Monday, October 24, 2005

What Do You Want?

What do you want, Dwight?
Do you want to recommend the middle make an alliance with the right? Or the left? (Do you want to suggest which one?) Does that mean, whack off the other side and move on? Does your scientific mind require resolution? Will we continue to do this every time we disagree?

Being human, much less Baptist, much less American Baptist, means there will be unresolvables. Our challenge is to determine how much we can tolerate. The even greater question is “Is there a common mission in which we can engage, regardless of our differences?” The answer to this question has kept Baptists going for years. Because there is ALWAYS a common mission – if we’ll just focus on it rather than on our denominational bellybutton.

One region executive told me today that those from every side in his region can gather around the “Children In Poverty” emphasis being lifted up by the home mission folks (NM). He plans to get going.

Dwight writes about a shrinking middle. Another part of what he described is what I call a “sagging” middle. I realize the word “sag” is not appreciated by persons past 50 who resent the thought of anything “sagging.” But life is what it is. The truth is, a taught rope will eventually sag. It just happens.

Some members of the radical middle in ABC life are sagging. Time goes on. The issues can’t be fully resolved. No one seems to win -- and when they do, they act like they’ve lost. We tire of living in the in between.

What happens if the middle disappears? If that happens, what will bring left and right to the table of listening, learning, growing? I can understand why folks on the left and those on the right would like to walk away – just hang out with folks who think like they do. What’s happening now is that the middle is weary and may walk away. The destination is unclear, however, the consequences are very clear.

I repeat, what do you want, Dwight?

The Shrinking "Middle"

I struggle with how to underscore the seriousness of our situation without sounding like a doomsday prophet. I know I don’t always succeed.

Recent action by the region of West Virginia needs to be seriously considered. You can read their full report at http://216.30.200.250/business%20session.pdf . The short version is that a motion to begin action toward withdrawal from ABCUSA was defeated AND a motion to affirm and support the leadership of ABCUSA was also defeated.

I find the votes extremely interesting, and very troubling.

The motion to begin action to leave ABCUSA was narrowly defeated (325 to 391). The motion to affirm and support the leadership of ABCUSA was also narrowly defeated (267 to 402). Voter analysis is always risky business, but I do it anyhow! It seems that there were about 100 swing votes during this convention. The distribution, by my calculations may be described as 46% are ready to talk about leaving right now, 38% want to support and affirm ABCUSA (at least for the time being), and about 14% are not really happy in either camp.

My strained observations are:

First: The “middle” is smaller than I imagined (I had thought it was more like 20-30%). Yes, I know this is only one region—but it does make me wonder; perhaps I am living with a delusion. Neither side has the power (at least at this point) to impose its will (and I have seen this repeatedly). Only when the middle is won (which can be done by either side, at least mathematically) does a majority emerge.

Second: 60% of those voting are so profoundly disaffected from ABCUSA that they cannot publicly affirm and support the leadership—even by a pretty anemic resolution. About 100 of those who had rejected action that was headed toward withdrawal still would not publicly affirm ABCUSA. From my experience, it would be a mistake to presume that that all those who want to be supportive of ABCUSA approve of leadership actions in our present situation.

An exclusive “middle” will not hold the day. Somehow, a coalition must be drawn toward the middle from those on either side. If that does not happen: 1) either side may attract and energize sufficient numbers from the middle to achieve majority, or 2) those in the middle will disengage and not participate, effectively removing themselves from the playing field.

Is anybody listening?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Presbyterian Task Force

Like Susan says, it has been a while. Between regional meetings, meetings with pastors regarding the conflict in ABCUSA, and writing in response to that conflict, I have been absent from this blog. I truly feel that any wisdom I may have had in this situation has been long since exhausted.

No doubt you are aware that the issue of homosexuality has every American denomination in its grip. Recently the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA received a report from its Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. It is entitled simply Peace Unity Purity. The entire text can be downloaded at http://www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity . Scroll down to find the final report and study guide (it is in pdf, so you will need Adobe Reader).

I am not a Presbyterian and have no desire to be a Presbyterian. I do not agree with everything in their report (after all, I am a Baptist—regardless of what some may think). But there are some things from that report that are worthy of our attention.

The Task Force was specifically charged to address four issues that have been the focus of controversy and conflict in PCUSA: biblical authority and interpretation, Christology, ordination standards, and power. I believe the same issues are at work in ABCUSA.

