In the end, it was the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that made the biggest news on the front lines of the liturgical culture wars this week. However, it should be noted that the most important action taken by the oldline Presbyterians was to adopt precisely the option that the Episcopalians have been using for quite some time now.
The name of the game is “local option,” meaning that officials in blue pews get to read the Bible (and the denomination’s own teachings) in a way that allows them to move foward on issues such as the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians and the creation — semi-officially, of course — of church rites to celebrate same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, people in red pews get to keep believing what they have believed for centuries and, of course, they get to keep sending in their pledge dollars to support national agencies that act as if basic points of doctrine and moral theology are moot, even if they remain on the books.
This is called compromise. The problem is that there are true believers — on the left and the right — who keep acting as if they believe they are actually right and that there is such a thing as truth and that it should be defended. It’s the people in the middle who keep asking: What is truth? It’s the people in the middle who want to wrap their seminaries and pension funds in a protective layer of doctrinal fog. And that’s the story that is hardest to write, because it is impossible to say that one side lost and the other side won.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been poised to make this leap for 30 years, while watching the people in its pews age and its statistics slide as traditional believers drift away to other churches. Here is how religion-beat veteran David Anderson summed up the story for Religion News Service:
The nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, in a seismic shift on the role of gays and lesbians in the church, voted on Tuesday (June 20) to allow local and regional bodies to ordain gays to the church’s ministries.
After nearly three hours of debate, delegates voted 298 to 221 to approve a complex proposal that allows local congregations and regional bodies known as presbyteries to bypass the church’s current ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. Current rules from 1996 that require “fidelity in marriage … and chastity in singleness” will remain on the books, but local bodies can now allow exceptions to those standards if they wish.
The question now is: What happens next?
Once local option is in place, any attempt to overthrow it is viewed by the establishment as an intolerant attempt to create schism. This is precisely the stage of the game facing traditional Anglicans who remain in what has now formally been named The Episcopal Church, as opposed to the old name, which was the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. What does this name change mean? Is this the formation of a new, multinational church that will sooner or later stand opposite the Anglican Communion? That’s a good question.
But I digress. Back to the mainline Presbyterians, a shrinking flock already rocked by $9.15 million in budget cuts at the home office in Louisville. As Richard Ostling wrote in the main Associated Press story, the move to “local option” on hot issues is a bold and even courageous move, if one is a progressive who depends on offerings from conservative pews.
Consider the dice rolled.
The Presbyterian establishment, including all seminary presidents and many officials, promoted the local autonomy plan, which was devised by a special task force. The idea is to grant modest change to liberals but mollify conservatives by keeping the sexual law on the books.
It’s not clear whether that will work.
“We have been painfully aware that in some ways our greatest challenge was not preparing for this assembly but preparing for what happens after this assembly,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at denominational headquarters, told delegates after the votes.
So what are the key issues affected by “local option”? Issues linked to homosexuality get all the headlines, of course. But there are other sexual issues that are — behind the scenes — just as controversial. What about the status of premarital sex? How about adultery? Why are conservatives so slow to talk about divorce and the Bible?
I’ve been covering this story since the early 1980s and, long ago, I came up with three basic questions that I always ask when covering battles in oldline pews. Some of you will say that these questions are rooted in my own bias and beliefs. I can honestly say that I can justify them as a journalist because they are the questions that, for me, have always led to the most revealing questions, the most interesting quotes. Here they are.
(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real — even if mysterious — event in real time? Did it really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way? Thus, it was highly symbolic that the Episcopalians tabled a resolution declaring the church’s “unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved” and acknowledging “the solemn responsibility placed upon us to share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). …”
(3) Is sex outside of the sacrament of marriage a sin? The question is a matter of moral theology, not national policy. The controversial word is sin.
Want to find out who is a true liberal and who is a waffling conservative? Who is a person who worships the institutional church and its pension fund? Want to see the full scope of “local option”? Ask those three questions. I have asked those questions in press conferences and seen bishops simply refuse to answer.
OK, here’s a bonus question: Should the (insert name of mainline Protestant flock here) ban the worship, by name, of other gods at its altars? That’s a hot one, especially at seminaries with covens.
“I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.”
Well, that depends on the zip code. “Local option” is a powerful thing.
P.S. If you want a gigantic collection of links to MSM reports on the events of the past week, click here and head over to the Christianity Today weblog.
If you want to see veteran London Times correspondent Ruth Gledhill look ahead, attempting to read the mind of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, then click here. Here’s a sample of what she hopes he is thinking:
As a Welshman who by instinct supports a degree of antidisestablishmentarianism, I would privately welcome the opportunity to dismantle the old system of fixed parochial, diocesan and provincial boundaries and set about doing so. I would do this while ensuring that my office remained the “focus for unity” for the worldwide Church, thus making me a kind of Anglican Pope. Without any real power. Which I don’t want anyway, so that’s all right.
I would contemplate once more some of the liberal principles I had when first I took office. I would find some way of reassuring the liberals who have deserted me as I strive for truth and unity that I may still hold those views, albeit privately. I would tell them that in a deconstructed globalised Church, parishes and dioceses would be at liberty to seek episcopal and primatial oversight from almost whomever they wished. There would be room for Episcopalians and Anglicans, and everyone could focus then on promoting the message of Christ. Or Christa.