Posted by: The Presbyterian Outlook in Untagged on Jun 04, 2012
I read, with great interest, the Mid-Council Commission’s report to the General Assembly and I found that I appreciate this commission’s boldness. I value their call to transformation and their attention to the demands of our current context. When the MCC insists that we must change, I agree wholeheartedly. The MCC has done a great job lifting up best practices of councils around the country, those who are taking faithful risks in our present age, but they also note and seek to attend to the dysfunction that is rife. In conversations with Presbyterians of all ages for the past decade or so, I have detected a great fatigue, and even impatience, with our church structures. A friend recently said, “I’m 36 years old and I’ve never had a good presbytery experience.” Clearly, the MCC’s call for radical change indicates that they’ve got their finger on the pulse of our beloved church. But is a season of experimentation with nongeographic presbyteries truly the vehicle for the change we require?
While the MCC wants us to keep our eyes focused on the future, God’s future, into which we’re called, this recommendation sent my mind racing back nearly 200 years, to an earlier moment of distrust, conflict, and division in our denominational history – the Old School/New School schism of 1837. The beginning of the 19th century was a period of radical change in all dimensions of the social life of this new republic, the United States of America. One hallmark of this change was growth – population growth, geographical growth and church growth. The Gospel was spreading like wildfire and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, two of the earliest denominations formed and organized in the U.S.A., perceived this at the start of the century and forged a plan of cooperation (The Plan of Union of 1801) to facilitate the effective evangelization of the new nation.
With rapid growth comes rapid change. Some Presbyterians (who came to be known as the Old School) suspected that the Plan of Union (“New School”) Presbyterians might be sacrificing theological rigor in their alliance with the Congregationalists. As new churches were planted and as churches grew, it became difficult for denominations to adequately train enough leaders to supply the growing flock. Voluntary associations sprung up to meet the needs of various fellowships, regardless of denominational affiliation. The level of ecumenical cooperation in these early decades was impressive, but it was also anxiety-producing. With non-Presbyterians seeing to the education of Presbyterian clergy, real questions arose about the Reformed orthodoxy of the leaders being sent onto the frontier. It was difficult to maintain a sense that all was being handled decently and in order when it seemed so many important decisions were being ceded to authorities outside the councils of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Those identified as representatives of the Old School felt this anxiety most acutely, and worked to preserve and protect the church’s purity and orthodoxy from the many perceived threats of the day.
With rising anxiety came suspicion and then heresy charges and trials. One of the most significant cases in the 1830s was the trial of Albert Barnes. Upon being called to the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, he was admitted to the Presbytery of Philadelphia without examination as he had been dismissed in good standing from his previous presbytery. Some Old School members of the presbytery objected to this admission without examination and raised concerns about the theology expressed in a sermon he had published. This controversy resulted in a long series of referrals to higher councils, and to heresy trials of Albert Barnes. Votes in the General Assembly suggested that the denomination was split almost evenly, but for most of the early 19th century, the New School held the majority in the Assembly. Ultimately, the General Assembly acknowledged some questionable elements of Barnes’ teaching and preaching, but felt he had satisfactorily represented himself in trial and upheld the action of the presbytery. But they did something further. In order to preserve the peace of the denomination, they formed an elective affinity Presbytery called “The Second Presbytery of Philadelphia” and created a new synod, joining this new elective affinity presbytery to two other small presbyteries. Apparently the perception was that, in this season of heated theological debate, pressure could be relieved by allowing ministers and congregations to affiliate where they were most comfortable. That was the hope at least.
Unfortunately however, a few short years later, the Old School gained the majority in the General Assembly, and they exscinded whole synods and dissolved presbyteries that were perceived to be hotbeds of New School impulses, effectively dividing the denomination in two. It appears that the Old School believed all those exscinded were actually Congregationalists in Presbyterian clothing and by setting them free they could gladly affiliate with their own kin. But it turned out the New School was passionate about their Presbyterian identity and Reformed Theology and when the Old School wouldn’t take them back, they organized a church of their own. Two Presbyterian Churches existed side by side for decades to come.
Though the MCC does not use the language of affinity in their report, the impulse to allow the formation of nongeographic presbyteries is highly resonant with the 19th century creation of an “elective affinity” presbytery. And it certainly seems that the nongeographic presbytery proposal invites congregations to behave as individuals presently do in the American context, choosing with whom they will be bonded on the basis of affinity. Our denominational history raises real questions about the effectiveness of this strategy for the relief of pressure; it certainly seems that when we empower people to affiliate and organize along the lines of affinity we hasten and simplify schism. The strategy doesn’t necessarily lead to peaceful relations between theological parties either. It is said that New School and Old School Presbyterians, some of them members of the same families, would cross the street to avoid meeting each other. Struggles for members and resources in the territories that were divided between them became personal and bitter. Only after the ravages of a civil war that left the whole country desperate for peace did the two Presbyterian Church come back together.
But enough about history and polity. My deepest concerns about this proposal are theological. For the Church to be the Church it must witness to the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to transform human lives and relationships. Does baptism make us kin to strangers and enemies or doesn’t it? Too many of our congregations are fairly homogenous and fail to witness to the radical transformation wrought by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Our geographic councils constitute he only aspect of our present church organization that opens the door to genuine relation with our Presbyterian others. Though we may have voluntarily arranged ourselves into congregations that find themselves on one side or the other of cultural, racial, ethnic, economic, or political divisions, in presbyteries we are joined as one with congregations with whom we would never voluntarily associate. The geographic presbytery is the vehicle by which the Presbyterian Church can actually be the church.
Do our Presbyteries need radical change? Absolutely. Might we benefit from smaller presbyteries where people can forge more intimate relationships? Most likely. Do we need to find ways to live more effectively with sustained theological differences? Certainly. Is a nongeographic Presbytery allowance the way to achieve these noble ends? I think not.
Sarah G. Sanderson-Doughty is a teaching elder in the Middle Tennessee Presbytery and a doctoral candidate in theological studies at Vanderbilt University.