Earlier this week I saw this story about a small PC(USA) congregation in Los Angeles with a gay pastor that decided to leave the denomination to join the more progressive United Church of Christ. It is an interesting counterpoint to the more typical narrative: conservative churches leaving the denomination because of the church’s growing acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people into the full life of the church.
I wonder if this will become more and more common in the years to come. I wonder if churches on both the far right and the far left will slowly move to other denominations (or no denomination), leaving those in the middle to dwindle away. I wonder if the costs of our robust connectionalism will eventually outweigh the benefits.
Thinking about a progressive church leaving the PC(USA) for the UCC—a scenario with which I can more easily identify than the more typical conservative departures—made me think once again: what is it that makes us Presbyterian?
This was a question that I thought about a lot during my time on the Mid Councils Commission. As we discussed what kinds of changes we could recommend to help our denomination better meet the challenges and needs of our rapidly changing world, I often wondered: what are the essential elements of Presbyterianism that we cannot change if we want to remain Presbyterian? In other words, at what point of change do we stop being Presbyterian?
As I tried to empathize with a congregation leaving the PC(USA) for a denomination with a congregationalist polity, these questions surfaced once again. What would it be like to show up to church one Sunday and suddenly be UCC?
There are at least four categories of church identity that are pertinent to this discussion.
There are enough books out there on Reformed theology to suggest that there are some theological convictions that are uniquely Presbyterian. However, it is obvious that we do not in fact have theological consensus on some major issues like christology and the authority of scripture. Moreover, in our post-denominational reality, I don’t think you’ll find that many people in the pews of a typical Presbyterian church that are really that committed to total depravity, double predestination, or even providence and the sovereignty of God. Given the general flattening of Protestant theological discourse in North America, I’m not sure we can say that there is still a particularly Presbyterian theology.
If anything, I would say that the ideals and realities of Presbyterian polity makes us unique, or at least significantly different from denominations with episcopal or congregationalist polities. However, an argument could be made that many Presbyterian churches effectively function in a congregationalist way, with a relatively small portion of the congregation engaging in or even understanding presbyterian polity. Congregations jump through the hoops and check the boxes they need to, but they mostly function independently of their presbytery, synod, or the General Assembly. We value the ideal of connectionalism, but we don’t really know what it means anymore and the bureaucratic ways we have done it in the past seen anachronistic and ineffective today.
There are a lot of people who have been Presbyterian their entire lives and come from long lines of Presbyterians. As I’ve learned more about Presbyterianism around the country, I’ve found this to be especially true in the South and East. For these people, there is a connection to history that cannot be recovered if it is lost. But there are also a lot of people like me who are adult converts to Presbyterianism. Again, in our post-denominational reality, I wonder if the balance is tipping in most congregations away from life-long members of any particular denomination toward people that switch denominational affiliations (sometimes more than once) or participate in a particular church for reasons other than denominational connection.
In his classic textbook, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, John Leith has a chapter on the “ethos” of the Reformed tradition. Some of what he discusses is more about theology, like providence and the polemic against idolatry. But when it comes to things like ethics, the life of the mind as the service of God, preaching, church order, and a disciplined life, I think he has identified some of the elements of Presbyterianism that people really gravitate toward. When I ask people to describe what Presbyterianism means to them, things like this is what I often hear. My hunch is that a particular ethos is more important to most people in Presbyterian pews than particular theologies, the ins and outs of our polity, or historic connections to Presbyterianism.
If I take my church as an example, as long as our worship style, quality of preaching, and general theological inclinations did not change, we could in fact become a UCC congregation and 99% of the congregation wouldn’t even notice. I bet that is true of many Presbyterian congregations.
So it seems to me, as we try to be an effective, relevant, and faithful church in the 21st century, the PC(USA) ought to flatten our structures, deregulate our polity, and discover a new kind of connectionalism that unites us as Christians who share a common ethos and way of living into God’s transformation of the world. In a post-denominational, post-Christendom, postmodern world, theological unity is no longer realistic and regulatory and bureaucratic forms of organization are no longer effective. But there must be a kind of connectionalism that transcends these limitations.
I believe that the recommendations of the Mid Council Commission might help us move in that direction. What do you think?