A report by Elder David Brenner, UPC
I went to the Fellowship “Gathering” on August 25-25 in Minneapolis as a member of the Session at University Presbyterian Church and informed by 19 years as legal counsel for the Presbytery. I went primed to debate the fine points of the three P’s (Policy, Property, and Pension) that are the practical “glue” of denominational unity. But the program I encountered was quite different from a dry discussion of the mechanics of potential division. Here is a short report on the distinctives of this Gathering.
Each day opened and closed with a one-plus hour worship program featuring music and liturgy. In between these worship sessions, plenary and breakout sessions explored a continuum of options for coming together in ministry while differentiating from the denomination. Each participant was assigned to one of 200 table groups scattered through the hotel that received audio/video feed on particular options from the main stage and then discussed those options. Larger break-out sessions more fully defined the options.
Unlike the current rancorous dialogue of our nation’s political leaders, the Gathering presented a refreshing effort to avoid anger. “We’re not mad” is a major distinguishing value for the leadership of the Fellowship, the pastors of large PC(USA) churches who have taken to referring to themselves as the “Seven Dwarfs”. At the Gathering, “not being mad” took the form of using respectful language toward the liberal (“progressive” was the term most often used) wing and the inclusion in the program of both PC(USA) Stated Clerk Grady Parsons and Moderator Cynthia Bolbach. It was also illustrated by downplaying the gay ordination and marriage issues raised by 10(a) in favor of a discussion of essential theological tenets that form common ground for ministry. The Gathering sought to highlight what the Fellowship affirms more than what it is against, and to defer discussion of the mechanics of separation in favor of building blocks for common ministry among the church leaders at the meeting and (perhaps) the congregations they lead.
No longer trying to reform the denomination is a second distinctive value that sets this as yet loose-knit association of pastors and elders apart from other movements. The Fellowship is grounded on the premise that Gen X and Millennials who are the future of the church care little or none at all about denominational affiliation, and that denominational discord impedes ministry. As a result, the forward-looking options discussed at the gathering are a continuum of means by which individual congregations can come together in ministry while distancing themselves from the denomination.
Briefly, the continuum ranges from:
- Staying within the denomination and developing a strong missional focus in ministry, aided by affiliation with other “Fellowship” churches.
- Staying but differentiating from the denomination in various possible ways under the Fellowship “brand.” These could include a) allowing churches to separate into overlay presbyteries; b) allowing churches within divided presbyteries to eliminate friction by associating as needed through separate COM’s, CPM’s and essential tenets for ordination (potentially positive for any group of churches in the minority, whether conservative or liberal); or c) using a non-geographic “Two Synod” model for collecting whole undivided presbyteries or associations within presbyteries for common governance and ministry.
- For churches that feel they must leave entirely, separating to a New Reformed Body (an administratively minimalist “denomination”) that will seek recognition by the PC(USA) as eligible to receive individual congregations. Released churches that become full members of this New Reformed Body would pursue common missional ministry across a porous boundary with “affiliate” member churches that choose to remain with the PC(USA).
Some of these options would require overtures to the General Assembly while others could be accomplished under nFOG within presbyteries. The announced next steps for the Fellowship are the continued development of options by regional meetings and in dialogue with PC(USA) leadership and the “Committees of Correspondence” that have sprung up around the country, and a “constitutional convention” to form the “New Reformed Body” in January 2012 in Orlando.
As a member of UPC’s Session, I want to explore these options thoughtfully in a dialogue with our congregation that emphasizes how UPC can best pursue its already “missional” oriented ministry with like-minded churches in our Presbytery and nationally, while avoiding unnecessary disunity and remaining supportive of Christ’s broader church. As counsel for the Presbytery, I aim to provide solid, unbiased legal advice to our leaders in line with the Presbytery’s commitment to mediating disputes adopted by the Presbytery three years ago. Executive Presbyter Scott Lumsden’s excellent recent article in the Spirit lays the groundwork for a good dialogue across our Presbytery. If the respectful tone and attitude we have largely had to date in our Presbytery and saw in the Fellowship’s “Gathering” can be maintained, it will be a vital step toward achieving both of these goals.