June always means church denominations are holding their national conventions. And it typically means new fights over homosexuality, women’s roles and protecting orthodoxy at all cost. You can count on it.
Some denominations limit the painful combat to every two or four years. There are contests for top offices pitting traditionalists versus reformers, plus debate on a spate of resolutions to either institute change or to protect purity/ tradition. As in regular politics, there are struggles for power that will determine who will be the truth-bearers for the next term.
Denominational conventions, as much as anything, underscore how religion is a human exercise that often strays far from faith and spirituality.
The conventions are news events because they tell us what people, locked in halls for a limited time, can accomplish “for the Kingdom of God.” Of course, “schism” is the whispered word at each convention. “Force that change on us,” one side threatens, “and we’re outta here.”
Twenty-five years ago, I was an elected delegate (elder commissioner) to the 193rd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church USA before it reunited with the “southern church” as the Presbyterian Church (USA). During those nine days in 1981 in Houston, we grappled with issues not unlike what’s being confronted now. For many weeks before the assembly, thick packages of materials arrived at our house for me to read in preparation. These days, commissioners get the information online. During the assembly, each has a laptop computer, and new material is constantly supplied electronically. It’s almost paperless.
The Southern Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians have been meeting in recent weeks in Greensboro, N.C., Columbus, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., respectively. The three Christian faiths have sharp contrasts, and their troubles are not the same.
Yet, for each, the maneuvering for control comes down to whether change or reform will be allowed.
Artful wordsmithing of resolutions and amendments dominates proceedings. Factions work ardently for their positions, always aware that members back home, parachurch groups and other denominations are watching. For most delegates, it’s a rare chance to be there in the role of a voting representative. Most will never get the chance again, so the idea of being “historic” undergirds what they do. Every “messenger,” “commissioner” or whatever they are called prays for discernment before casting votes. Often, tight vote tallies make them realize how critical their own opinions are.
Commonly, the sides reach a compromise with something they can live with, for now — their sights set on the next convention, often waiting to see what some study committee will bring back in the next cycle.
A common phenomenon is for something considered “radical” to be proposed at a convention. It gets soundly defeated, but is reintroduced at the next one. Eventually it wins because “its time has come.” Passage reaffirms what German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously noted: “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; and third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
So it is with the women leadership issue — long settled in some denominations where gender is now a nonissue. (Why did we wait so long?) In other faiths, however, giving women equal opportunity in leadership is only a distant, ornery dream. Yet walls continue to fall as the profound gifts, talents and wealth of resources of women are recognized and employed.
Last Sunday, Episcopalians boldly elected Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as its new presiding bishop — the first female bishop in the American church and first woman to lead any of the 38 Anglican provinces worldwide. For conservatives in the 77 million-member Anglican community across the planet, this marks the second time Americans have done the outrageous. They are still reeling at the 2003 election in New Hampshire of an openly gay bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson. That caused some Episcopal congregations in the U.S. to withdraw affiliation with the U.S. church and align with Uganda and Rwanda provinces that have declared a state of “impaired communion” with their counterparts in America. Some Episcopalians lament that Schori’s election jeopardizes efforts for reconciliation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics who remain staunchly male-led.
Schori said it was time to put the divisive issue of homosexuality aside so that the church can move on to “the urgent mission of ministering to people in need.” On Tuesday, the Episcopal delegates rejected a moratorium on further electing gay bishops.
“Our primary emphasis needs to be feeding people, educating children and looking for health care for everybody,” Schori said.
In what has been called a surprise, messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention June 13 elected Frank Page of Taylor, S.C., as its new president in a rare three-man contest. His election is being attributed to the grass-roots efforts of bloggers. It was called the most significant political development in more than 20 years for the denomination. Page was an outsider who captured the fancy of young Southern Baptists presumably seeking a more moderate leader and what Baptist Press said “greater transparency and accountability in the church.”
The Presbyterians’ General Assembly on Tuesday voted to retain church law that says clergy and ordained laity (elders and deacons) must confine their sex lives to man-woman marriages, but local congregations and regional groups, or presbyteries, can exercise flexibility in choosing clergy and lay officers if sexual orientation or other issues arise. In the end, two sides got something they wanted. In two years, you can bet, they’ll chip away at that.