The great collapse

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So, I got calls and emails from people, apologizing that I didn’t have a good experience at the McLaren conference. But I did. Please, let me be clear. I think he’s doing wonderful things. It was great to see the conservative/liberal divide collapsing.

I had a bad experience with someone in the pew… but I know that’s not an overall reflection of anything. I know how heart breaking it is for me when a visitor to our church has a bad experience with someone in the pew.

As church leaders, we try to make sure that everyone feels welcome. We train our ushers and our members to be nice to visitors. We talk about loving one another. We work hard at being friendly. I mean, really. It seems like it should be a given, but we’re always reminding each other, in the Deacon’s meetings, in our board meetings, in all of our gatherings, “We don’t want to see anyone standing alone. We all know how excruciating it is to stand at a cocktail party and not have anyone to talk to. Well, church is worse, because we don’t even have the drinks. So, don’t talk to your friends. Talk to strangers.”

It works, for the most part…. But, the sad truth is that the pastors and church leaders really can’t control what people in the pew say to one another. We’re an inclusive, urban church. We have homeless people sitting next to CEOs. We have people who are slipping in and out of dementia. We have some who are depressed, some are anxious. None of us are there because we’ve got it all together. And sometimes things are said… and sometimes I’m making phone calls to apologize. And sometimes the calls work, but sometimes we lose people.

I hate losing people.

But, if I may be so unfocused, let me go back to the great divide. I’ve been trying to articulate something without sounding ageist. And I don’t quite know how to do it…. I’ve linked to this report before (sorry it costs money), but in it, it talks about generations in marketing terms: Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, etc. And one thing that it suggests is that Boomers are idealistic. They love to argue and fight over principles and beliefs. Gen Xers are more pragmatic and innovative. They would rather cut through the discussions, get work done, and start new stuff.

This makes so much sense to me as I look at the church. As older generations chip away at the beauracracy, as they talk over LGBT ordination over and over again, as they write papers and send overtures, I speak to people in my generation, they say, “I’m tired of talking about it.”

And I say, “What do you mean? You just went to one meeting.” But usually, one advocacy meeting is more than enough.

In general, I want to state my beliefs and move on (but, of course, I worry that we might have to quite literally move on, the way this is all panning out… I’m afraid our church may lose an entire generation over LGBT ordination).

There are, of course, good things about the idealism. It brought us Civil Rights, after all. And there are many irritating things about my generation–like their incredibly annoying habit of NOT VOTING. What is up with that?

I guess it’s been helpful for me to understand what’s happening, but I would hate to funnel energy into another divide. So, what do you think? Do you see this shift? Would it be better to think in terms of a shift in cultural milieu instead of a generational shift?

Of course, my answer to our liberal/conservative divide is inclusion. I would love it if the conservatives could be conservative and progressives could be progressive. But is it possible? My progressive vision easily includes conservatives, but can there be a conservative vision that includes liberals? Is there any talk of that out there?

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23 thoughts on “The great collapse

  1. I’m thinking about the idea that Gen Xers “would rather cut through the discussions, get stuff done, start new stuff.” I agree that this is the sentiment of most Gen Xers, but somewhere underneath it often seems to me that “cutting through the discussion” really means: “stop talking and agree with me.” And this happens on both sides. That is, progressives say “Let’s stop talking about it and move on,” what they mean is, “just let us have our way already so we all can stop fighting.” And when conservatives say the same thing, they mean the same thing. So are we really talking *to* each other, or only talking past each other? Are we actually talking at all, or just using this phrase “let’s move on” as a polite way of saying, “let’s do it my way”?

  2. I don’t think the boomers invented arguing. If I remember correctly, people in the church have killed one another from Nicea through the Inquisition to Calvin killing Servetus to the Puritans to….
    So maybe, we are actually making progress. Today, we simply decide to leave the church and form our own denomination where others agree with us. Well, I guess that isn’t too original either, is it? The eastern church split from the Western, Luther from the Roman Catholic Church, northern US churches from southern US churches during the uncivil war, etc.
    As one who has been arguing about the LGBT issue for 30 plus years of ordained ministry, no one is more tired of it than me. But some arguments have to be argued. This is one of them.
    There isn’t a “middle ground” on the LGBT issue. If you think homosexuality is a sin, you are never going to be convinced that we should ordain LGBT folks. Same on the other side of the debate. Let’s respect the integrity of those positions rather than expect folks on both sides to morph into some compromise that really compromises their theological integrity.
    I think sometimes separation is the best strategy. Many of the denominations split during the uncivil war but finally reunited. I think the same thing will happen if we separate now over the issue of the ordination of LGBT folk. 20-30-100 years from now, the argument will be over and people can come back together.
    At this point, staying together seems more destructive than separating. I wish there was another way but if there is, I’d love to hear it.

