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The Quiet Revolution in the Presbyterian Church (USA)
by Parker T. Williamson
A seismic shift is shaking the Presbyterian Church (USA). Riding into office on the premise that Scripture’s God had died, those who have been in control of this denomination’s infrastructure since the early 1960s now find that it is their authority that struggles for survival. Having hemorrhaged more than one million members since 1965 and having been drained of more than $60 million from the denominational treasury, managers have little to show for their attempts to replace theology with sociology. Faced with the fact that their programs are being rejected and that clinging to post-modern mantras is no longer deemed credible, vintage sixties liberals are losing their grip on the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Believing that the church’s mission was politics, denominational leaders in the 1960s hopped from one social movement to another in a frenzy to be on the cutting edge. They declared with Carl Sagan that the universe is “all there is,” concurred with the World Council of Churches that “the world sets the church’s agenda,” and labeled cultural trends “prophetic” for the life and ministry of the church that they superintended.
It was this move to speak, not for the transcendent God but for a sensate culture, that enticed Presbyterian leaders into their preoccupation with sex. What they chose to showcase was not a sexual expression that honors the creator God—engendering life, love and communion—but one titillated by human narcissism and self-gratification. Sexual politics became the centerpiece of the Presbyterian agenda, and after a brief flirtation with feminism, the focus turned androgynous. Homosexual rights became the cause célèbre.
Changing the Rules
To get where they wanted to go, denominational leaders in the mid 1960s first set out to undercut the source of Presbyterian authority. They approved a document, “The Confession of 1967,” that effectively removed Scripture as the foundation of Presbyterian faith and life. “The words of Scripture,” declared the new confession, “are the words of men.” That was the declaration that removed theos from logos, and shifted all things spiritual into categories of feeling rather than fact.
Now all affirmations could be called perspectives and the circle of acceptability was positioned for infinite expansion. After all, how can one reject another person’s feeling? If he or she experiences a feeling, then it is—due solely to the fact that the feeling exists—true. Thus in short order, the Presbyterian Church encompassed a pantheon of ideologies expressed as modes of affection, which were shielded from judgment on grounds that sentiment cannot be judged. The Reformed tradition’s dictum, “Reformed and always reforming under the word of God,” was truncated to “Reformed and always reforming,” which was taken to mean that bizarre is better. Integrity, being true to one’s own feelings, became the new moral benchmark.
No longer encumbered by Scripture, Presbyterian leaders could now maintain that making the church relevant to contemporary issues was their chief concern, and they appointed committees whose passion was to discover and follow “what God is doing in the world,” a euphemism for pursuing cultural conformity. In the mid 1970s a task force was named to consider the church’s attitude toward homosexuality. Given the group’s composition, its conclusion—that same-sex behavior is an acceptable option for ordained Presbyterians—was predictable.
But Presbyterians in the pews were not nearly so enamored with the homosexual agenda as were their leaders. When the task force brought its report to the 1978 General Assembly in San Diego, Calif., it met an avalanche of opposition. By a vote of 600 to 50, commissioners rejected task force recommendations and adopted instead a statement that insisted on scriptural standards for the sexual behavior of Presbyterian leaders. Homosexual activity, said the denomination’s highest governing body, is a sin.
A Twenty-Year Struggle
This 1978 confrontation between denominational leaders and the denomination itself was paradigmatic of an ecclesiastical struggle that continued for the next twenty years. Determined to squeeze the Presbyterian ethos into the mold of its surrounding culture, those who controlled its highest offices recruited a national staff that has been heavily committed to the homosexual movement. Ignoring pronouncements made by the 1978 General Assembly, staff members have promoted “gay/lesbian/bisexual” entitlement themes in national conference center programs, denominational periodicals, and curriculum materials.
Periodically throughout this 20-year period, denominational leaders have asked the General Assembly to reconsider its 1978 position. In 1987, General Assembly Moderator Isabel Rogers, a professor at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education who is dedicated to mainstreaming approval for homosexual behavior, appointed a new task force on human sexuality. Her choices were unabashedly slanted, so much so that a handful of evangelical appointees resigned in disgust, saying their efforts to represent biblical ethics in such a group were an exercise in futility. Rogers’s task force chose United Church of Christ ethicist, James B. Nelson, as its consultant and proceeded to produce a report that legitimized a broad spectrum of sexual behavior. “Mutuality” was the chosen moral criterion, and various forms of coupling—premarital, adulterous and homosexual—were deemed ethically viable so long as the participants were consenting adults.
