THE REV. SUSAN ANDREWS was presiding as the newly elected moderator of the 215th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), so maybe she was caught up in the excitement. "Now is the time," she said exuberantly, "for us to do the work of the people of God."
From the depths of the Denver Convention Center, however, it was tempting to think of the PCUSA's convention in less sanguine terms. On this hot afternoon in late May, inside a dark, cavernous plenary hall, it was easy to imagine legislative sessions in hell: Legislative delegates acting on hundreds of resolutions in a week, and always voting their conscience, as informed by their personal experience; every bit of legislation, its framers will announce in stentorian tones, will be a matter of justice, with delegates condemning how God reigns over his creation; and so on.
It's not that General Assembly's decisions were typically hellish. Indeed, compared to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), which met at the Minneapolis Convention Center from July 30 to August 8, General Assembly was a model of legislative temperance.
The PCUSA's General Assembly dealt with the hot-button issues of homosexuality by referring them to committee for more discussion. ECUSA's General Convention, by contrast, chose to confirm the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as the Episcopal Church's first bishop-elect who from the outset spoke openly of his homosexuality. (Other homosexual Episcopal bishops have kept their sexual lives hidden or have disclosed themselves only after retirement.)
Observing both conventions as a reporter turned up some common patterns and some truths for would-be reformers of mainline Protestant churches. Here are ten of them.
1. It's a Dirty Job, But Someone's Got to Do It. Liberals are in their natural element at church conventions. They stand at microphones and talk solemnly about the importance of sending a message to the President of the United States, to Congress, or to dictators. But some conservatives also realize the importance of a convention's vote on matters that directly affect local congregations. "Our theology [as Presbyterians] is that wise decisions are made by groups of people," says the Rev. W. Gale Watkins, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Phoenix and a veteran conservative activist at the PCUSA's General Assembly. "I show up. Because of that, I have high credibility."
2. Moderates Rule. Moderates are the bane of a church activist's life. While the activist wants the church to do the right thing right away, moderates tend to say "Not now" or "Not this way." At General Assembly, pro-gay activists spent considerable time blasting the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. Covenant Network opposes the PCUSA's "chastity and fidelity" amendment, which requires that clergy limit their sexual activity to heterosexual marriage. But Covenant Network also opposed efforts to repeal the amendment during this year's General Assembly, saying such a vote would be too divisive. And Covenant Network prevailed. In ECUSA's General Convention, being moderate meant confirming Robinson as a bishop but leaving the issue of same-sex blessings to individual dioceses (groupings of churches, usually by state). In both churches, if you can't persuade the muddled middle, you lose.
3. Presiding Officers Control the Debate. This is about more than keeping a discussion in compliance with Robert's Rules of Order. Presiding officers also choose whom to recognize, and in what order. In his thorough direction of the debate on same-sex blessings, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold quickly recognized Bishop Peter Lee of the Diocese of Virginia, a moderate, who suggested dropping a call for a nationally prepared rite. Similarly, pcusa activists credited Susan Andrews with calling on her predecessor, the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel of Atlanta, at just the right time to settle debate on the chastity and fidelity amendment.
4. Stories Move People. For many years, testimony by liberals has consisted largely of heart-rending stories of personal experience, while conservatives' testimony has consisted largely of exegesis and appeals to church history. These communication styles reflect the priorities of the respective movements, and to a large extent they're inescapable. Nevertheless, both sides seem to be adjusting their styles.
Liberals at General Convention tried to ground their arguments more in theology this year, though that theology often amounted to little more than "Fear not." Conservatives are starting to understand that, while theology, church history, and tradition remain important, it also helps to show some emotion. At both conventions, divorced women spoke movingly of honoring God by living celibately. At General Convention, as conservative deputy Laura Allen of Dallas described caring for her youngest son as he died from the ravages of aids, even battle-hardened liberal activists listened with rapt attention. Laura Allen spoke on behalf of Christian orthodoxy, and she did it with the broken heart of a mother.
5. No Retreat, No Surrender. In both conventions, pro-gay speakers frequently said at committee hearings that they have been waiting for more than 20 years to gain the church's blessing. Liberals never give up. If they lose, they return to the next convention, often with the same resolution. Conservatives often do not have the heart for such persistence. Whether because of our Reformation roots or our concern for the church's purity, we're more inclined to peel off and found a new body. Perhaps conservatives have something to learn from liberals about keeping our eyes on the prize.
6. Beware of Power Talkers. When speakers say it's all about power, it probably is—at least for them. "The issue today is not human sexuality, but power," said the Rev. Mark Hollingsworth of Boston as ECUSA's House of Deputies debated Robinson's confirmation. Power also was at stake, he said, when ECUSA accepted Barbara Harris as the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion. The now-retired Harris, when asked her opinion of bishops who protested the House of Bishops' confirmation of Robinson, dismissed them as "19 white men of privilege."