  3. We have talked about this around our church office as well–as people who tend to be on the “progressive” side (whatever that means), and as staff who are on the young side for our denomination’s clergy (both of us are under 40). We talk often about how more liberal groups are always saying “we want to sit down with people who disagree and talk about it, meet each other, find common ground, etc etc etc.” But, in the words of my SP, “on the other side, they want you dead! They don’t want to talk, they want you to be gone.” I find that resonates with my experience both as one on the liberal side of what seems an impassable divide and on the younger/different-worldview side of some other kind of divide that I’ve not been able to articulate nearly as well as you have.

    So the cynical side of me wants to say “we want to cut through the talk and just DO something already! but the talkers don’t want us to do that–they want us to go away and leave their conversation in peace.” I fervently hope that is not true, and also that Andy’s observation is not as true as it sounds.

  4. I really appreciate John and Teri’s comments.

    John: I think you are right on when you say that some arguments need to be argued. And, it’s important that we are precise about what we are arguing/discussing. That is to say, I’ve noticed many times that the discussion balloons into unmanageability because progressives are secretly thinking that conservatives are heartless bigots, and conservantives are secretly thinking that progressives are faithless apostates. It goes without saying that the discussion becomes unproductive when we harbor those thoughts about each other. Moreover, it seems to me that bringing in the “sin element” of the debate is actually very helpful. It makes clear what the debate is about, and if we’re going to debate we might as well be clear about the thing we’re debating. I’m a new, young pastor, so I haven’t been present at much of this for very long, but I’ve never heard the discussion happen at this (theological) level. More often is strategizing, politicizing, and otherwise assuming that honest, respectful debate about theology and sin won’t change anyone’s mind, so we might as well pull a power-play. But isn’t honest, respectful debate about theology and sin exactly what changes people’s minds? See Jack Rogers, for one.

    Teri: as an under-40 pastor situated theologically right-of-center, I bear witness that many feel exactly as you do on this “side.” It’s so interesting! I have heard that sentiment almost verbatim. Doesn’t that indicate that we aren’t really effectively “dialoging”? I think of my premarital counselor, who told us that the amount of conflict does not define the success of a marriage, but the kind of conflict does. That is, the issue is not *if* we fight but *how* we fight that matters most. And if I project this marriage analogy on to the PCUSA, I see very little discussion of the real issues, but lots of escalation, mind-reading, and withdrawal (all behaviors I was exhorted to avoid in communication with my wife).

    By the way, Teri, I promise I don’t “want you dead.” And I promise I won’t think that you want me dead.

    Sorry this is so long. Thanks for the venue, Carol.

  5. The question I am asking myself right now is: Should I join a church, even a church I love, if I am fully aware that the denomination does not support gay rights?

    I guess there are ways around it. Its easy to see what a tough moral question this is though, especially when you realize what a human rights issue it is. Denominations and the church at large has been wrong before, time and time again. Its just a matter of waiting to see if the church will change before it collapses for all practical purposes. I think it will collapse on the west and east coast first after the older generations pass on. Hopefully this won’t happen. Another scary thing I’ve witnessed is mainline churches transitioning to evangelical in order to grow. That’s scary to me and I don’t really know what it means for mainlines.

  6. No apologies, Andy. I appreciate the insight.

    I know the arguments from both sides pretty well. My proud pedigree includes a degree from Moody Bible Institute. I know that I can exist with those on the right, but the question is, can they exist with me?

    Anonymous, I get nervous about that too. My great prayer is that my best friends can go to church with me.

    I know it doesn’t sound connectional or Presbyterian, but I’ve found the greatest hope on the edges. In our local congregations, who love and support each individual, no matter what the denominational stance might be. I would say, yes. Join the church. We need you.

