A Question for PCUSA Conservatives: Why Now?
I read Parker T. Williamson's latest editorial on the continuing mainline Presbyterian crisis with interest. As most of us are aware, the progressive wing of the PCUSA finally succeeded earlier this year in removing the "fidelity and chastity" language from the church's Book of Order, thus excising the constitutional impediment to the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In addition, a new Form of Government (nFog) was also approved to replace the old Book of Order, and some expect it will result in a less defined and perhaps more hostile procedural environment for conservatives in that denomination. If past history and the tenor of the large-scale meeting of PCUSA conservatives in Minneapolis this last week are any indication, another Presbyterian body may well eventually emerge.
Williamson makes the point that the denomination's recent declension and refusal to take doctrine seriously are nothing new, and he cites the Mansfield Kaseman incident as a case in point. While the editorial perhaps does not get all the details precisely right (Kaseman was already ordained in the United Church of Christ [UCC]), Williamson's larger point is well taken. Kaseman was a UCC minister who was called in 1979 to pastor the Rockville United Church (a joint UPCUSA/UCC congregation). When he was examined for reception by Capitol-Union Presbytery of the then UPCUSA, a Time Magazine report at the time indicated that Kaseman denied the deity of Christ, expressed doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, and was fuzzy on the doctrine of the Trinity. His examination was nevertheless sustained by the Presbytery and this decision was eventually affirmed on procedural grounds by the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) after conservatives had twice complained the Presbytery's action.
Parenthetically, it is worth pointing out that five years earlier procedural screws were being tightened against conservatives in the so-called Kenyon Case (the significance of both cases is explored here and here). Wynn Kenyon was a ministerial candidate in Pittsburgh Presbytery of the UPCUSA. During his examination he declared that he could not as a matter of conscience participate in the ordination of women. The Presbytery decided to ordain him but this decision was then overturned by the PJC on the grounds that candidates for ordination must abide by explicit constitutional polity provisions. The practice of ordaining women was then enshrined in "A Brief Statement of Faith" (1983), and so it now has confessional status in the PCUSA. As far as I can see, this is about the only confessional provision now consistently enforced in that body.
Of course, the larger phenomenon of deciding disciplinary matters on the basis of polity and support for denominational program rather than doctrine goes way back before the Kaseman case (witness the Machen case in the 1930s). In fact, the PCUSA's experiment in latitudinarian "big-tent" Presbyterianism began in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a process ably chronicled by Lefferts Loetscher in his classic study The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church Since 1869 (1954).
To be sure, I am an outside observer to such developments, but I am by no means disinterested. I come from a family with deep roots in the PCUSA and my grandfather served a half-century or so ago as a General Assembly Moderator. Moreover, I am deeply sympathetic to the current PCUSA conservatives as they deal with the awkward dilemma so well expressed by the title of the Clash's 1982 hit song "Should I Stay or Should I Go."
But Williamson's editorial raises some interesting and even troubling questions. Why has the ordination of practicing homosexuals been the trigger for so much heartburn among PCUSA conservatives? Is this issue seen as more crucial to the life and health of the church than the great creedal doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the bodily resurrection? Is the ordination of practicing homosexuals cause for separation while fundamental denials of the creedal heritage of the church are not?
One popular interpretation of this situation attributes the current conservative activism in the PCUSA to homophobia. While this is certainly too simplistic, it is unfortunate that PUCSA conservatives have left themselves open to this charge and that there may even be some truth to it. But a more charitable and ultimately more plausible explanation is that this pattern simply reflects the dynamics of church politics in the PCUSA. While doctrinal issues inevitably require considerable explanation and doctrinal controversies often cause eyes to glaze over (especially in congregations that have not seen systematic doctrinal instruction for generations), no one has to explain buggery to the average ruling elder or parishioner.
Ultimately, however, the mainline Presbyterian debacle of 2011 points to the profound connection between doctrine and praxis. Or, to phrase it a bit differently, it illustrates the dangers not only of liberal doctrinal latitudinarianism but also of evangelical doctrinal minimalism. Even as PCUSA liberals were busy dismantling the confessional heritage of the church, evangelicals were repeatedly stepping back and stepping back and stepping back from decisive confrontation in the interests of "gospel proclamation" and the "salvation of souls." Now, tragically, these same evangelicals find themselves with their backs to the wall. But let's not forget that Christ's "Great Commission" in Matthew 28:18-20 includes more than "make disciples of all nations," for Christ declares that the Church is also to be "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."
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