Part 5 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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On March 3, 1991, in Lake View Terrace, California, only about seven miles where I lived at the time, an African-American motorist named Rodney King was pulled over by Los Angeles police officers. What exactly happened in the next moments is disputed, but, before long, the officers were savagely beating King. The bulk of this beating was caught on video by a spectator, and his footage was subsequently shown endlessly on television.
On April 29, 1992, when three of the four officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted by a jury that included no African-Americans, catastrophic riots broke out in Los Angeles. By the end of the riots, 55 people had been killed and there were over $1 billion in property damages. In the midst of the riots, Rodney King himself made a televised plea for peace. “Can we, can we all get along?” he asked, plaintively. “Can we, can we get along?” (Photo: Rodney King makes his plea.)
If you’re a faithful member of a PCUSA church, but one who hasn’t been active in the thirty-year PCUSA fight over homosexuality, you may want to ask, “Can we, can we all get along? Why not simply admit our differences and get on with our mission? Why do we have to keep on fighting? Why can’t we just live and let live? Why can’t those who have been fighting for gay ordination just drop it? Or, conversely, why can’t those who have been resisting gay ordination let individuals, churches, and presbyteries make up their own minds about the matter. Why must we keep fighting for a uniform Presbyterian standard on the ordination of homosexuals? Can we, can we all get along?”
These questions gain force when you consider the sad history of the PCUSA since we started arguing about homosexuality. That debate began in 1978, when the churches that would soon merge to form the PCUSA (UPCUSA and PCUS) had well over 3,000,000 members. Thirty years later, total membership in the PCUSA has declined by a net of over 30%. Though we’ve gained new members along the way, our losses have been staggering, and are increasing.*
I’m not claiming that our membership loss is related only to our endless argument about homosexuality. But when you consider how this debate has looked to potential PCUSA members, and when you consider the vast resources we have poured into it, and when you think of those who have left the denomination because of our various and confusing positions on homosexuality, surely this debate has contributed to our numerical decline. Though our argument about homosexuality hasn’t come with the billion dollar price tag of the L.A. riots, I’m quite sure it has cost the PCUSA millions of dollars in salaries, informational material, travel to meetings, and so forth, not to mention lost revenue. And when you consider the time we Presbyterians have devoted to this issue for the past three decades, the loss for actual ministry is staggering.
So, then, can we, can we all get along?
Yes. And no. There is no simple answer to this question. It all depends on what you mean by “get along.” We can get along when we worship and pray together. We can get along when we participate in common mission, building a house with Habitat for Humanity, or reaching out to victims of a natural disaster. We can get along in our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and in the fellowship of his table. We can learn from each other and share our victories and struggles together. In these ways and many more we who support the ordination of homosexuals and we who oppose it can get along.
But what I’ve just described is exactly the kind of getting along that Presbyterians enjoy with Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists. It’s the getting along that bridges denominational barriers. Yet we who believe in the presbyterian form of church government (rule by elders) would not be able to be in the same denomination as Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists, who affirm an episcopal form of church government (rule by bishops). Though we share a fundamental oneness in our faith, and though we share much in common from a missional point of view, our differences are substantial enough to keep us in separate denominations.
I have come to believe that, in the end, Presbyterians who support the ordination of gays and lesbians, and Presbyterians who oppose is, will not be able to get along in the sense of being in the same denomination, unless that denomination has very loose ties. The only compromise I can possibly imagine would involve a massive reorganization of the PCUSA into governing bodies divided according to their views and practices in a number of areas, including homosexuality. But this sort of union would be very little union at all, and, in all likelihood, would be at most a temporary measure.
Okay, okay, let me acknowledge one other genuine compromise, which really would be no compromise at all. It’s always possible that the Spirit of God could sweep through the PCUSA in such a way that minds and hearts were changed, with the result being genuine unity on many theological issues by the vast majority of Presbyterians, including the moral character of homosexual activity. You’ll notice that I haven’t prejudged which way the Spirit might blow, though I’d surely expect this to be in a biblical direction, away from gay ordination, given my beliefs about homosexual activity. Folks on the other side would expect the Spirit to blow in the opposite direction. I do believe that such major renewal of the PCUSA is possible, but only because I believe in the God of the impossible. The past thirty years of PCUSA infighting, as well as my understanding of the issues, do not suggest that God is engaged in such spiritual renewal in the PCUSA. History suggests that we PCUSA folk will never get along as members of the same denomination when it comes to the issue of gay ordination.
If you’re not close to this debate, what I’ve just said about the unlikelihood of compromise may seem unduly negative. Surely there must be some way to get us together. Of course if you look at the history of the PCUSA for the last thirty years, you’d have to admit that I’m just being realistic. But let me explain further why I believe ultimate compromise on this issue is unlikely. It has to do with what the folks on either side believe about it, and the strength of these beliefs.
*Note: in 1983 the PCUSA had 3,121,339 members. In 2007 it had 2,209,546 members. That’s a net loss of 911,792 members, or 29%. Though I don’t have the figures, I’m quite sure the combined totals of the UPCUSA and PCUS were higher in 1978. Thus my conclusion of a 30% loss in that last 30 years.