Sunday, July 29, 2012

Evaluating Other Denominations

     In our Deep Discernment process we have spent a lot of time and energy evaluating the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I am thankful for the many people who have joined in the process sharing prayers, thoughts and insights.
     Now, we are embarking on a new adventure in our Deep Discernment-that of choosing a new denominational home.  While we will continue to work with the Presbytery of Central Washington's discernment team to ensure that we have heard the Spirit's call rightly, we are preparing to make a move to a new denomination.  This is a major change in our mindset.
     Up to this point we have been investigating if we can continue to minister in, with and on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Now, having determined we cannot, we need to begin to describe a denomination in which we could do what we feel we currently cannot.  To accomplish this goal a Commission has been created that will begin to put together a list of Values (needs) and Criteria (wants and necessary requirements) with which to evaluate the denominational picture.
     This list (and the denominations under consideration) is currently very fluid, but if you would like a peek, you can see the list as it currently stands here.  We will continue to fill in the details of the list (and are thankful to others who have given us a head start with their own charts).

"The Folder"

     When we at First Presbyterian Church of Omak began our denominational discernment process (you can see an overview of our process here), we were overwhelmed at the task before us.  The commission created by the Session quickly settled on doing evidence-based discernment.  We would, whenever and however possible, choose to seek hard evidence for our decisions.  Little did we know that this course of action would create a large number of documents that, quite honestly, became unwieldy in practice.  Our hope is to make your and your congregation's discernment easier with this handy guide.
     I (Pastor Bill) have had a few requests, mostly from other pastors, to get a look at what has come to be known as "The Folder" of information concerning the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Oh, you don't know about that folder.  Well let me give you a visual.  The folder is, conservatively, 3 inches thick and contains dozens of documents.  I am somewhat perplexed to admit that I have read and/or reviewed everything in the folder.  No wonder I feel so tired all the time.
     What follows is an annotated list of documents in the folder that you can find with a simple click of the mouse.  Those who have requested a copy of the folder will, I hope, I understand given this list why we have been reluctant to send it out.  Frankly, it would just be too much time and work to do so.  So please use the following links to begin building a folder of your own.
  •  Category 1:  Presbyterian Panel Studies 
    • The Presbyterian Panel Studies are a set of statistical tools and analysis compiled by the PC(USA).  They are scientific surveys and have all the credentials one would need to make statistical determinations based on the data.  All of these studies are invaluable.  Unfortunately, not all of the studies are available online--though enough are to see some startling trends.
    • Of particular interest are the Background Reports.  Do not waste time with the summaries as these contain a lot of data interpretation.  What you are after are the appendices to the full reports where you can get a look at the real, hard data.  Be sure to look at the 2008, 2005, 1999 and 1997 reports.  A 2011 summary is also available, but it lacks the full report currently.  Similar to the Background Reports, in 2001 a U.S. Congregational Life Survey was conducted and contains similar information.  The real trouble with these surveys is that they do not always ask the same question in the same way which makes comparison and analysis difficult.
    • Also of interest are studies on:
      • Spirituality:  1994 is a report on Spirituality.  In 1997 it became a report Spirituality, Health and Well Being.  In 2007 (only available as a summary) it became Spirituality and Health.  In 2010 only a Health survey was done with no reference to Spirituality.
      • The Bible:  Several studies, including the Background Reports, touch on the place of the Bible in the current life of the PC(USA).  In addition to these, specific reports on the Bible were issued in 1995 and 2006.
      • Evangelism:  A specific study on evangelism was done in 1996.  After this, it seems that evangelism was folded into other studies conducted in 2005.
      • Current Issues:  One of my favorite survey topics was variously titled Current Issues or just Issues.  You can find such studies in 1996, 2004 and 2006.  
    • Other studies and surveys on the main page are interesting and worth a look, but these were the particular studies that were telling in our own study here at FPC Omak.
    • If you are not a statistics nut like me, perhaps our summary spreadsheet (with graphs) would be helpful.  You can download it here. There is so much more that could be said, but this is a nice little comparative summary based on the information.  What's even better is it is all legitimate statistical information and therefore unbiased.
  • Category 2:  General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission Decisions
  • Category 3:  The Sanctity of Human Life
    • Our congregation is unashamedly Pro-Life.  We have sought and received Relief of Conscience during my tenure as pastor (something we were surprised to find out we did not have previously!).  The PC(USA)'s stance on abortion has been trying for us to say the least.  For those interested in this stance, here are some documents.
    • The current position paper on abortion dates to 1994.  Of particular interest is paragraph e. under section E. Policy Development and subsection 1. Areas of Substantial Agreement on the Issue of Abortion.  The paragraph states:  "The considered decision of a woman to terminate a pregnancy can be a morally acceptable, though certainly not the only or required, decision. Possible justifying circumstances would include medical indications of severe physical or mental deformity, conception as a result of rape or incest, or conditions under which the physical or mental health of either woman or child would be gravely threatened."