    But, of course, it is your decision.

  7. I agree with John on the idea of a split within the Presbyterian Church (USA) with the possibilities of further ecumenical dialogue. Unfortunately, it was primarily the same players that wanted to push aside the conservative’s overtures toward “amicable separation.” These moderates wanted another round of sitting at the same table and talking with each other. There is a point when all this talking and understanding means an excuse for inaction. 30 years of fighting in the Presbyterian church over ordination has been primarily amongst the powerful elite in the denomination. Even supposed liberal voices have attempted to silence those on the liberal margins in this “open” discussion. With GLBT’s mostly excluded often this discussion has been amongst a small group of elders and minister under the age of 40, a small amount of liberals over the age of forty, a large amount of moderates on both sides and some radical fundamentalists. At least from my point of view this discussion has not been entirely inclusive.

    When the nnpcw wanted to have its voice heard about the issues of human sexuality there was such a hue and cry amongst the denomination’s gatekeepers to silence them that it was frightening. I believe that the General Assembly of 1998 withdrew its sponsorship and funding for this organization over their conversations over homosexuality. To me, at the time, this indicated how our differing young adults voice was valued within our denomination. To me it is not merely that those under 40 don’t want to discuss the issues, it is that they have been ignored so long.

    I mean the age groups under the age of 40 do not even have an official office currently at the HQ of the General Assembly. A few different offices meet at a table to occasionally address the issues of Presbyterians under the age of 40. It is obvious who these conversations are being catered around issues that are still under old paradigms.

  8. I guess it would be a bit disingenuous of me to trumpet the virtues of respectful dialogue, and then shrink from it when it arises…

    Anonymous: I understand what you are saying, but let me humbly ask: Is ordination a human right? It seems to me to be a theological mistake to frame the ordination issue as a matter of “rights.” Framing it as a rights-issue prejudices the debate: if one disagrees, then one is against human rights. (I suggest we understand it as a matter of vocation, which is discerned communally.) I suspect I just hurt or angered some people with that…I do ask that you interpret me charitably. I mean it when I say I am asking humbly.

    This is where John’s insight is so key. Everything hinges on what is considered sin. And this is precisely what no one discusses.

    I also don’t mean to hijack this thread. If anyone wants to discuss this offline, I’d be willing.

  9. Andy I do think that the different views of sin have been discussed in detail amongst the parties around the table. Whether it is is the view that homosexuality is in the divine’s eyes a sinful act of sexual impurity or that exclusion of homosexuals has represented a systemic distortion of a particular religious institution at excluding those whom Jesus would have sided with. There are many other arguments that have been based on the issue of sin that have been discussed in depth over the years. They have been at the study group level as well as included in GA’s official resolutions. I think that the greater point may be that there is an impenetrable divide on the theological issue of sin between some moderates and liberals and conservatives and fundamentalists. I agree with John that there isn’t necessarily a middle ground on this issue for the advocates on either side. There is too much at stake theologically.

  10. I’m inclined to agree with Andy that framing the conversation in terms of rights is not the most useful frame. I prefer the frame of eligibility. Who is eligible to be called by God? I think some people disqualify themselves with flagrant, continuing sin. Osama bin Laden is not currently eligible for ordination! But since I do not view homosexuality as a sin, I see no reason why LGBT folks shouldn’t be eligible for ordination and evaluated on the basis of the same criteria used for heterosexual individuals.
    And anonymous, I agree with Tribal Church, don’t give up on the church. We have made so much progress over the past 2000 years. Most of that progress has been achieved by stubborn, persistent folks who fought the battle even while the battle seemed to be lost. We need you.

  11. Shekinah Glory: you’re undoubtedly right–part of the reason that I haven’t heard the whole conversation is that I’ve only been around for a short time of it. Given what you say here, are you left with a sense of hope for unity, or despair? If we’ve already talked the issues through, is political maneuvering the only thing left to do?

