We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rethinking the Midterm Grade

In an editorial entitled, "Midterm exams," Presbyterian Outlook editor Jack Haberer grades the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s progress nationally between the 2012 and 2014 General Assembly meetings.  He gives the denomination a good grade for implementing GA policy and a poor grade for unity.  His "C-" grade for unity is worth looking at in more detail.

While crediting the denomination for creating over 100 new, alternative worshipping communities in 2012, the editorial devotes much more of its attention to the significant statistical losses of members and churches during the year.  The rate  of "leakage" was almost staggering even for a denomination that has been declining statistically for decades.  In 2012, we saw over 100 churches leave for other denominations and lost over 100,000 members.

The editorial wants to "talk turkey about those losses," but it doesn't.  It never mentions who is actually leaving, namely our more conservative/evangelical brothers and sisters, or the reason why they are leaving, which is our collective decision to make room for the ordination of gays and homosexuals. Now, of course, they are not the only ones leaving, but the significant loss of members in 2012 followed hard on the heels of that decision in 2010.

Instead, the editorial blames at least some of this loss on ignorance of the real theological position of the denomination on, of all things, the question of universal salvation.  That is, many of those leaving think that the PC(USA) clergy believe that all religions can lead to salvation when only a small minority of 11% actually believe that.  The editorial admits that nearly half of our clergy reject the premise that only Christians can be saved and less than half affirm it, but somehow that seems not so bad compared to positively affirming that one can be saved through other religions—somehow.  And, supposedly, some of those leaving would stay if they knew the truth of our clergy's real position on universal salvation.

We need to be clear here.  In 2010 and 2011, Presbyterian clergy were just as "soft" on the traditional theological doctrine of exclusive salvation in Christ as they were in 2012.  Liberals with these beliefs have been around for a long time, but we did not see the sizable exodus in those years that took place in 2012.  So many churches left because we changed our ordination standards.  Universalism has nothing to do with anything.  It may be a contributing factor for some, but if in 2010 the presbyteries had voted against a change in ordination standards most of the churches that have left would still be with us, still fighting to prevent that decision.  They lost and they are leaving, and if we are going to "talk turkey" that is the bird we need to hunt.

In terms of the peace and unity of the denomination, then, we should probably give ourselves a slightly higher grade that the editorials' "C-".  A year after the 2012 General Assembly we are now a little more unified than we were and likely to find ourselves a bit less conflicted.  We may not like the way we are achieving peace and unity through departure rather than reconciliation, but the result is likely to be less distraction with highly controversial issues that do not significantly impact the daily life of our congregations.  Maybe we can even begin to devote the bulk of our national attention and energies to planting another 100 new worshipping communities in the coming twelve months and discovering new ways to turn around more of our old worshipping communities.  Maybe for the first time in a long, long time we can even moderate the bombast and breast-beating and devote more of our energy to being the church.