Tonight, returned home late after a dinner and a meeting of the session at church. I know, it's amazing that this deeply raised-in-Catholicism girl has been a member of the Presbyterian church since 1991 and an ordained elder since 1993. But I have to say that as an attorney, I find the system of governance to be quite understandable (lawyers were the backbone of the founding of the Presbyterian church) and as a person, I have come to value the friendships that I have made there. It is all about fellowship.
Which is why I hate to see the first cracks in a new schism within the American Presbyterian church. The last time the Presbyterian church split in two, it was over slavery, in 1861. Now it appears that the church may be splitting over the ordination of gays. Keep in mind that not only ministers are ordained in the Presbyterian church, so are lay leaders, e.g. elders and deacons. So under the present Presbyterian Book of Order, gays cannot be ordained. There has been agitation in the past twenty years to change this. I became a member of the Presbyterian church in 1991 when it appeared that the church was relaxing its prohibition. That was a false hope. I have stayed with the church for the past 20 years, because 1) I found a home and 2) I believe that one can effect change better by working from within.
However, it appears that there may be a second historic split of the Presbyterian church in the future. Earlier this year a letter was sent out to Presbyterians, by those fearful of opening ordination to sexual minorities. This letter can be found here. They have called for a meeting in late August in Minneapolis, presumably to discuss peeling off from the denomination. Two pastors in the largest Presbyterian church in Seattle signed the letter, but the members of the congregation that I have spoke with, are unaware that their pastors are doing this. That's interesting.
A Presbyterian minister, Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, among others, has published a response to this letter. I was moved by her statements in a way that I have not been moved in a long time. Her conclusion is worth reprinting in full:
HOW WE GOT TO THIS PLACE -- AN RSVP
The brethren who wrote this letter to the church have, on February 7th, asked that we read their letter rather than to consider the signatories. This I have tried to do. Some will claim I have done so unfairly. This is entirely possible; I have never claimed to other than a subjective knowledge, baptized but still quite human.
Still there is one phrase from the letter with which I must take direct issue: “How we got to this place is less important than how we move forward.” (para 3.) Please consider my response to this phrase my RSVP to the churchwide invitation. For indeed, my brothers, how we got to this place may well be the crux of the matter.
We got to this place, as a denomination, by praying to the Triune God and thinking as two or three gathered together about the authority of scripture, Christology, and the extent of salvation.
We got to this place, as a denomination, by ordaining groups that, until fairly recent history, were considered ineligible for ordained ministry: groups of color, women, the divorced, and members of the church under the age of 21.
We got to this place, as a denomination by suffering the creation of fellowships (like the Layman) in opposition to the Confession of 1967 and silently enduring the refusal of churches to live into their financial obligations to the whole denomination.
We got to this place because, in 1978, we declared that seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (USA), should be safe places of non-discrimination for all people.
We got to this place by acting on our belief that the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper are not ours to control but are the property of the God whose grace abounds beyond our human understanding.
We got to this place by following the Christ who was belittled by the religious leaders of his day for his breaking of biblical commands (notably the fourth commandment and laws regarding eating abomination); and by following the Spirit that did not even require of Cornelius the mark of the covenant (circumcision) before it fell on him, bringing him into the church.
Most recently, we got to this place by affirming as a General Assembly the anti-racist, Reformed confession written in Belhar, South Africa that affirmed: God has entrusted the church with reconciliation, therefore, “any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.”
This year marks the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the US Civil War, a war which caused the great schism in the Presbyterian Church.
My brothers, I fear, sadly, that issues of property and like-mindedness, difference in biblical interpretation and authority and an unwillingness to be part of a larger body that fundamentally challenged their adherence to slaveocracy were exactly the reasons that the fellowships of congregations in the south created new seminaries, new synods and ultimately a new denomination.
Indeed, my brothers, my exegesis suggests that “how we got to this place,” and thus where we go from here, is precisely the point at issue.
My brothers, you invite the church into an adventure that is not at all new, but historically very familiar. It is an adventure marked by the European cultural norms of individual self-government, the right of property, a modernist take on liberty, a neo-colonialist model of mission, and a pre-modern understanding of biblical texts. This adventure has as its intent to grow the church in and for the twenty-first century, with neither consideration nor validation of how we got to this place.
I admit I am not thus tempted, and must respectfully decline.
Instead, with God's help, I will remain in the Presbyterian Church, USA, and with my denomination I will follow the Christ whose followers dwindled from 5000 to zero over the course of three years, yet who calls us still to follow; who has been demonstrated a capable healer of the deathly ill and has revealed himself to be the resurrection and the life.
With God's help, I will remain in this denomination, following the Spirit who fell on eunuch and centurion, and immigrant peoples in and from every language group of the Roman-conquered world, regardless of biblical adherence to seminal commands such as sabbath, kashrut and circumcision.
With God's help, I will remain in this denomination and follow the God who promises that, at the time of the coming kingdom, lion and lamb will lie down together, who calls for justice to roll down like waters, and yet desires mercy and not a sacrifice.
With God's help, I will remain in this denomination, living out my call with energy, intelligence, imagination and love, as I seek to do ministry with and among the contentious, shrinking, justice-seeking, mercy-doing, humbly-walking, peacemaking sisters and brothers of the Presbyterian Church (USA), who although we are dying yet, see, we live.
Even with God's help, I will be imperfect in my discipleship. Yet will I follow, relying on Jesus, my high priest, to make intercession for me; asking the Spirit of God to give me speech; and confessing with this denomination, and with the church in every age–in life, in death and in life after death, we belong to God.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, Ph. D.
Minister of Word and Sacrament
Rev. Oget's response makes me proud to be a Presbyterian at this time.