In the course of Bible study, reflection and spiritual discernment, the Task force discovered several characteristics of the present conflict (in their own words, with no implied endorsement):

First, those of us associated with the Anglo traditions that have dominated the Presbyterian Church (USA) came to understand how much alienation and pain we have caused by past oppression of other racial and ethnic groups and by currently maintaining barriers to the full inclusion of those groups’ members, cultures, and gifts.

Second, those of us who identify our views as liberal came to understand how alienating it is for conservatives and evangelicals when their passionate commitment to holy living and upright conduct are labeled as rigid and judgmental.

Third, those of us who identify our views as conservative came to understand how alienating it is for liberals when their passionate commitment to justice and compassion are labeled as unbiblical.

Fourth, those of us who identify our views as moderate came to understand how alienating it is when those with passionate concerns on either end of the theological spectrum are labeled extreme and divisive.


Fifth, many of us came to understand how alienating it is for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons to be so regularly identified as a major threat to the peace, unity, and purity of the church.

Sixth, many of us also came to understand how alienating it is for those who support a ban on the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian persons to be accused of prejudice, and how alienating it is for those who oppose such a ban to be accused of moral laxity.

Seventh, all of us came to see that the Presbyterian Church (USA), in its current factionalized state that we have all created together by our mutual stereotyping and misuse of power, fails to offer a suffering world a sign of peace, unity, and purity that is God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ.

While the Task Force worked hard and honestly, they did not overcome our differences and reach agreement on all the issues.

They did note that the most serious disagreements were not over biblical interpretation per se, but focus on what constitutes faithful pastoral application of scriptural teaching or on which passages of Scripture are relevant to a particular question.

While the Task Force was not asked to take a position on human sexuality or ordination, they did come to agreement on several points:

It is a grave error to deny baptism or church membership to gay and lesbian persons or to withhold pastoral care to them or their families.

Those who aspire to ordination must lead faithful lives. Those who demonstrate licentious behavior should not be ordained.

Sexual behavior is integral to Christian discipleship, leadership, and community life. It is not purely a personal matter.

Sexual orientation is, in itself, no barrier to ordination.

Perhaps most challenging for us of Baptist persuasion is the conclusion: Truth, holiness, and righteousness matter as pathways to discipleship, in both the life of the church as a body and in the lives of its members. Ultimately, the church cannot simply agree to disagree on important matters of faith and practice. Church polity must provide ways for serious disagreements to be resolved. But resolution by merely technical or legal means will not endure because it does not address the conflict of convictions that gave rise to the disagreements in the first place. Only a resolution with theological integrity can be sustained.

Elsewhere they speak of a church both preoccupied with and weary of conflict. That certainly rings true for me in ABCUSA. While some are openly encouraged by certain departures or disengagements, and chastise those who leave “in a huff,” I suspect many more are leaving and disengaging because of fatigue and discouragement. They are not angry or self-righteous; they are in great pain and have an abiding sense of loss.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Walking Very Carefully

Well, you’ve noticed quite a gap between Sept. 21 and today. It may be because some folks have been holding their breath -- not as a belligerent child having a temper tantrum (we’ve been through that already) – but rather as a time of fragile watching as the denomination and its critics move carefully in a way that just might lead toward on-going life together.

The good news in ABC life is there is a softening in positions among some key leaders. There are those (on both/all sides) who are truly trying to find a way to lead this denomination through these troubled waters. Thank you to those who are staying open and are willing to re-think and try again.

I encourage those of you who have emotionally “thrown in the towel” to pick it up again. This tenacious ABC may be flawed but it has deep roots and a will to live that is overcoming the obstacles being thrown in its way. It’s like the weed that pushes up through the concrete. It may not be beautiful but it has a purpose and a vision and is determined to live.

Each church in the denomination has received a letter from the General Secretary clarifying current policies. [The amount of mis-information has been distressing. There are certainly serious concerns and disagreements but we don’t need the confusion of false information. Much of this has circulated as in the old party game “telephone.” Each person hears a message slightly differently from the way it was said and by the time you get to the end of the line, the message is a mess.] The letter from the General Secretary also defines the direction he intends to lead us.

I have nothing profound to say today. It’s a time for prayer and care. [But I thought if I put something on the blog, Dwight might be tempted to share some wisdom.]