The perfect storm and the deathly ill denomination

In Wolfgang Peterson’s 2000 movie The Perfect Storm a fishing boat gets caught in, well, the perfect storm which is actually a sort of super storm produced by the collision of three smaller storms.

The same sort of thing is happening in the Presbyterian Church USA. At least three “storms” are coming together to produce an amazing opportunity for something new in what has been called a deathly ill denomination.

The three “storms” I mentioned above are:

  • The amendment (10-A) of the Constitution of the PCUSA to remove explicit language about ordained officers being required to live in fidelity in the bounds of marriage and in chastity when not married. This move potentially opens the door to practicing homosexual officers although a church court case (argued tomorrow) will offer the denomination the chance to say that removing explicit language in the Constitution does not have the effect of silencing the witness of Scripture and the Confessions on human sexuality.
  • The New Form of Government (nFOG). The Church voted to adopt a new form of government that provides considerably more flexibility in the ways church courts relate to one another. In effect it pushes much authority and responsibility further down line to presbyteries and sessions. I voted against the nFOG on the basis of it’s propensity to be used to create a local option for liberal churches and presbyteries to ordain LGBT candidates, but it’s also true that a local option can allow evangelical churches greater freedom to follow Christ in fidelity to the Scriptures and Confessions.
  • Post-Christendom/Post-Denominational era. This is like a meta-storm or meta-category to denote the shift away from Christianity as a dominant force in majority culture (i.e., the values of Christianity are no longer the assumed way) a shift that has effectively reduced the importance of denominations.
Jim Singleton (Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Colorado Springs) recently gave a talk about the emergence of The Fellowship, a conversation aimed at finding a new way forward for evangelical Presbyterians who are part of the PCUSA. The audio is available here.
It seems that the way forward is for the Fellowship to serve as umbrella over lots of enterprises (marked by shared core values), a sort of missional order in the PCUSA. There would be not expectation that this order would be working to renew or change the denomination, but instead would be a part of the life of the PCUSA and a witness to the flourishing effect of biblical theology in the life of the church.
Some highlights:
    • The Fellowship will allow churches and/or individual pastors to join.
    • It could take various forms:
      • Non-geographic presbyteries. This will be tough to implement because it would require a change to the Book of Order, even with nFOG.
      • Parallel COMs (if presbytery allows: one for 10-A and non-10-A). This is less optimal although it is easier to implement – the presbyteries would remain as they are, but with parallel tracks for 10-A and non 10-A churches.
      • Two presbyteries in the geographic bounds of a single presbytery. the Book of Order requires 10 churches in order to form a new presbytery.
      • New Reformed Body – something new but with a relationship with the PCUSA. This would be the creation of something like a new denomination.
        • Provision for dually-aligning with PCUSA and another denomination
        • Possibility of being affiliate member of your local presbytery and the Fellowship or a New Reformed Body.
As you can see there are a lot of possibilities for a new way forward in the PCUSA, more than there ever have been thanks to both the passage of nFOG and to the growing realization around the denomination that the age of big, bureaucratic, Christendom-model denominations is over. The fact that there are “for rent” signs in front of the PCUSA office complex in Louisville is something of a visual representation of this new reality.
I’m hopeful that a new, faithful way forward can be found that will avoid a complete denominational split and will avoid compromising the consciences of the majority of church members who favor the church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality in the midst of a culture for whom the church seems increasingly irrelevant.
The answer to this perception is living out the Gospel in fidelity to the Scriptures and Confessions and in a way that incarnates this in a missional way for people who view the church as a form that is marginal to their life.