    • This language is cited in the Board of Pensions coverage information regarding "Women's Health Protection" (p 24) in the "Guide to Your Healthcare Benefits 2012."  The brochure states, "Consistent with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s affirmation of the ability of a woman to make good moral choices regarding problem pregnancies, the Medical Plan reimburses medical costs for abortion procedures, subject to plan limits.  The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) further affirms that abortion should not be used as a method of birth control, for gender selection only, or solely to obtain fetal parts for transplantation."
    • A succinct history of the abortion issue in the PC(USA) is available in two parts (one and two) from Presbyterians Pro-Life.
  • Category 4:  Denial of the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ and creeping universalism
    • The 1972 Study of Universalism just about says it all.  The study left the door open to consider universalism as a possibility.  In other words, in an attempt to compromise the General Assembly, in adopting the paper, did nothing to answer the denomination's stance on universalism.
    • The current stance of the denomination is a tricky one to navigate as there are a number of contradictory statements out there.  The Office of Interfaith Relations has a list of documents up to help you find your way through.  Of these documents, the "Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue" and "Witness and Evangelism Among People of Other Faiths" are the most enlightening.  Honestly, these documents (and the ones listed in the next bullet section) are a furthering of the Study of Universalism's approach--they are not shocking, but neither are they solidly founded on the Gospel.
    • In addition to these overarching articles, there are also several religion specific papers that may interest your committee.
    • A little more troubling was the return to the folks who brought you Re-Imagining with the 220th General Assembly's support of the Words Matter project.  This project tosses the Lordship of Jesus Christ back up into the air after the compromising Hope In the Lord Jesus Christ (another compromise document, see pg 11-12, lines 155-168) sought to alleviate in 2002. That paper was a response to the inability of the 213th General Assembly to affirm the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ (here is an article written in defense of the action of the 213th General Assembly).
    • In 2007, Linda Valentine (Executive Director, General Assembly Council) and Clifton Kirkpatrick (at the time the Stated Clerk of GA) addressed many of these concerns in a letter to the leaders of the New Wineskins.  The letter does refute many of the conclusions we drew as a commission, but not convincingly so.  In essence, in my opinion, it seems to say, "Settle down, everything is fine.  Just trust us."  The trouble is, we do not have that level of trust.
      • The letter concludes:  "The New Wineskins Association of Churches has raised questions about the faith and mission of the church that must be dealt with seriously. However, the confessional and constitutional theology and practice of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cannot be fairly censured with the careless charge of “apostasy.” Neither can the whole church be held responsible for every departure from its standards voiced by individual ministers, elders, deacons, and members. Let us all strive to recover the original purpose of governing bodies as settings of mutual responsibility and accountability in which faithful discourse deepens the church’s beliefs and focuses the church’s mission."
      • This touches on  the issue of the failure of the 3rd mark of the true church (discipline) which could warrant a category all its own.
  • Category 5:  Israel
    • The PC(USA) has taken a somewhat to very anti-Israel/pro-Palestine bent in recent years.  The actions of the 220th General Assembly were a step back and then forward from this trend.
    • The 2010 "Breaking Down the Walls" approved by the 219th General Assembly is really a watershed document in understanding the denomination's official view of Israel.
  • Category 6:  Marriage, Ordination Standards and Homosexuality
    • The adoption of Amendment 10-A, removing the fidelity and chastity language from the Book of Order alone speaks volumes about the trajectory of the PC(USA) regarding issues of accommodating itself to cultural sexual morals.  Here is the official stance of the denomination in FAQ form.
    • Attempts to redefine marriage as between two persons instead of a man and a woman were very narrowly defeated (338-308) at the 220th General Assembly and further study being called for will assure that this issue is not going to be resolved anytime soon.  The PNS story on the issue is well done.
  • Category 7:  Advisory Opinions and Authoritative Interpretations
    • These are official opinions and a few are worth reading.  I am running low on energy so I will simply list them out by title here.
    • Authoritative Interpretations:  If you can find a list of these, please let me know as I have not yet found them.  I know there are 250 of them still on the books, but what they are is known only to the privileged few I guess.
    • For the real legal buffs out there, here is a list and links to Amicus Curiae Briefs the PC(USA) has filed.  To be honest, we did not read these, but you may find them helpful.
  • Category 8:  Historic Documents
    • In an earlier post I linked to several of these documents.  You can find it here.
    • In addition to these, the Swearingen Commission Report is also useful as it has set the trajectory for conflict management in the PC(USA) to date (i.e. avoid and when necessary do nothing).  The best I was ever able to find here was an excerpt, but here is an article regarding the report from one of my teachers at Princeton.
I suppose reports of various other congregations who have gone through this process could be appended to this long list of resources (and some of these are indeed part of our monstrous folder).  That being said, the items listed above should keep any commission humming along for quite some time.  For those interested, you can read our commission's final report here.  Please feel free to use any or all of this report in your own (as we borrowed from others who had gone before us with similar permission).
My intent here is not to create dissension in the congregation, but to properly inform the congregation and the Session.  After our evidence-based investigation of the PC(USA) we decided it was prudent and proper for us to seek dismissal.  I hope, gentle reader, that you will approach this process of deep discernment with prayer and study and be led by the Holy Spirit to the place God is calling you to be.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Seeking Dismissal

