2013

Holy, holy, holy....

This story is interesting to me in part because it represents in microcosm the enduring problem of change.  It seems First Presbyterian Church in Houston is considering leaving the denomination (PCUSA) in order to join with a denomination more to their liking.  That is, and should be, the decision of the congregation.  I don't want to comment on what they should, or shouldn't, do.  But they are quite clear about where they stand:

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.
 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.]
 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
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!


  1. Apparently not agreeing fundamentally with your denomination is very distracting to the congregation.

    It is? What happens when the congregation disagrees fundamentally with the denomination?

    Maybe it's a Jewish thing, but I've never been involved with a synagogue where the congregation agrees fundamentally with the denomination. It's especially fun in conservative/masorti congregations (e.g. the shul to which I currently belong) where many people stand (in terms of their beliefs and their acceptance or lack thereof of social and cultural changes) far to the right of our denomination even as their practice is far less stringent and orthodox than our denomination would consider normative.

  2. Apparently not agreeing fundamentally with your denomination is very distracting to the congregation.

    It is? What happens when the congregation disagrees fundamentally with the denomination?

    Maybe it's a Jewish thing, but I've never been involved with a synagogue where the congregation agrees fundamentally with the denomination. It's especially fun in conservative/masorti congregations (e.g. the shul to which I currently belong) where many people stand (in terms of their beliefs and their acceptance or lack thereof of social and cultural changes) far to the right of our denomination even as their practice is far less stringent and orthodox than our denomination would consider normative.

  3. Sherri12:13 PM

    In the words of the recently deceased Earl Weaver, it's what you learn after you know it all that counts.

  4. Alberich--

    It must be a peculiarly Protestant thing, because the stereotype is that the Franciscans can't stand the Jesuits, and yet.... (and that may be historically true but today not so much, I simply don't know).

    I think Protestants like to insist on doctrinal purity and that sews the seeds of division, so that you end up with Evangelical Lutherans and MO Synod Lutherans who literally teach Rome=Whore of Babylon and won't talk to anybody, and then WI Synod Lutherans who think even MO Synod Lutherans are reprobate heretics.

    And so on and so on. It has something, IOW, to do with identity. Maybe even with identity politics. I mean, there's gotta be some reason America has never tolerated more than two political parties (the rare third party appearing and vanishing almost immediately).

    In other news: what Sherri said.

  5. I know a quaker meeting that has had pending the matter of installing a sink someone donated to it... oh, it must going on three decades, because two members of the meeting resented someone being so presumptuous of buying a sink without consulting the meeting FIRST. I believe all three of the original characters in the standoff have been dead for years.

    I wish my mother's congregation had been able to buy the church in our town after the "bishop"(entirely anti-pastoral) decided to consolidate the parish with two others and put the church on the other side of a small mountain. Only when it's the Catholic church the congregation has no say at all.

  6. Your Quaker story is a perfect microcosm of culture and how it persists through the ages.....

  7. Though most of us are born and raised in our religious beliefs, there does typically come a time when we embrace and commit to them. For that reason resistance to religious change is almost axiomatic. At their core these are not casual opinions, but, almost by definition, those beliefs held most deeply.

    That ordinary religious “inertia” will often extend far beyond the core, and not just among “conservatives.” A year or so ago the Catholic Church made some marginal changes to the English translation of the Roman missal, and you have thought from the outcry that saying “consubstantial” instead of “one in Being” would cause the sky to fall.

    It was Newman who most adequately set out, in the Catholic context, the difference between a “development” of doctrine and a corruption, a way of seeing how a change coming from reflection, expansion, a deepening of understanding, could be both a change and a re-affirmation of the unchanging deposit of faith—the Tradition—whose continuing confession and proclamation constitutes the teaching of the Church. Whether that model of change can have any bearing outside of Catholicism, I don’t know. For many (including many Catholics), Catholic dogma concerning the contested issues of the day—the sacrament of marriage, the virtue of chastity, the value of pre-natal life—make the Church little more than a bastion of reaction and bigotry. Newman’s conception of development is not “evolution” or “progress”—it can’t and won’t go so far as to directly negate and deny what was once affirmed. And it is that kind of absolute change that is most dividing the churches.

    So for that reason I can certainly be sympathetic with those conservative Protestants who are urged to “get with the program” when they aren’t entirely persuaded that the program can be squared with important convictions of Christian morality, especially when those convictions are widely equated with racism, intolerance, arrogance and hypocrisy. Like the question of whether the Civil War was “about slavery” or “about States’ rights,” the question about whether this is “about sexuality” or “about biblical authority” is a false question—it’s about both, and obviously one has much to do with the other.

  8. Rick--

    I agree with you, to some extent. But I keep in mind Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which was aimed at churches which, while they may not have wanted to keep "segregation then, segregation now, segregation forever," they certainly wanted to keep it for at least the time being. A stance that is wholly indefensible just 40 years later.

    So the question is always about both, but the question is also about "what is Biblical authority, and who gets to decide?" After all, I don't know of any Protestant denomination that denounces cheeseburgers; but they sure do like Leviticus when it comes to homosexual relationships.

  9. I think this whole question of religion change is worth thinking about a lot more. Obviously if one's idea of religion excludes the divine, and sees it as some sort of unfolding of human thought, it necessarily changes and develops. On the other hand, if religion is in fact based on divine revelation, there has to be some sort of explanation better than "I think this is better."

    The cheeseburger question is a trivial one. The books of Acts contains an account in which Peter is commanded directly to eat what is forbidden; the command of Leviticus is set aside by divine revelation. Obviously not all of Leviticus is affected (such as that Levitical command to love one's neighbor as oneself).

    So there is of course new revelation as a source of change. (A simple explanation of why the Mormons believe so differently; they have a third testatment). And there is interpretation, which raises the issues of who and how.

    No time to go much further, but there are serious questions that, I think, get ignored in the sound and fury of contending over particular proposition.

  10. Rick--

    I'm not sure the cheeseburger example is all that trivial, unless you think that vision was meant to be both literal and limited to the one issue of food. But that issue was representative of the historical split between Peter and Paul, as to whether Gentiles should be welcomed into the church (it wasn't quite "Christian" then), especially unless they became Jews. The whole issue of circumcision ultimately was involved in that vision, too, but it's no longer even a talking point among Xians.

    So it isn't that we have to keep kosher to be Xian, it's the question of what do we have to do? Peter wanted to keep it holier (clean v. unclean) and so keep it to Jews. Paul went quite the other way; but how far do we go with Paul? Can women let their hair down? Must they cover their heads in worship? (I've been to a Roman service where that last was the norm. Is it still to be required? Or is that a trivial question? It wasn't to that congregation....)

    The question of the revelation is equally profound: was that only the one known to the 1st century, or is the revelation itself ongoing? Certainly the very church structures we now find traditional look nothing like the churches Paul established. Are we wrong not to do just as Paul did? Why, or why not? Nor is our theology that of the 1st century, or even the 4th century, or even the 14th century. Was Aristotle's interpretation based on Plato wrong, but Aquinas' based on Aristotle, right? Both and a little of neither?

    These are sharp and keen questions, and while it may seem trivial to me that my last congregation split over choosing new carpet for the sanctuary, it wasn't trivial at the time, for the people involved.

    Besides, is the revelation of the fundamentalist, or the pentecostal, or even the Lutheran, false because it isn't true to the tradition that preceded it? Where do we draw these lines, and how?

    I'm not trying to argue with you, by the way, but to discuss these issues seriously. They are complex, and I don't mean to simplify them by stating an opposing point. I mean, rather, to draw out the complexity so we can learn something in the dialogue.