    John: I wouldn’t think eligibility to be an adequate frame. Here’s why: all Christians are *eligible* to be ordained by virtue of their baptism. The rub lies elsewhere: ordination requires 1) the confirming voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the church, and 2) a willingness to allow that vocation to be formative of one’s discipleship. So though all are indeed eligible, it is up to the church to discern and affirm that eligibility. And as you know, the church can and has affirmed that baptismal eligibility by ordaining homosexuals (addressing #1) so long as they remain celibate (addressing #2). To put it in another way, elibility doesn’t really get at the issue. But vocation does. The issue is not, “Who is eligible?”–the church’s answer (as I understand it) is: baptism makes us eligible, but being eligible is not the same thing as being called. Calling is tested and confirmed by the church.

    Thanks for engaging with me on this. I really do appreciate it.

  12. Andy~

    I would have had more hope that we could have proceeded with a more civil ecumenical discussion if there was a separation that was arbitrated and amicable. If, as John points out, that there is no common ground for the true believers then our only other historical model for separation in the Presbyterian church is much more treacherous and bloody. I think that everyone who wants to hold the denomination together by talking would have a much more comfortable conversation in two complimentary denominations that originate from common traditions.

    This however would mean that there would be an understanding that there would not be church poaching like the conservatives did in the PCA churches in the south. It would also mean that there would need to be a messy understanding of churches who find themselves with major percentages, but no clear unanimous support on one side or another. Finally, there is the Board of Pensions and many assets to iron out. There are many downsides to resolving differences by moving in opposite directions. Yet, if we could re-imagine separation as something more positive than years of emotionally filled discussion or the possibility of lawsuits and restraining orders then I think that I would support moving in that direction.

    Yet, to answer your direct question, no I do not have any hope that there will be an amicable separation.

  13. My head pastor and I discussed this topic just this past week, that is, the different focus of Boomers and Gen Xers. I tend to agree with the statement, Gex Xers”would rather cut through the discussions, get work done, and start new stuff.” I’m not suggesting that the LGBT discussions aren’t important, but sometimes such topics become such a focus that the larger vision of being the church in the world gets lost. LGBT issues, however you understand it theologically, shouldn’t overshadow the undeniable work we are called to do as the body of Christ (caring for the sick, binding up the brokenhearted, etc). Sometimes I sit in presbytery meetings wondering what the heck we’re doing. So much back and forth over an issue where neither side is going to change the mind of the other and so little discussion and action on issues of poverty, disabilties, mental illness, etc. For most of the 20’s-30’s (at least in my experience as a young pastor), understanding how we can live into the body of Christ in a tangible way is much more inviting than rote discussion.

  14. This is why I left the mainline for the Metropolitan Community Church: I am tired of the conversation about full participation of LGBT folks in the Body of Christ.

    It is boring and heartbreaking, all at the same time. There are the conservatives who want folks like me to prove we’re not recklessly destroying Everything The Church Stands For. There are the liberals who want folks like me to Fight The Good Fight.

    Well, pfah. I’m happy to have an ecumenical conversation about “this is how we do it in our denomination, how about you?”–in the same way that I’m happy to talk with Catholics about male-only ordination and mandatory celibacy for priests–but I have no interest in fighting this battle within my own faith home. I refuse to be anybody’s black sheep, nor anybody’s poster child neither.

  15. In 30 years we will be looking back and the generation taking leadership after I am gone will wonder what the big deal was about LGBT rights. Carol you pointed this out in TC.

    I understand that both sides see injustice and the need to protect…what are we fighting for and/or over? Should we not focus on the task at hand? The mission to the world. Millions die as we argue what sexual actions are appropriate or not when we seek leaders.

    I wish we would put as much effort into fighting poverty and disease as we do in the sex others have.

    In my skewed, illogical, finite and depraved mind, Jesus cares more about love and self-sacrificing service to others (our enemies)than he does about the what we believe.

    Is there a kill screen on inclusion in leadership of the church? If we error in any direction should it not be towards love?

    WTFWJD?

  16. Reading Mark’s comment reminded me of the fluidity of religious traditions.

    We expect people to stick it out and fight the good fight in our denominations, but we know that people don’t stay in the church where they grew up. They don’t even stay in the same religious tradition when they move from town to town. Why do we expect them to slog through the quagmire all of our excruciating denominational battles?

    As much as we want people to stay and fight for the denomination, I’m just not sure that’s the world we live in any more. Pastors have a bit more at stake, so we might be willing to roll up their sleeves for the cause, but lay people? Not so much.