During General Assembly, the Rev. James Rigby of Austin, Texas, spoke of conservatives as a malevolent, conspirational movement of fragmentation. "They're so good at dividing us, aren't they?" he told a dinner for the pro-gay More Light Presbyterians. "They choose issues that divide us."
What is lost in such language is any sense that Christian ministry is a call to serve rather than to acquire power. Some honest liberals have warned that people who feel oppressed can become oppressors soon after they feel liberated. May their warnings prevent abuses of newly acquired power.
7. Location, Location, Location. Most caucuses have learned the importance of basing their operations near the convention center. During General Assembly, both conservative and liberal Presbyterians walked only a few blocks south to the Denver Athletic Club for rally-the-troops dinners and noontime legislative briefings. At General Convention, the conservative American Anglican Council leased space from the generally liberal Central Lutheran Church, just across the street from the Minneapolis Convention Center. By planting themselves so close to the convention facility, caucuses can offer concerts, worship services, and respite from the pressures of the legislative day.
8. We Are All Latter-day Saints Now. One of the most consistent themes among liberal Protestants is of a continuing revelation that transcends even God's self-revelation in the Old and New Testaments. Here is one of the central conflicts between conservatives and liberals, and certain proof that if we were not fighting about sex, we would have to fight about something else, like the meaning of the Atonement. The ease with which Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy and laity speak of an open canon is arresting. Their usual proof text is John 16:13, in which Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will lead Christians into all truth. Challenging such fluid understandings of Scripture will be a decades-long task of reforming seminary education.
9. Beware of Premature Reconciliation. One of the most troubling things to witness this year was the speed at which conservative ECUSA bishops cooperated with a system that they had decried as apostate only a day earlier. Some of the very bishops who said that their colleagues had abandoned Christian orthodoxy by affirming Robinson proceeded to argue on behalf of a resolution that gave new legitimacy to local-level blessings of same-sex relationships. Such incoherent actions leave conservative Episcopalians unsure whether their bishops will provide long-term leadership within a denomination that is increasingly hostile to historic Christian orthodoxy.
10. The Convention is Not the Church. "It's nice if the larger church is something you can be proud of rather than embarrassed about," says Presbyterian activist Gale Watkins. Nevertheless, conservatives also realize that most important ministry occurs within their congregations, and that the majority of convention resolutions quickly assume their rightful place in recycling bins. The Rev. Kendall Harmon, who endured a punishing schedule during General Convention, wrote a weblog entry on his relief at returning home: "I was greeted at the airport today by a group of cheering friends who took time out to welcome me back. It brought tears to my eyes. Christian community is a very powerful thing."
Douglas LeBlanc is an associate editor of Christianity Today. He has reported on seven denominational conventions in his career.
Read Douglas LeBlanc's series of dispatches from the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) Convention:
Gene and Me | How I feel about the openly gay man elected bishop of Rochester.
Gay Rites Would Not Bless Ecumenism | Could also impair Anglican work overseas.
Integrity Doles Out God's Not-So Inclusive Love | The Integrity Eucharist has become a triennial sort of mass pity party.
What in the World Is God Doing? | For Episcopalians, the night may be darkest before the dawn.
Gene Robinson Takes Questions in a Church called Gethsemane | Speaks on reparative therapy, potential schism, and whether he really "left" his wife for his male lover.
Praise the Lord and Pass the Condoms | Southern Hemisphere primates warned that approving Gene Robinson would place the church outside most of the world's 72 million Anglicans. "You'll get over it," responded about 60 percent of the House of Deputies.
Deputies Slice into the Gordian Knot | The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies approves Gene Robinson as New Hampshire Bishop. The House of Bishops will vote today.
The Bitter Harvest of Sexual Ideology | No one wanted the Gene Robinson bishopric debate to take this sad turn.
Darkness in the Afternoon | Openly homosexual Episcopal priest cleared of misconduct, confirmed as bishop
Bishops Sanction Local Same-Sex Blessings | Having confirmed gay bishop, Episcopal leaders turn to discussing same-sex unions.
To My Episcopal Family | Final thoughts from the Episcopal Church's General Convention.
Among Christianity Today's many articles on the fallout of the ECUSA decision are:
Speaking Out: Are Episcopalians Still a Church? | A Lutheran theologian and journalist examines the Robinson confirmation.
Weblog Bonus: 'Difficult Days Ahead' For Anglican Communion | As some Episcopalian conservatives walk out, leaders abroad condemn the church's first openly homosexual bishop.
Christian History [TO1] reports on African reaction following the convention.
Douglas LeBlanc also reported on the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.
Read Christianity Today's cover story on mainline denomination renewal movements.
J. I. Packer on why he walked out of his diocese convention.
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