Today our national church is calling, once again, for conversation about the future of our denomination. Faced with ongoing, precipitous decline, many of us wonder about our viability. Our uncertainty heightens as congregations continue to leave and affiliate with other bodies, taking their mission dollars with them.
I love our Presbyterian family of faith. I love our connectional ties. I love our democratic polity, our rootedness in history, our balanced approach to the Bible. I love the way we have championed social justice, bravely speaking truth to the powers that be.
What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.
While ordination and marriage issues remain a flashpoint, I believe there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local and national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine. Labels are counterproductive, but many of us (myself included) might be described as Universalists.
We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus.
There has been a lot of talk about “claiming scruples” when taking ordination vows. Based on my conversations with Presbyterian sisters and brothers, many would now claim scruples about a question like this: Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do?
We might say, “Sure, on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”
Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.
Right now, in Mission Presbytery, one of our flagship churches is attempting to leave the PC(USA). Our Presbytery has appointed an Administrative Commission to enter the fray. Both sides claim they feel abandoned.
There will be a lot of pain. And though the conflict will eventually be resolved through ecclesiastical and secular courts, its resolution will only be on the surface.
The deeper rift is there, and it will not go away.
Grace and peace,
Dr. Krin Van Tatenhove
2016 Chair of the Mission Outreach and Justice Committee, Mission Presbytery