I am preparing to go to the General Assembly of the PCUSA next week. This is the first time I have been elected as a commissioner. Even my election hasn't been without controversy, not any that I know of within my presbytery, but outside of it. Parker Williamson of the LayMAN heralded my election. Since then I have received a handful of letters and e-mails from people I don't know and who don't know me quoting from his article to scold me and to pray for my soul. I think this is all great fun and I am looking forward to GA.
If I can figure out how to do it, I will make two commissioners' resolutions asking the General Assembly to support the Clergy Letter Project and to establish the day closest to Darwin's birthday as Evolution Sunday. My presbytery didn't approve these overtures when they were sent up by my session, but I will give them a spin at GA. Check them out.
On the General Assembly agenda are recommendations from MRTI regarding businesses who profit from violence and human rights abuses. Also, marriage equality overtures will be received, debated, and decided. Wonder of wonders, I am on a controversial committee and I have an opinion.
I have been assigned to the Mid-Councils Committee. This committee will receive a report from the Mid Councils Commission. The committee will also review a number of overtures to do away with synods and form non-geographic presbyteries among other things.
I have read the information and will read it again. I may not be clear on everything that is being proposed. I am open to correction. I am open to Spirit. But before I vote "Yes" to accept the recommendations of the Mid Council Commission, Spirit has a lot of questions to answer. Their recommendations include deleting synods and forming non-geographic presbyteries that will have the power to do everything existing presbyteries have except to buy and sell property. This would include sending commissioners to General Assembly. In this new scheme, you only need ten ministers and ten sessions to form a presbytery. A presbytery such as mine with 65 churches could potentially divide themselves into six different presbyteries. Each could send a minister and elder to GA. Can you imagine how unwieldy that would be? Is GA going to pay for six times as many commissioners?
Why these recommendations now? I don't know the heart of those who advocate for these changes but I do know that lobbying groups who oppose the changes in ordination standards that have just gone into effect are in favor of non-geographic presbyteries and those who favor and have worked for ordination changes over the decades are against non-geographic presbyteries. Why might that be? This proposal amounts to redistricting. Again, I know no one's heart, but a ready-made explanation is at hand: "the majority of presbyteries finally voted in favor of removing discriminatory barriers so let's shuffle the deck so we can change the vote." I certainly have no energy or desire to form a like-minded presbytery or depart to a like-minded denomination. As we know, those who don't like the change in ordination do have this energy and desire. Again, I don't know anyone's motivations but you can bet that if this were to pass the first overtures from these like-minded presbyteries will be to change ordination standards. Non-geographic presbyteries will not lead to any kind of peace, of live and let live. More energy, more money, and more time will be spent in power struggles.
Are we deathly ill? That assumption comes up more than once in this report. This report sounds a lot like the language from the new FOP/ECO group. This report sees the decades long struggles over social, political, and theological issues as distractions from some idealized mission of the church. There seems to be little knowledge let alone appreciation for the work of the larger church at the synod and GA level, or even at the level of the presbyteries as we have them. It is as though everything we have done is irrelevant and we need to throw it all out and start all over. I find this offensive. I am proud of my denomination. I am glad that we speak out and take on controversial issues. I don't think the full citizenship of LGBT people is a distraction. I don't think that theological exploration is a distraction. I don't think advocating for the environment and for sustainability is a distraction. I don't think taking on the Israeli lobby, advocating for economic justice, working for racial justice, and calling the powers that be to disarm are distractions from being "missional." It may be that our denomination is being whittled down to the size of Gideon's army, but you know the rest of that story.
Is this a solution to membership loss? The report brings out the statistics of membership loss that we hear again and again. Rather than engage the complexities over what this might mean, the assumption is made that our structures inhibit congregations from growing. When I hear other ministers blaming the denomination or their presbytery because their church isn't growing, I hear empty whining. I have served three churches in three presbyteries. There was nothing ever that any presbytery prevented me or my congregation from doing. Blaming our structures for our own lack of creativity, imagination, or hard work is misplaced. If you want to grow your church, do something for the neighborhood. Further, if I want to partner with like-minded congregations, I can do so right now. Nothing prevents me from doing that.
Aren't we supposed to be a family? One might think that in my situation I would welcome non-geographic presbyteries. I serve a liberal congregation in a conservative presbytery. Wouldn't we be happier and get more done if the presbytery we were in was more like us? After all, my presbytery voted down our evolution overtures. Maybe we should pick up our marbles and find a presbytery more like-minded. Let's imagine for a moment. We are a More Light congregation. If I want to form a More Light Presbytery, the nearest More Light congregation is in Nashville, over 5 hours away. I am not sure if there are more than ten More Light congregations in the entire South. My new More Light Presbytery is going to require a lot of driving. I suppose I could chat with them on my iPhone (if I had one). But we are not just More Light. We are also a Peace Church. We are a Green Church. We celebrate Darwin's Birthday and we hold Jesus Seminars on the Road. I would doubt that there are ten PCUSA congregations in the United States that are like us. Who would be theologically incorrect enough even to have us? Holston Presbytery, on the other hand, has to take us in. We may be the odd step child, but we are family.
Do virtual presbyteries deny the body? I care about my local area, East Tennessee. I have to, I live here. The congregations in my presbytery are connected to these mountains, to the people, the language and the culture. As a presbytery we partner to feed hungry people in our region via the Five Cents a Meal program. Those are people with real bodies. They are not virtual bodies. They are not avatars. A large portion of our budget goes to Holston Camp. That is a camp where children and adults with bodies actually get dirty, exhausted, wet, and discover something about who they are. When our presbytery gets divided up and the congregations partner with like-minded congregations in Alabama or Ohio or wherever who is going to fund the camp? Which one of those virtual presbyteries will take responsibility for this camp? The congregations of Holston Presbytery have an obligation to this camp because it is family. It is local and located where we live and do ministry. A presbytery is its region. We are neighbors. We care for each other and we have to in order to survive. The most conservative churches in our presbytery send kids to the same camp that we do. Following this year's General Assembly, youth from my church will meet with youth from other churches in our un-like-minded presbytery for a common mission event. They all come from congregations that have different views on many topics. I don't think that is a bad thing.
Is this good stewardship? The church is going to change. As much as we think that the future is the internet and virtual chat rooms, it isn't. This is a blip. The real future--the future of real bodies sweating to grow real food--is local. Those whose faces are buried in their Kindles and iPhones are blind to the planetary limits we are hitting. We are now on the downside of Hubbert's curve regarding the production rate of conventional oil. Those fancy phones are made from rare earth metals and petroleum products that will become more scarce and expensive as we go further down this curve. Life for the next couple of centuries likely will be a long descent. For the next couple of decades, the churches will have demands put upon them that will be increasingly local. It is the absolute wrong direction for churches to purposely disconnect from our neighborhoods. Now is when we need our presbyteries to be more local not less. We need our presbyteries to help congregations work together on community gardens, health care, and emergency services. We need advocacy for the most vulnerable in the midst of serious and severe economic challenges. We need to work regionally and locally across ideological boundaries. The future is local. The PCUSA and its councils would do well to prepare for it.