When the task force’s report hit the 1991 General Assembly in Baltimore, commissioners rejected it by a vote of 534 to 31. But shortly after the meeting was adjourned, national staff members began weaving the rejected task force theme into denominational policies and programs. When challenged, they argued that they were not promoting homosexual behavior but merely opposing homophobia. Presbyterians who sought to discipline open defiance of the General Assembly policy were told that the 1978 policy was merely the opinion of one General Assembly and that only a constitutional amendment could codify it as Church law.
A Desperate Measure
In 1996, the Presbyterian Church (USA) convened its highest governing body in Albuquerque, New Mexico, fired its chief executive officer, and enacted a constitutional amendment, subsequently ratified by a majority of the presbyteries as required, that prohibits the ordination of persons who refuse to limit their sexual activity to the covenant of marriage.
Critics, both inside and outside the ecclesiastical body, publicly lambasted the Presbyterian Church for its retrograde decision. Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, the Stone-catchers, Hesed, the Witherspoon Society, Voices of Sophia, and other special interest groups declared that they would defy the Presbyterian Constitution and fight for the “rights” of any homosexual whose ordination was now threatened. When the 1997 General Assembly met in Syracuse, New York, libertarian demonstrations engulfed the commissioners. Supported by staff members who were panic-stricken over what they called the “right-wing takeover of the church,” homosexual lobbyists pushed through an amendment to the Constitution that would roll back what Albuquerque had done during the preceding year.
The secular press reported the decision in Syracuse as a defeat for the “radical right” of the Presbyterian Church. But what most reports failed to note was that any proposed constitutional amendment must be ratified by representatives of the people voting in their presbyteries (173 regional associations). It is at that level that one obtains a more accurate reading of Presbyterian opinion: Amendment A, the attempt by Syracuse to overturn the denomination’s scriptural standards of morality, has been resoundingly defeated by a 2–1 margin. In fact, more presbyteries rejected the new amendment than those that confirmed the current constitutional standard that was adopted in Albuquerque.
No More Blank Checks
What is happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA) goes well beyond its public discussions of bedroom behavior. Sexual politics is the presenting issue, but underlying it are signs of a major shift in the Presbyterian ethos. National church leaders who took over the infrastructure in the early 1960s depended on a top-down management model for the continuation of their programs and policies. Using words like “loyalty” and “being Presbyterian,” they called on church members to fund the ecclesiastical organization, despite the fact that national church policies have not reflected the faith and ethics cherished by people in the pews.
But loyalty is being radically redefined. For an increasing number of Presbyterians, loyalty means supporting only those policies and programs that reflect a faith and life that is rooted in Scripture. They do not believe that all ideas are equal. They do not accept the premise that truth is a matter of perspective, that morality is a matter of preference. And they will no longer follow those who promote such views.
Nowhere is that determination more evident than in Presbyterian funding patterns. Today, more than 75 percent of the mission money that is sent by congregations to the national church treasury is donor restricted. That means no more blank checks to national headquarters, and it represents a huge turnaround in Presbyterian Church priorities. System managers understand the meaning of those statistics, and scores of national church leaders have retired, been fired or are voluntarily jumping ship as they assess the implications of shifts in funding.
New Leaders, New Day
Paralleling this decline in the national infrastructure is a notable infusion of ordained leaders with different priorities. Increasingly, Presbyterian ministerial students are being trained in independent, evangelical seminaries. And within two of the largest denominational institutions more than 50 percent of the students identify themselves as Evangelicals who reject the post-modern notions of their tenured tutors.
Recently, the head of the Presbyterian Church (USA) United Nations office complained bitterly that he could not get a successful elective course organized on Princeton Theological Seminary’s campus, and he blamed student attitudes. “All they want to do is study the Bible,” he wailed.
Therein lies the shift that has begun to reshape this denomination. Old patterns of authority are crumbling while at the local level, congregations are coming alive as their people rediscover Scripture and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is too early to perceive what institutional forms will emerge, but there is no question about what is being left behind. A new day is dawning for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Parker T. Williamson is the Executive Editor of the Presbyterian Lay Committee Publications. He is the author of Standing Firm: Reclaiming Christian Faith in Times of Controversy.