CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE
Presbyterian News Service
21 January 2000
"Take a Hike" Overtures Draw Battle Lines
Between Liberals, Conservatives � and Conservatives
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE, Ky. � Even as he put the finishing touches on what would become
General Assembly Overtures 00-5 and 00-6, the Rev. Jeff Arnold of Butler,
Pa., knew he wasn�t drafting a �beloved� piece of legislation.
He was right. The overtures � which politely invite liberals to leave the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) � raised hackles even in Arnold�s own staunchly
conservative presbytery in western Pennsylvania.
Now they�re raising hackles nationally, with a half-year to go before they
are due to arrive at the 212th General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif.
The overtures, from the Presbytery of Beaver-Butler, suggest one way of
resolving a longstanding quarrel over the nature of the church � a quarrel
that divides liberals and conservatives along ideological grounds and also
seems to be creating new divisions in the conservative camp, between
hard-liners and moderates and between older traditionalists and younger
Overture 00-5 asks the General Assembly (GA) to declare that an
�irreconcilable impasse� has developed in the PC(USA) over several
theological and scriptural matters, notably including the question of
permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates for the ministry.
Traditionalists argue that calling any ecclesiastical quarrel
�irreconcilable� is an affront to an all-powerful God.
Overture 00-6 asks the GA moderator to name a task force to explore changes
to the Book of Order that would allow liberals � some of whom say their
consciences require them to defy the denomination�s constitution on the
question of ordaining gays and lesbians � to leave the PC(USA) and to take
their property with them. Normally, when a church disbands or leaves the
PC(USA), its property reverts to the denomination. Overture 00-6, its
supporters say, is a pastoral concession aimed at keeping the peace.
Traditionalists object that separating the Body of Christ and reinventing a
church is something close to anathema.
�We�re not trying to create division,�Arnold says. �The division already
exists, and nobody has found a way to reconcile the differences.�
It is no secret that the PC(USA)�s liberal and conservative camps disagree,
sometimes vehemently. But Overture 00-5 contends that the split has created
�two mutually exclusive theologies� that have evolved into radically
different understandings of:
God�s biblical authority (�whether the Bible is accurate and the Word God
speaks to His entire church with absolute authority, or ... biblical
authority is determined by personal feelings or various academic
biblical interpretation (�whether the Protestant watchwords � �grace alone,
faith alone, scripture alone� � govern our understanding of the biblical
text or ... we allow other hermeneutic devices such as justice/love to
Jesus Christ (�whether Jesus Christ, through his atoning sacrifice, is the
only means of salvation, or ... there are other means of salvation such as
those revealed in the diversity of human religious and philosophical
salvation (�whether salvation is primarily God�s forgiveness of sin, leading
to eternal life and participation in God�s church or ... is primarily
freedom from political, social or economic disadvantage�);
ecclesiology (�whether the church is God�s creation and governed by God
through Scripture, the Headship of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, or is
an institution to be governed by human political processes and notions of
�The first amendment (00-5) is the more important,� Arnold says. �It has a
simple purpose: to highlight what significant theological differences exist
between the far right and the far left, though we realize those people are
not neatly in camps. We want there to be a theological discussion ... not
about sex and not about homophobia.�
Arnold sees this acknowledgment of the division as the beginning of healing.
�And we want the General Assembly commissioners to address the
irreconcilable impasse,� he says. �(To say) if [it] is there, say yes or
Needless to say, the handful of clergy in Beaver-Butler Presbytery who
consider themselves liberals read the overtures as a way of saying, �Don�t
let the door hit you on the way out.�
Beaver-Butler is a largely rural enclave that is unquestionably one of the
PC(USA)�s most deeply entrenched bastions of conservatism. But the actual
vote on the overtures split the presbytery down the middle: On one side, the
under-35 evangelicals who drafted the overtures (with some fine-tuning by
The Presbyterian Forum, a hard-line coalition that focuses on grassroots
organizing); on the other, older traditionalists who believe in the
classical formulation that the church is Christ�s indivisible body, made by
The vote on Overture 00-5 was 61-46. On 00-6, it was 63-50.
�[The overtures give] a limited view of God and God�s power ... to say it is
impossible to reconcile,� grumbles one minister who is angry that the debate
ever got this far. He says he�s disgusted by any ecclesiology that suggests
that the church, which was created and is sustained by God, can be destroyed
and reinvented by humans.
Overture 00-6 isn�t the first recent effort by church conservatives to oust
liberals. In 1991 � back before the church�s 173 presbyteries passed the
controversial constitutional amendment known as G-6.0106b, which forbids the
ordination of sexually active and �unrepentant� gays and lesbians � an
overture from the Presbytery of San Joaquin (California) took a much harder
line: It proposed to jettison anyone or any PC(USA) institution that was
unwilling to declare homosexual behavior biblically unsound. That overture
was dismissed by that year�s General Assembly.
Last year, when two lesbians were chosen to receive the church�s �Women of
Faith Award,� Beaver-Butler tried to protest the decision, but didn�t get
very far � even though a commissioner�s resolution similar to Overture 00-6
was circulated at the presbytery�s May meeting. The clerk did draft letters
to the denomination�s stated clerk, objecting to the choices and
reprimanding the General Assembly Council for its supposed lack of
Although those actions bore no immediate political fruit, they did give rise
to an evangelical caucus in the presbytery that has met bi-weekly ever since
and authored this year�s overtures.