    Oh, and just to clarify… when I said “we need you,” I didn’t mean we needed you as a poster child, or as another vote on our side. I meant that we need you. As the full and unique person that you are.

  17. I would like to lift out something that goes back to my original point. When we say things like “these battles over sexuality gets in the way of our mission to the world,” or, for example: “I wish we put more effort into fighting disease and poverty as sex” (as much as I wholeheartedly agree), we need to recognize that such an answer doesn’t actually *move beyond* the sexuality question, it answers the sexuality question in one direction or the other.

    Both conservatives and progressives say these exact same words, but have different assumptions about what it implies. The question doesn’t go away, just because we pretend we are moving beyond it. We are not moving beyond the question, just sidestepping it by saying, “Why don’t you (conservative/progressives) just get over it and let’s get on with the church’s mission?”

  18. “I meant that we need you. As the full and unique person that you are.”

    Which is genuinely appreciated, but the facts on the ground are that I wouldn’t be of as much use there. There are walls beyond the narrow question of ordination and official denominational statements. You know how that goes, from your time spent as a woman in a particular evangelical setting.

    Here is the moment that crystallized it for me…

    Before I was MCC, I was United Church of Christ. My congregation was a pretty typical moderately liberal northeastern one. Out-but-not-prominently gay people had important leadership roles. There had been a lesbian associate pastor at one point. The then-current associate pastor wore a pink triangle pin on his robes.

    By local standards, I was a newcomer. I chaired the stewardship committee, participated in liturgy, and was generally a good Congregationalist. When the senior pastor resigned, I joined the search committee for his successor.

    That’s when lots of (confidential) junk happened. As a consequence, the congregation decided to have some open forums about sexuality and ministry. The things I heard! Stuff like, “Do we want to go any further down this road? Look at the abuse scandals going on in the Catholic Church right now! We need to think about our children’s safety.” And this is just what people were willing to say in *public*.

    Nobody would have stopped me if I had joined the Christian Education committee. Nobody would have stopped talking to at me coffee hour if I made it known I wasn’t heterosexual. But there was a tension there I hadn’t felt before. It was not so much a question of people having different theological convictions from me–that’s par for the course in the UCC–as knowing that my existence gave a nontrivial number of my brothers and sisters the heebie-jeebies.

    And this was one of the decent congregations in the mainline denomination that has the best record of inclusion for GLBT folks.

    So, yes, I was needed there. But I was also a stumbling block. Better to go where I am both needed and non-controversial, so that I can live out a better witness in the world.

  19. Ugh. So heartbreaking. The wounds the church can inflict. I’m sorry.

    I guess it’s wise not to debate the ordination standards as a civil rights issue. But, aside from that… historically, the rights and even lives of LGBTs have been cut short. And it’s so often because of abuse that’s fueled by churches. I often feel the strong urge for communal repentance.

    We do still need you, but I consider the MCC as part of “we.” And you need to be in a place where you can serve. Fully.

  20. Andy–thanks for not wanting me dead! I don’t want you dead either, I promise.
    Sorry for dropping out of this convo…I had a nervous breakdown about Palm Sunday/Holy Week and am only partly emerged from it.

  21. “The wounds the church can inflict. I’m sorry.”

    Thanks for the kind words. Though I tend to think of the wounds as being something the church inflicts on itself as much as on me. I’m sure I’ve been part of wounding someone else…Being charitable seems important to me.

    “I consider the MCC as part of ‘we.'”

    Well, we’re not a member of the National Council of Churches, let alone a participant in an ecumenical Formula of Agreement of full communion with PCUSA. Admittedly, I put more weight on ecclesiology than most folks I know! But, yes, there is the one Body only.

  22. I confess to basic “irresponsibility” by taking a full day off today–I’m headed into the city to hang out, see art, meet old friends, and eat something horribly unhealthy. However, to make that possible I was at church until midnight last night making sure that the stuff that had to be done before the admin leaves at noon today was ready for her.
    but yay! art institute! here’s hoping that and some coffee and pizza (mmm, chicago pizza) will revive me and I’ll be able to contribute something meaningful to *someone* *somewhere*….

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