When all else fails…get personal

[Update] – This is a slightly revised version of a post that went live yesterday. The substance of the post is largely unchanged, but I have (on the advice of a valued counselor) worked to make the post a little more charitable in tone. I have to congress that one of my besetting sins is impatience with what seems to be poor thinking and it is far too easy for that impatience to show in a blog post. -JBG

I read a post by John Shore on Huffington Post this afternoon. It was disappointing to say the least. Shore, it seems, lives by the adage: “when all else fails, get personal.” I guess this isn’t surprising since blogs tend to be a wonderful platform for screeds (I’m tempted to it myself).

The ad hominem begins with the very title, “Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians: Cowardly Lions.” The title refers to Shore’s belief that the Fellowship of Presbyterians and those associated with it are essentially trying to have their cake and eat it too. He’s not the first to suggest this and certainly won’t be the last, Adam Walker Cleaveland made a similar argument back in August of last year. You can read his post here.

Writes Shore,

ECO was formed by pastors and laypeople in response to PCUSA’s decision to join the 21st century. They’re against gay people being ordained as ministers, and so started their own sub-denomination wherein such a thing would be prohibited.

Shore asserts two things: 1) that the creation of ECO is exclusively about (indeed was caused by) the decision to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and 2) that to somehow believe that homosexual practice is inconsistent with Scripture and the tradition of the church is to be grossly ignorant of the enlightened perspective offered by 21st century progressives.

The first assertion is materially false and the second is simply silly although there are more than a few examples of evangelicals who speak out about sexuality who probably would serve the church better by refraining from comment. There are, however, plenty of traditionalists and evangelicals with a deeper, more robust understanding of sexuality who avoid simple answers and yet uphold what the church has always taught around this subject. Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity offers an example.

It would be duplicitous to suggest that the latest (successful) attempts to change the ordination standards played no part in the impetus to create the Fellowship. The denomination has been riding successive waves of change around ordination standards for twenty years. However, many (myself included) where surprised when 10-A passed.

However, to posit that the change is ordination standards is the proximate cause of the Fellowship’s existence is false. The Fellowship was envisioned and participation in it was invited months prior to the General Assembly where the ordination change was proposed and almost a year before the presbyteries ratified the change. 

This is primarily an argument not about human sexuality, but rather about the role of Scripture and theology in the life of the church. It’s a fight about how connected the contemporary church ought to be to the faith that has been confessed through the ages.

More than that, it is about how to do effective Gospel-centered ministry in a post-Christendom age–this is as much about the structures of the PCUSA as it is about the theological identity of the PCUSA.

Good work is being done in terms of changing the culture of the PCUSA to give it greater emphasis and freedom to participate in the mission of God in the world. An example of this is Tod Bolsinger’s work with the Mid-Council Commission. Tod is a pastor and thinker whom I respect and who is committed to staying in covenant with the PCUSA. It seems to me that this is not a choice about good v bad, but more about discerning the appropriate path forward for each congregation in its specific context.

I’m not going to refute Shore’s second point but simply recognize that claiming that anyone who believes Scripture and the witness of the Church prohibits gay sex is somehow not in the 21st century is the intellectual equivalent of labeling the President’s health reforms “socialism.”

Of course, ad hominem isn’t the end. Shore adds to it sexual innuendo, always a powerful rhetorical device that diverts attention from the paucity of logic.

What is certainly most notable, however, is ECO’s refusal to anywhere, in any way whatsoever, just come out and say that they formed in response to PCUSA’s sanctioning the ordination of gay people. Everyoneknows that’s why ECO formed. It’s hardly a mystery or secret. Yesterday’s Reuters story on the matter was titled Presbyterian group breaks away over gay clergy. Back in August, Rev. John Crosby, now the president of ECO, said, “We [the Presbyterians] have tried to create such a big tent trying to make everybody happy theologically. I fear the tent has collapsed without a center.”

Wow. So, for Rev. Crosby the go-to metaphor on this matter is tent poles. Boy, for a guy who likes to sidestep the big, hot issues …

Classy John. Thanks for that addition to the conversation. The problem is, of course, that this is a hugely important conversation. I don’t know Shore’s background or his faith tradition, but mocking and deriding one part of the church as it wrestles with significant theological issues like ecclesiology is less than helpful.
So we’re back to Shore’s central point, that the Fellowship is a sort of White Citizens Council for strait Presbyterians. There’s a problem, Shore reviews all of the material he can get his hands on for references to GLBT folk and he cannot find any. Not to be thwarted, he proceeds with an explanation:

And what deft sidestepping Rev. Crosby and his fellow ECO leaders do. A reader can search high and low throughout ECO’s online site, and nowhere will they find a single, solitary word about gay people or homosexuality. They’ll read how ECO wants to “connect leaders through accountable biblical relationships,” to “reclaim a sense of covenanted biblical community,” and to “develop gospel-centered leaders.” They’ll discover ECO’s passion for “the right kind of diversity” (which is then carefully stipulated to mean “women, men, young leaders, and every ethnicity”). They’ll readily learn of ECO’s desire to “unite around a shared theological core.”

Isn’t it troublesome when a movement doesn’t fit into the metanarrative you’ve created for it? It’s a real bummer. It’s much easier to contend that lies are being told and that the only people who really know how homophobic the Fellowship is are those initiated into it. Are there homophobes in the Fellowship/ECO? Yes since there are sinners in the Fellowship/ECO as well as in the rest of the church. But this isn’t a division on the basis of not loving GLBT folk.
There is, of course, an alternate explanation that Shore fails to address. Could it be that this isn’t primarily an argument about human sexuality?
Could it be that the Fellowship and ECO doesn’t exist because evangelicals don’t like gay people and don’t want them leading church, but rather exists because the Presbyterian Church USA has become, as Jerry Andrews put it, a broad church but also a thinning church. With this statement I am not asserting that in order to be faithful the Presbyterian Church USA need become an evangelical church. Far from it–I am asserting that our inability to have difficult discussions about core theological issues (as in issues raised by the Ecumenical Creeds) is a pervasive problem.
Could it be that declining membership since the early twentieth century suggests that new ways of being presbyterian need to be embraced even if there are rival conceptions of what this new way is?
Shore misses the point, which is that the Fellowship/ECO is committed to articulating and living into a vibrant future building flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.
What is also missing is the recognition that for every one church that leaves the PCUSA for ECO there will be five who remain, and for every Minister of Word and Sacrament who leaves many more will stay in covenant with the church that nurtured and trained them for ministry. There are countless evangelical people who are staying put in the PCUSA come what may–this is a reality that needs to be reckoned with.