PCUSA: Becoming Church
- From the PCUSA News Service
Can Presbyterians hope to broadly replicate
conversion experience of Theological Task Force?
Analysis by John Filiatreau
Aug. 31, 2005
CHICAGO - It has been thrilling to see how the Presbyterians on the
Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church
have changed over the past four years.
In the beginning they peered at one another through masks of
dread and girded their loins for an anticipated dust-up over the most
contentious issues facing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), especially
those related to homosexuality and ordination.
Conservatives and liberals counted heads like legislative
whips, exchanged "talking points," looked for swing votes, gathered in
whispering clusters in hallways, drew lines in the theological sand.
Several seemed more conscious of representing constituencies
(conservatives, liberals, gays, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans,
blacks, pastors and professors, among others) than of representing the
entire PC(USA). Some were dismissive, even contemptuous, of colleagues
they deemed apostate or considered theological or scriptural
illiterates. Members exchanged sneers, glares, sniffs of derision.
After four years of coming together to worship, pray, study
scripture and theology, review church history, break bread together
and exchange personal beliefs and visions of the future - maybe 2,500
hours of community-building in all (not counting phone and email
communications and individual and small-group work on specific task
force projects) - they collectively realized, in the words of member
Jack Haberer, a Houston pastor, "that what we hold in common in our
beliefs and practices is far greater than what divides us."
Now they treat each other with evident respect, even when they
disagree. They exchange smiles, share laughter, evince a genuine
interest in one another's lives and faith journeys. They clearly
regard each other as persons of intellectual depth, authentic faith
and unfailing devotion to the Presbyterian Church.
In a word, they now treat each other in a way one might
characterize as Christian.
As they say in their final report, "By the grace of God and
with the Spirit's help, the task force grew into a Christian
Its members came to love each other.
And you can't despise someone you love.
(Just ask someone who has a gay or lesbian child.)
One of the group's recommendations is "that the General
Assembly urge governing bodies, congregations, and other groups of
Presbyterians to follow the example of the task force ... through
worship, study, community-building and collaborative effort."
"The intent of this recommendation ... is to invite the whole
church to participate in a season of discernment, not to mandate any
particular format or approach," the report says. "The task force
resources may be helpful starting points."
It says two features of the group's work plan were especially
"One was the decision to lay a groundwork of general
theological understanding and engagement before taking up the more
sensitive and difficult specific topics. The other was the
determination to seek to understand positions other than our own by
studying some of the best written presentations of different
perspectives by respected scholars and earlier committees and
commissions of the church."
In a section of the report headed, "Spiritual Progress," the
group describes "two remarkable experiences ... one of pain and
penitence, the other of gratitude and joy":
"First, in the course of our work, we have become increasingly
aware of the conflict and pain in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and
we have searched our hearts to determine how each of us may have
contributed to the church's problems."
In the beginning, the report says, the task force members
"shared a tendency that is widespread in the church: to blame others,
especially those with whom we disagree, for the church's troubles. ...
In the course of our work we began to understand that our own actions
as much as others' have offended God, wounded the body of Christ, and
caused pain to other Presbyterians."
The report lists a number of lessons the task force learned
"Those of us associated with Anglo traditions ... 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.
"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 rigid and judgmental.
"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 unbiblical.
"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
"Many of us 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.
"All of us came to see that the Presbyterian Church (USA), in
its current factionalized state that we all have created together by
our mutual stereotyping and misuse of power, fails to offer a
suffering world a sign of the peace, unity, and purity that is God's
gift to us in Jesus Christ."
"Second, in the course of our work, we have become
increasingly grateful for the gift of the church and for the ways that
other persons and perspectives make the whole body stronger."
"Our faith was enriched and strengthened by the contributions
of those whose views on contested issues we do not share," the task
force wrote. "... Our experience of Christian faith and life has been
extended and expanded. Our trust in other Presbyterians and our
respect for differing perspectives has deepened. Most of all, our joy
in believing has been greatly increased by the work of the Holy
Spirit. Our gratitude for the church has grown because of the honesty,
humility and faithfulness of other members of the task force. ... Over
our time together, a common conviction has grown among us: different
as we are, God has called us all to be part of the body of Christ as
it is manifested in the Presbyterian Church (USA)." (Task force's
The task force used two techniques mentioned only in passing
that seem to have been instrumental in its success: reaching decisions
"by consensus," rather than resolving disputes by up-or-down votes;
and conducting discussions by "mutual invitation," in which each
member of the group chooses the next person to speak, and no one
speaks twice until everyone has had a say.
The first prevented the group from breaking down into groups
of "winners" and "losers"; the second prevented the members with more
assertive personalities from overwhelming their more diffident
There is no question that the PC(USA) would benefit if
governing bodies, congregations and other groups could "follow the
example of the task force," but it isn't clear how its experience
could be reproduced widely throughout the church.
You can't divide a denomination with more than 2 million
members into groups of 20 and have each of them gather for three- to
five-day meetings four to six times a year for four years, mostly out
of the view of press and public.
Many have said what the Covenant Network of Presbyterians
notes on its Web site: "As it stands ... it is not yet clear how the
salutary effect of the Task Force's hard-won trust in one another and
its mutual respect as a group can be replicated in a practical way at
the GA, synod, and presbytery levels."
The task force's experience suggests that whoever said
familiarity breeds contempt got it wrong. What it really breeds, in
this context, is understanding, sympathy, tolerance and community.
I'm not sure that any member of the task force jettisoned or
compromised a single conviction that he or she held to when this
experiment began four years ago - yet it's clear that each of them has
a moral compass that now points to a somewhat different north.
It's true that the task force has had innumerable advantages
that other groups may not enjoy: manageable size, ample budget, ready
and able staff assistance, and freedom to do its business in private
(truly an anomaly for a Presbyterian work group), among others.
It also has had some crucial human assets that other groups
probably won't be able to match. To mention just a few:
Betty Achtemeier, the Union Seminary Bible professor who died
shortly after the task force began its work - but not before
persuading the group to begin with theological study and
community-building rather than divide into factions and become
Frances Taylor Gench, the New Testament professor at Union
whose passion for scripture, teaching talent and skillful use of the
Socratic method made the group's Bible studies engaging and
Barbara Wheeler, the sharp-tongued New Yorker and Auburn
Seminary president whose ready humor was welcome leaven at times when
the pressure was greatest;
John Wilkinson, the New York pastor whose knowledge of
denominational history kept the group's work grounded firmly in
Mike Loudon, the Florida pastor who held to his deeply
conservative convictions with a growing amiability;
Scott Anderson, a gay Presbyterian who played a
sometimes-uncomfortable role with grace and forbearance;
Milton "Joe" Coalter, the curmudgeonly Louisville Seminary
library scientist who always could be relied upon to challenge
questionable assumptions and challenge the common wisdom;
Barbara Everett Bryant, the Michigan research scientist who
insisted on precision in language and logic;
Victoria Curtiss, the Iowa pastor who suggested the "decision
by consensus" model and overcame other members' misgivings about it;
Co-moderators Gary Demarest of California and Jenny Stoner of
Vermont, who gave up many of the prerogatives normally enjoyed by
PC(USA) leaders, helping to make the task force an assembly of equals.
They and their fellows - ordinary Presbyterians - all made
Who's to say that other groups of ordinary Presbyterians,
undertaking similar voyages, would not discover qualities just as
extraordinary in themselves?