As reported to you today in worship by Elder Richard Price the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Omak has chosen to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA).  The vote came at the conclusion of a process that began in February and was led admirably by the Denominational Investigative Commission (DIC).  The DIC read through many documents, led several community forums and learned much from a survey distributed to the membership.  All of these led the DIC to unanimously recommend the Session seek dismissal.  Session adopted the recommendation of the DIC.
The reasons for seeking dismissal boil down to our sense of call as a community of Christ's disciples.  We are called first and foremost to be followers of Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Scripture.  If we are given to choose between following Christ and our denomination, then our choice is clear.  The Session, in their action, has made the choice that for us to follow Jesus, we will seek to affiliate elsewhere.  The Session believes that for us as a congregation to continue to follow Christ, we need to do so in a different denomination.  Our hope is to become involved in a denomination that is not marked with the same intractable conflict over the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of the Scriptures and the understanding of biblical ethics, especially sexual morality.
Overall, this process has been marked with high emotions.  Some have been angry and expressed a sense of betrayal.  Greater than anger, however, has been a sense of sadness.  Personally, as your pastor, I am saddened that we have had to come to this decision in our life together, yet I am also hopeful.  I have long thought of this dismissal process as a sort of get over it so we can get on with it project.  We need to get over the emotional issues and conflicts that seem to dishearten us in our mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and get on with the work of evangelism and discipleship.
The road ahead will mean two separate process occurring simultaneously.  First, a commission was created to work with the Presbytery's dismissal process.  You can read first hand the steps our Presbytery has set forward for congregations here.  Our hope is that in moving forward, though this process will be marked with sadness and loss on both sides, that our witness for Christ will speak loudest.
Second, a separate commission has been created to begin working on finding our new denominational home.  Our commission has reached to the Session of the Okanogan Presbyterian Church to work in partnership with them as we are both seeking a new denomination.  While I cannot speak for the commission, I know that I would appreciate your ideas and thoughts on the denominational search.  Remember, we are not seeking safe harbor, but rather a denomination that will support our ministry efforts and challenge us to deeper discipleship and richer evangelism.  Please also keep in mind that the denomination we choose must be Reformed in theology, consistent with Presbyterian polity and have sufficient permanence so that we will not be dismissed into de facto independence.  We will and must be dismissed into another Reformed denomination from the Presbytery's perspective.
Among the many denominations for us to consider, our Executive Presbyter, the Rev. G. David Lambertson has suggested two denominations really stand out.  The first is the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO for short.  This is a newly created denomination and would mean that we would really be part of creating a new way of being a denomination.  The second is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), a denomination created in 1981 that desired greater clarity in essentials.  These are just two of the options that could be considered.
Please pray for those that will serve on these two commissions and for our entire congregation in this process.  Our hope and pray is to follow the will of God as we seek to be better disciples of Christ.