How do I feel?
Initially, I had an awful sick feeling in my stomach. Old feelings of betrayal surfaced again strongly and the wounds from how and when I left the church were re-opened. God, though, is good. This time he has prepared me marvelously. I know I will not leave the Church universal again, thanks to my loving family and friends in Christ, the majority of whom are no longer in my local church. Still, I am heart-broken and hurting deeply by what's happening, don't like what's happening, and how it is happening.
I am shocked and dismayed by the speed and timing of the congregational discernment. It may be legal, by the book, etc. but it is not Christ's way at all. The choice of timing - a time when busyness is at a peak with school year endings and summer beginnings, many in our church are over-committed and engaged in projects like VBS, trip to South Africa, etc. - makes it a strategic, political move. Even I, without school age children or a busy calendar, have conflicts for the town hall dates and will have to make some sacrifices to attend these sessions. Two, on a matter as important as this shouldn't the congregation be given a longer time to discern? If Session had 4 years as their timeline indicates (they started in 2010), why does the congregation have less than 30 days? Three, the charges against the PC(USA) are very serious. Many of them require the congregation to become informed about multiple matters of theology, practice and polity and read many different perspectives.
Even I who started my own discernment last year have a lot to learn still. For example, in trying to understand the claim that the PC(USA) is no longer "reformed" in its thinking I found out that our pastor's father is one of the signatories on FOP/ECO, the new denomination our Session is recommending we join. In a 2008 interview he felt that PC(USA) could not be reformed from within. Clearly there's a lot of stuff to absorb and assimilate here. I have many questions about what's been happening in our own church. In the last few years since our new pastor came we've been moving into collecting a different kind of church statistics; we were not given pledge/tithe cards for this year, stopped taking attendance counts for a long while although it has now been resumed haphazardly. We were also reconsidering "membership," when I was a Deacon; deciding that requiring membership was no longer needed for most practical purposes. What does all this mean in terms of the straw poll? Three, the Joint Discernment process that has been underway in our presbytery is new and untested. As a member of the SCT in our presbytery, which had the task of helping to set up the process, I've been watching the process unfold and the Joint Discernment Teams (JDT) set up. It is my belief that the JDT have been dominated by those leaving the PC(USA). I further believe that in our presbytery's efforts to have truly "gracious dismissals" we have trusted too much in the good faith of everybody involved and forgotten our responsibilities to and the rights of the PC(USA). See References below for Eric Christiansen's post on this subject. This process should not be used any more until the matter has been settled with the first 11 churches seeking dismissal. Four, I don't know what, if anything is being done, for people who want to stay in the PC(USA) in the churches seeking dismissal. Many of them are like me, hurting deeply, with the breaking of covenantal fellowship, the breaking of the body of Christ. We also believe a stronger call for us is to continue in the true mission of Christ - sacrificially blessing others - instead of spending our collective time and energies on the messy task of fighting our brothers and sisters in the denomination.
I share these preliminary thoughts and my own feelings openly so as to be helpful. I attended the PC(USA) "Big Tent" Conference last year where the ten or so agencies of the PC(USA) such as Mission, Foundation, Publishing, GA, all met. The term Big Tent refers to the fact that all these agencies which used to have their own conferences now come together under a single tent biennially (every two years). I did not hear one thing that made me feel that PC(USA) considers itself "a large theological tent, accommodating a widening spectrum of beliefs, including those out-of-sync, or even in direct conflict, with the basics of our faith" as our church discernment guide declares. Instead, I was completely rejuvenated. I have gained so much in faith, mission, and my own spiritual formation from the PC(USA) connections that have been made in the last two years. I don't believe that we should leave the PC(USA). We make a very poor witness to the world when we do that besides shooting ourselves in the foot; being in a denomination strengthens us individually, collectively and so much more (just look at the history of Presbyterian Mission Agency and missionaries like Amy Carmichael). I reaped the individual benefits of belonging to the PC(USA) when my own church was going through a troubled period in its growth and unable to help me. PC (USA) pastors outside my church and resources like the Daily Lectionary nurtured me. This is why I wrote early on that God had prepared me marvelously; over the last 4 years when my local church was not able to care spiritually for me others in my presbytery and beyond did. This is the power and promise of covenantal fellowship. Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers not our purity. Jesus, not Paul is our Savior and Lord and Jesus showed us the way to live in love. Paul for all the great good he did was human and made a few mistakes, as we now know. We - believers - must learn to live together despite differences, however difficult or threatening that may be for some of us. All believers belong to the "priesthood" while at the same time we are "sinners" too. It is God's grace that redeems us and we must learn and extend human grace imitating the divine. We cannot afford to forget God's amazing grace. Without grace and love-in-action, teaching disciples to make disciples becomes mere rhetoric that dishonors Jesus' sacrifice.
I will close with this little vignette more than a 100 years old that I have shared previously on this blog. It is about the Church of South India (CSI) in which I grew up. CSI is the union of Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist denominations. Much has been written and far better than I could ever say here about the mission fields at home. This story reminds me of this important fact.
... a speech given by Bishop VS Azariah at the first World Missionary Conference (Edinburgh, 1910). The Bishop of the fledgling Church of South India (a new church compared to the many Western churches whose representatives were at the conference) gave a speech from which the following excerpt has often been remembered and quoted in the history books. I love it!
"I do not plead for returning calls, handshakes, chairs, dinners and teas as such. I do on the other hand plead for all of them and more if they can be expressions of a friendly feeling, if these or anything else can be the outward proofs of a real willingness on the part of the foreign missionary to show that he is in the midst of the people to be to them not a lord and master but a brother and a friend.
Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self denying labors of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We ask for love. Give us friends. -V.S. Azariah, Edinburgh, 1910.
Christiansen, Eric. Trinity #StayPCUSA. http://trinitystaypcusa.com/author/ericchristiansen/ (see especially his Cloud of Witness post and his solution of peaceful withdrawal without creating a schism)
Coleman, Anita. About Staying or Leaving the PC(USA) http://myeyesonchrist.blogspot.com/2013/03/about-staying-or-leaving-pcusa.html This is a bibliography I started to compile in March 2013 when I did my own discernment, shortly after becoming a member of the Strategic Coordinating Team, Presbytery of Los Ranchos.
Discern blog. Presbytery of Los Ranchos http://blog.losranchos.org/ (the blog is chockful of resources that were created in gracious community with the churches seeking dismissal, an admirable attempt indeed for which our presbytery and staff are to be commended)
McDonald, Jeff. PC(USA) decline attributed to waning commitment to authority of Scripture. http://www.layman.org/news4075/
(2008 Interview with C. Hassell Bullock, President of ETS) + http://www.fellowship-pres.org/supporters/
Articles from another perspective than the one that's in my church discernment guide (thanks to Don Major):
Friedersdorff, C. Why Stay in PCUSA? (Overview) http://nebula.wsimg.com/
Friedersdorff, C. Theology and Scriptural Interpretation in PCUSA (Theology) http://www.gpch.org/
Saperstein, Daniel. Notes on ECO Polity (Church government contrasted between ECO and PCUSA) http://covnetpres.org/wp-