Monday, February 24, 2014

Taking the thumb off the scale

Where's all the bigots? 

This is not a story of national importance; or perhaps it is.  I knew First Presbyterian Church of Houston was holding a vote yesterday, after a lengthy "discernment process" required by PCUSA, to decide whether or not to stay in that denomination because it now recognized both same-sex marriages and ordination of gays and lesbians to the Presbyterian ministry.

I didn't, however, know this:

The leadership of First Presbyterian Church, which was established shortly after Houston's founding, had unanimously endorsed the move from Presbyterian Church USA to the breakaway denomination called ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The senior pastor, his staff, and the elected leaders from the congregation argued that PCUSA, the nation's largest Presbyterian body, had become too liberal and had drifted from the church's theological foundation.

Fortunately, this happened:

But the final count fell 36 votes short out of 1,681 ballots cast.

This kind of thing makes my statistical mind kick in, and wonder what the membership (eligible to vote) of the church is, and just how many cared enough to attend this meeting and vote today.  This article indicates the membership is around 3000; a turnout of just over half for a major vote is not surprising, and it's equally interesting the vote didn't carry.  (Local NPR this morning tells me the congregation claims 3100 members.  Either way, the vote total is a bare majority of the congregation.  Which tells me the rest don't care that much about gays or about which denomination their church belongs to.  Which is also interesting.)  That may be the part of this story that's of national interest.  Despite the united efforts of the congregational clerical staff, in a congregation that has every reason to be as conservative on social issues as any "evangelical" church, after a year of discussion this measure failed.  Perhaps Ted Cruz is on the wrong side of history, even in Texas, and the times they are a-changin'.

But what galls me is that the leadership of the church led this effort.

There was a UCC church in Texas, one of the largest (which, yes, ain't sayin' much in the scheme of things) that left the UCC back when I was in parish ministry (a decade ago, by now, in other words).  Led by their clergy as well, the church departed for the same reasons FPUC held a vote yesterday:  the UCC was "too liberal" and "had drifted from the church's theological foundation."  They left meaning to form a new denomination, and expecting many Texas UCC churches (which still aren't hotbeds of liberal, much less liberation, theology) to go with them.

No one did; in fact, the other UCC church in town thanked the departing congregation for making them the largest UCC church in town.  I expect the departing church  finally joined up with some other church denomination, or formed a new one with other, non-UCC churches.  I don't know and I don't care.  I'm not a "company man" when it comes to the denomination (I argue with it ceaselessly, and don't have much regard for my local Conference or Association), but I despise a pastor who leads that church out of its place.

When I joined the UCC before seminary, the congregation I joined was in the process of considering a merger with another congregation in another denomination.  The pastor of the church I joined knew this meant his work there was over, but he remained resolutely neutral on the idea of the merger, and supportive of the congregation as it struggled with the idea (it involved merging two disparate worship styles, among other things:  one that was essentially Lutheran with one that was essentially American Frontier Reformed).  When the merger went through, he left gracefully.  What he never did was tried to lead that church where it didn't want to go.

Let me make my thinking clear beyond just a personal anecdote.  A minister is ordained by a denomination, with rare exception.  The call to ministry is always recognized by a group, and especially when that group is larger than just the local church, the minister has a certain fealty to that larger group.  The polity of the Presbyterian church is quite clear:  the local church is not nearly as autonomous as a local church in the UCC.  Like the old German E&R church, which became part of the UCC in 1957, the Presbyterian church actually owns the church building and, in a sense, the pastor.  It is the PCUSA which can end a pastor's ordination, just as it can grant it in the first place.  But the PCUSA also owns the church building; you don't take that away from them because a majority of your congregation no longer likes what the denomination is saying and doing.  That's why the PCUSA has a complicated "discernment process," in part:  if you want to leave, they don't want a court fight over who gets the property.  Now that analysis seems to put a premium on the property, but when a group wants to leave the denomination, they want to take the property with them; so it isn't the denomination that starts this fight.

And when the denomination has given you a career, it's a bit churlish to bite the hand that has fed you for so long and to steal from them what has made it possible for you to have a career for so long.  Churlish, to say the least; it is rather like shooting your parents and then asking mercy of the court because you are now an orphan.  As I say, if you think you must leave the denomination, leave; but whether you are a pastor or a congregation, you strike out on your own.  Trying to leave by taking from the denomination what was never rightfully yours, is criminal, in the purest (if not most legal) sense of the word.

If I were pastoring a church that wanted to leave the denomination I was ordained into, even if I no longer agreed with that denomination, I would either remain neutral on the issue, or oppose it on the simple grounds you don't take your ball and go home when you don't like the way the game is going.  FPC Houston is over 160 years old.  It has weathered the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, and much more.  Now it flounders on the question of gays and lesbians in the pulpit or in the rite of marriage.  I can't see any difference between this world and the U.S. before Loving v. Virginia, or before the Civil Rights Act (although no law forced white churches to accept black members or black clergy).  We haven't moved much, in other words, from the churches Martin Luther King addressed.  50 years later we are fighting the same fight for the same reasons, and clergy ordained and representing the denomination, are leading churches to leave that denomination.

I consider that kind of leadership a sickening betrayal.  If you feel the denomination has left you, then leave it, and go your own way.  But don't try to take the cushy sinecure of a wealthy downtown Houston church with you.  That's not speaking truth to power; that's standing on the side of Pilate.  If you believe so strongly God is with you, then strike out into the wilderness and see if anyone follows.  That, or find a new denomination which will ordain you.  But don't claim your virtue makes you superior to the very body that authorized you to represent them in the pulpit; that betrayal undermines your very claim to ministry in the first place.

As for the vote:  it at least means gay marriage and recognition of gays and lesbians as full persons in the church and in society is not the hot-button issue it once was.  And for that I say:  Thanks be to God!


  1. I am always suspect of church membership numbers. Members that long ago moved, died or dropped out continue on the rolls to hide decline in the church. A better measure is either average Sunday attendance and/or giving units (which undercounts because it includes entire families). A quick search of the PCUSA website gives you a lot of information about each congregation. First Presbyterian of Houston lists 3,600 members, but their average attendance is less then 1,300. Given that, getting 1,600 to vote is quite good (particularly if it was a congregational meeting where attendance was required to vote). In other words, most of the active members voted. We attend an ELCA church in upstate NY. A few years ago we had a similar action a small number of churches in our local synod over the recognition of gays. Despite all the vocal agitation only a small number of congregations left (as our pastor said, they were looking for a reason to leave, they had been upset since the ordination of woment). One difference in the ELCA is that the congregation is the owner of the property. I agree, it is a form of betrayal to lead one's congregation to leave a denomination to which you have been called. I glad to see that the actual members of First Presbyterian gave voice to a different out come.

    On a final note, a couple of years ago we decided to "clean up" our membership rolls. It was upsetting to some to see our membership numbers shrink (even though it reflected reality). There was a silver lining, we took the opportunity to reach out to those who no longer attended. The mere act of inviting them back and letting them know we wanted them turned some back to active members. We sometimes miss what is right under our noses.

  2. Thanks for the research. I was too lazy to search the PCUSA website, in part because I know from experience those numbers are the least reliable; in part because, well, I was lazy.

    If 1300 is average attendance, that is probably an indication turnout was as high as possible. After nearly a year of having this pushed by the Session (as it was), I think the Session and the Pastor need to reconsider their "representative" positions in the Congregation.

    I'm happy for people to leave a denomination as individuals. But especially in a polity like the PCUSA, I resent it when they try to take the church building and the staff with them.