Name of the mainline game is “local option”

rainbow altarIn 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?

saint john the divine 20021214(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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Steve

    How far does a church body go before they are no longer part of the Christian Church? I find it interesting that the EC-USA had to table a resolution affirming the historic teaching of Jesus is the only way of salvation. Does the EC-USA have more in common with the Unitarian Universalist Church than the historic Christian church?

  • C. Wingate

    Unfortunately, the problem with all this is that old bugaboo: understanding the denomination.

    The Presbyterian hierarchy system looks superficially like the Episcopal Church hierarchy, but in fact they function quite differently. The higher levels of the Presbyterian system do not have the kind of control over the lower that ECUSA general convention and dioceses have over the dioceses and parishes. It is very likely that the presbyteries (the first level above congregations in PCUSA) will revolt and undo the General Assembly’s decisions; it has happened before in PCUSA on similar issues.

    A lot of the pain seen in the last few days of the EUCSA general convention arises from the difficulty of undoing anything in the Episcopal Church. While the two denominations are wrestling with the same issues, the political dynamics are quite different.

  • tmatt


    You are right about the issues of the episcopate, Communion with a large C, etc.

    But the presbyteries do control PROPERTY and the whole structure controls PENSIONS (now that the exit window is closed after the merger).

    So, again, the issue will be whether conservative congregations can exit with their buildings and clergy will be punished at the level of finances. Right?

  • Stephen A.

    Frankly, to address Steve’s question, I suspect many see themselves as more UU than “TEC”. As for the PCUSA, this argument about gay ministers has been going on for decades (like Terry said, since the 80s) and I’m not surprised that it finally passed, since it’s been brought up in a dozen annual meetings.

    I was fascinated to read the “other gods at is altars” comment from Terry. Reading the story he wrote back in 1993, I have to comment that poor old Ra doesn’t get much press these days, so GOOD FOR HIM whenever he can get a mention in a Christian liturgy! ;-)

    More seriously, these are good questions for reporters, and they go back to the point raised a few dozen posts ago: Can anyone simply self-define whether they are Christians (or other faith) or are there objective standards reporters can, and must, assess? I believe the latter, and I think we have to question both the TEC and PCUSA seriously on this point, given the clear shifts in doctrine and polity over the years.

    Some bloggers have raised the issue of money – that the TEC is quite wealthy, making a break a difficult pill to swallow for the rest of the world (though many seem ready to jump from the money train at this point.) I suspect that the immediate change that may occur with the “Network” Diocese’ (plural) is donations to the TEC main office could dry up. Same with the cash-starved PCUSA. (I wonder why they ARE cash-starved? Hmmm.)

    Property will be an issue during an outright break-up of the PCUSA, but as a reporter, I’d first monitor the collection plate “take” closely for immediate fall-out in these two denoms, especially from conservative congregations in the southern US.

  • Andrew

    I think you are wrong about the control of pensions but I am pretty sure the existence of the Presbyterian Pension Plan makes it difficult on many Presbyterian Pastors to acknowledge the divide in the church. But the property question makes leaving the denomination impossible without a larger defection (not that I think such a defection is the answer… yet). As a Presbyterian pastor, I am at a loss. Your article from the 90s that you linked about syncretism is saddeningly also under the roof of my denomination. I just find it jarring because it is not so in my local church. We seem to be fighting different fights making the commonality of the crosses above our steeples either ironic or more diverse in interpretation than I can grasp. My heart is heavy within me.

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  • Tony D.

    “Seminaries with covens?” Are you serious? Can you give an example of a mainline Protestant or RC seminary that sanctions an active coven?

  • Chip Frontz

    C. Wingate: I don’t think the presbyteries have any say over this, because this involves the interpretation of a rule, not the change of a rule itself. The law is still on the books, but it is up to the individual presbytery how to interpret it. Still with me?

    Maybe someone who is actually a Presbyterian can answer: Is there any chance that a majority of the Presbyteries can override this decision? The fact that this option hasn’t been mentioned in the press is suggesting to me that they can’t.

  • Corban

    Rowan Williams would never have said ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ in that context. Gledhill meant to say ‘disestablishment’, almost the direct opposite. (She was trying to insert the allegedly longest word in English.)

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