Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Our Presbyterian History - a Bumpy Ride!

Biloxi, Mississippi, 1984, I attended General Assembly with a great deal of hope - the two major branches of American Presbyterianism had only recently merged, and one of the tasks before the Biloxi GA was to settle upon a new headquarters for the reunited church.

As well as all the other tasks before the church, including a new moderator.

As it turned out, I “lost” on three votes:

My choice for moderator was defeated.
My choice for headquarters was defeated.
And one other issue, that seemed important at the time, beyond my recall these days, was defeated.

I went home chuckling, sort of, thinking of baseball, with a miniature Louisville Slugger in my tote bag, one of the promo items used to persuade GA to move to Louisville, rather than KC (which had my vote, and to this day, I think would have been the better choice).

There was no doubt in my mind that I had “lost” and so had the church, on this one, as I saw it. The moderator? O well, that would be of lesser consequence (I don’t even recall who who won or the candidate I backed), and the other major issue, not a clue, now lost amid a welter of ups and downs for GA.

And of ups and downs, plenty over the years - though what some label as “up,” is likely a “down” for others, and so forth.

Or, call it a see-saw struggle, or even battle, as first the church is pulled (by God? by the Devil?) in one direction, and then the other.

Charles Augustus Briggs
Stop by 1892, the Presbytery of New York City, as it charged Charles Augustus Briggs of Union Seminary with heresy; the case was appealed to GA where Briggs was suspended from ministry in 1893. As a result of this decision, Union Seminary withdrew from the Presbyterian Church to become independent. 

A generation or so later, another epic struggle resulted in Princeton professor, John Gresham Machen, leaving Princeton (1923) when the GA appointed two Auburn Declaration signatories as seminary trustees; Machen joined forces with others to organize Westminster Seminary. 

John Gresham Machen
Later, in 1933, he and others formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which was then declared “unconstitutional” by the next GA - the ministers involved were given an ultimatum to cease, and when they refused, were suspended. Ultimately, Machen withdrew from the Presbyterian Church to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

The Briggs and Machen periods are but two examples of the epic struggles in which we Presbyterians have engaged (not to mention the Grandaddy of them all, the split of the church into northern and southern factions prior to the Civil War, and before that, Old School-New School and New Light-Old Light). 

If one wants to push back even further into church history, all the way to the Jerusalem Council and the split between Paul and Barnabas, so much is at stake, and we’re so frail in mind and heart.

None of these were easy, all resulted in tears and anger, and fractured the church.

So, now with Marriage Equality and the decisions of GA. 

Some feel the joy of victory.

Others feel the sorrow of loss.

With all the subsequent fallout …

I have no immediate answer, but our history has always given me some hope - we have gone through terrible storms, we have seen the church shattered, splintered; we have fought tooth and claw for the spirit of the church. 

But the church goes on, sometimes limping (as Calvin suggested for how we go through life), yet the church goes on.

Never as it was, and in those periods of great transition, no one could foresee what it would be like.

And these days, as always, the world changes, too … everything around us, values and modes of communication, music and art and literature. And along with all of this, a fading Christendom. What the church will be like in fifty years, or a hundred, who can say?

For me, when I’ve been down for the sake of the church, I’ve found solace in this:

We limp on, having gone through the storm, until the next one hits. Jesus continues to build his church, and we continue, mostly in fractured ways, to love one another as he loves us. 

Voices of hope are lifted up in the wilderness, justice is done, lives are transformed by the gospel, churches are planted, folks get ordained, children go to summer camps and enjoy mission trips, people pray and study their Bibles, and we sing the great hymns of faith, sometimes thrilled by all of it, seeing beyond seeing, the hand of mercy and the glory of God!

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