I think that this General Assembly clarified things a great deal about the trajectory of the PCUSA. There was a lot of talk among progressives before the Assembly about vigilance, how that there might be some evangelical backlash that would undo the church’s position on LGBT ordination. But it never happened. Nor did it even come close. With a more efficiently organized focus on the agenda of the plenary sessions, the progressives would have gotten almost a clean sweep at this GA. I went to different progressive briefings coming out of the committee meetings Sun-Tues and every one was bright and cheery because, when given the chance for a thorough presentation of their case to commissioners, the results were favorable on basically every progressive issue. The committees voted in our favor on every point except the request for an AI by committee 13 and apartheid by committee 15. Much of that agenda got blocked in the plenary through tactical maneuverings, however,as I explained earlier in my series of posts.
But this is not going to last. Between the aging and death of many now-active elders and pastors, who demographically lean heavily conservative on same-sex issues, and the schismatics departing to ECOP or the EPC, the strength of conservatives has dropped dramatically in just the last two years. This is only going to continue, so my conclusion is that, in the PCUSA, the progressives have all but won the culture war.
But the church is still moderately evangelical and could very easily continue to be for some time. You could hear that coming through quite strongly at the GA in the worship, particularly in the music from the sampler of songs used by the Assembly which was drawn from the PCUSA’s latest hymnal, Glory to God, due out next year. But the evangelical strand of our tradition was also clearly heard in the preaching on the week’s theme of bringing people to Jesus, as well as in the voices of the commissioners themselves, about 40-45% of whom, based on my reading of the votes we took, seemed to be evangelical, but also in the speeches of a lot of progressives, who may side with the left in the culture wars but whose roots, like my own, are from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.
It remains to be seen whether this will be enough for evangelicals to stay. I lost track of how many times I heard someone say, “If X happens then Y will leave,” with Y sometimes being the speakers themselves. Well, for the most part, X got staved off, but does that mean that Y will stay until X DOES happen in 2014, or will they see things like I see them, and leave before the inevitable occurs?
Progressives also have to decide how we will react. This was a very upsetting Assembly for many of us, not simply on account of results, but on account of fairness. We are used to losing–we lost for 33 years on gay ordination, so we know how to deal with that. What we have less experience with is trying to process life together with a minority who seems all too willing to play unfairly. Do we fight fire with fire, and come prepared in 2014 to struggle from the minute the Assembly starts to get the church’s business done, even if it means contending for every minute of the Assembly’s time? Or should we let what happened at this GA slide, and let it take care of itself by the death and departure of many on the other side? The church has a lot to think about before we do this again.
My hope is that we can stay together. I don’t think we have to agree on gay ordination or marriage or divestment to be one church. I think my position on the issues is correct, but I don’t think my neighbor is so incorrect that she or he is no longer a vector of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. Unfortunately, conservatives are struggling with the new reality of their diminished standing as the minority, which is something many of them clearly cannot yet accept. My prayer is that they can see past their defeat to find the larger purpose we have in mission in the world. I have said it many times. I’m a liberal, but I don’t want to be in a liberal church, because liberals unchecked are prone to do stupid things. And I think the same holds true for conservatives that want to make a ghetto for themselves on the right. These would be terrible developments for the church to split ourselves the way some on the right are advocating. In the kingdom of God, the church will have every ideological stripe. And the church isn’t supposed to wait around until then to get its act together either.