What�s unusual about 00-5 and 00-6 is their call for liberals to leave. For
decades, conservatives have pressured the denomination on various issues by
threatening to take their money and members and leave. That�s been true
since the 1920s, when liberal leaders emerged in many mainline
denominations. Nowadays, however, conservatives admit that they have nowhere
to go: They don�t fit in with the more fundamentalist stances of the
Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian
Church(EPC). Moreover, evangelical women don�t want to join a denomination
that gives women fewer opportunities for ordained leadership, like the EPC,
or refuses to ordain women at all, like the PCA.
�We don�t demonize people, we just think they�re mistaken,� says the Rev.
Dan Reuter of Prospect, Pa., at 65 the oldest member of the evangelical
caucus, who will be the advocate for the overtures in Long Beach. �And if
this is their conviction (that the church should permit the ordination of
homosexuals), they ought to be able to express it.�
Reuter says the provision that defectors may keep their property might make
it possible for some congregations to leave quietly, relieving the tension
that masks theological differences that he thinks are way beyond repair.
But excision doesn�t sit well with traditional conservatives.
Surgical-style solutions seem fundamentally wrong to a generation raised on
an ecclesiology that stresses peace and unity ahead of purity -- and puts
peace and unity before purity even in the ordination vows. The
traditionalists are appalled by what they consider a breach of institutional
loyalty, and suspect that 00-5 and 00-6 are a kind of smokescreen for
evangelicals who would like a clause in the Book of Order that allows for
gracious separation � in case a day comes when they would like to leave.
Reuter says that wasn�t the impetus for the overtures, but says the possible
�out� probably comforts some conservatives who are deeply dissatisfied with
the PC(USA) and consider the property issue to be coercive.
The traditionalists say that looking for ways out instead of ways to stay in
is looking at the problem backwards.
�(You have to have) a sense of maturity, a sense of trust that the
denomination recognizes all sorts of diversity, and you also have to trust
the Lord,� said the Rev. Bill Jamieson of Butler, a pastoral counselor who
has been a member of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery for 28 years. He remembers
vividly the pain caused by a split in the early 1980s, when five churches
left the denomination because of long-simmering dissatisfaction with its
policies, including the decision to ordain women.
In that case, the presbytery lost the property battle in state court; the
breakaway churches were permitted to take their property with them.
�Where does it stop?� Jamieson says. �It�s like that quote from Pastor
Martin Niemoller: �First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak
out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. They they came
for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they
came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.��
�Who will be attacked next? Will they come after me because I have a
different view of the church? Where�s the unity? Right now it seems like the
one with the most power has the most unity.�
For the Rev. Judy Angleberger of Beaver Falls, Pa., a former presbytery
moderator, it�s bad enough that the evangelicals are caucusing apart from
the full presbytery. She says she feels sadness and resignation as she
watches presbyters plunge headlong into what she considers the age-old
theological struggle between law and grace.
�Beaver-Butler Presbytery has worked internally over the years to build a
spirit of collegiality,� she says. �This kind of organizing may tend to
evade that spirit ... It [cuts] part of us off, and a trust was broken ...
(because it kept) the whole body from working on something together.
�There�s a fragmenting of the spirit of the presbytery, from my perspective
as a former moderator.�
That�s not how the caucus sees it, according to some of its leaders,
including Bob Davis of The Presbyterian Forum. They claim the body is
already broken, and if surgical intervention is what it takes for healing,
that�s just what it takes.
For Arnold, the concept of ekklesia (�assembly� in New Testament Greek) is
primary, as the place where the community gathers to do God�s work, God�s
mission � and mission, as he sees it, is suffering enough. �If we�ve ceased
to exist for mission, it is possible to dissolve the denomination without
harming the Body of Christ,� he says, noting that the Body is bigger than
Presbyterianism and that presbyteries often dissolve local congregations
without harm to the wider denomination.
�I�m not sure we�re at that place within the denomination,� he says, �but
we�re not far from it. That�s why we used the word �irreconcilable.��
Such a stance isn�t unusual among the under-35 evangelicals, according to
Davis, who is convinced that less institutional loyalty is reflective of the
times. Some � like the group dubbed �Angry, Young, West-Coast, Evangelical
Pastors� by the Presbyterian Coalition � talk about
�post-denominationalism,� in which churches are said to align through common
assent instead of being bound by denominational ties, and Christians join
local churches, not denominations.
Others, like Reuter, describe the local congregation as the locus of
ekklesia, with other levels of a denomination functioning as a service
organization rather than an ecclesial body.
�We don�t make or unmake ... the Body of Christ,� Arnold says. �It is bigger
than the PC(USA) ... We cannot harm that which God already claimed, although
I don�t know anybody in the group that is very happy about any of this. When
the vote was positive, there wasn�t celebrating in the streets. Who�s
The Rev. Laird Stuart of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (a coalition
of dissenters against G-6.0106b), who says he has heard of Overtures 00-5
and 00-6 but hasn�t seen them in print, says he thinks their conclusions are
�The basic story of faith is that God takes us where we can�t get to
ourselves,� Stuart says. �And this [the two overtures] is a secular
conclusion, one that does not really believe that God can lead us out of
this crisis.� �
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