I got a piece of mail today from the Presbyterian Lay Committee, seeking a financial contribution. If you aren’t familiar with the group – and if you aren’t Presbyterian, there’s really little reason why you should be – it was formed in the mid-1960s as a reaction to what they saw as an inappropriate, supposedly non-scriptural, liberal shift in the theological direction of what’s now known as the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The denomination had been embroiled in a bitter divide in the early part of the 20th century, in a debate known as the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy“. The controversy had to do with the way the Bible was to be interpreted, and whether the denomination’s clergy were required to adhere to a specific shortlist of doctrinal issues. The issue had been rather decisively settled in favor of the Modernists in the 1920s; the more or less simultaneous playing out of the infamous Scopes Trial, which pitted essentially the same arguments against each other in a courtroom and on the national stage, instead of as part of a church assembly, served as a fitting symbol of the Fundamentalists’ defeat and loss of control within the denomination.
In 1967, the denomination adopted a confessional document – a statement of faith – called, imaginatively enough, the “Confession of 1967.” It was in this document, known as “C67” for short, that the church – brilliantly and decisively, in my opinion – first put the “Modernist” understanding of biblical interpretation in any official confessional statement.
The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed to fight adoption of C67 as part of the denominational constitution. It lost in this effort. Long after that loss, the PLC continued to promote its views through the ensuing years, never really conceding defeat – kind of like those stories of Japanese soldiers from World War II holding their position in some cave in the Pacific and not crawling out until decades after the war had ended.
Eventually, the PLC did crawl out of that particular cave – never really conceding their position, but deciding to focus on a target more current and relevant than C67 itself. They found fertile ground to re-energize their conservative base, and to raise funds, by fighting against the denomination’s gradually more welcoming stance toward acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the full life of the church, including its leadership, and in the most recent times, against same-sex marriage – and particularly, permission for Presbyterian clergy to officiate them – as it’s been becoming the law in more and more states. This group may have been the most strident opponent of these developments within the PCUSA over the past two decades, and probably the loudest crap-stirrers finding any excuse, real or imagined, to bash the denomination and call for people and congregations to disaffiliate with it. Their reaction to the denomination’s recent move to permit its ministers to officiate same-sex marriages borders on the apoplectic.
If you know anything about me, you can probably imagine my thoughts when I received their plea for a financial contribution.
Frankly, I’ve gotten many these junk mailings in the past, and I’ve just thrown them in the trash and forgotten about them. And now, with the denomination’s acceptance of LGBTQ folk being eligible for ordained offices in the church, and with PCUSA ministers being permitted to officiate same-sex marriages in the states where they’re legal, I should really care even less about the PLC’s increasing irrelevance. For some reason, though, this time I felt some crazy, admittedly futile need to reply…
Carmen Fowler LaBerge
President, Presbyterian Lay Committee
Dear Ms. LaBerge:
I received the Layman’s letter requesting a contribution to your organization in the mail today.
I am the Interim Pastor serving the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York. Auburn is the original home of Auburn Theological Seminary. It’s the city that gave birth to the Auburn Affirmation of 1923, which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a critical document in the history of American Presbyterianism – and which I’m also sure you’re aware, calls for a way of understanding what it means to be a Presbyterian, in terms of doctrinal standards, freedom of conscience, and ordination requirements, which is very different from the one your organization is calling for.
Beyond Presbyterian history and theology, Auburn is a city steeped in the history of social justice in this country. It was the hometown of Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, whose home sits directly across the street from our church, and who, along with his family, were strident abolitionists – in fact, his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman’s home is just down the street from here; in fact, for a time, she was a member of our congregation and was married here. From its beginnings, our congregation was inextricably connected with the issue of social justice with regard to the abolition of slavery. The congregation was formed when its organizing pastor was fired from his former post for requesting prayers for John Brown, and being “too abolitionist.”
Auburn is also noted for its involvement in the struggle for women’s rights. The noted women’s rights pioneer Martha Coffin Wright lived just around the corner from our church. Working together with her sister, Lucretia Mott, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they spearheaded the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 – the very first women’s rights convention in American history, and which was hosted by the First Presbyterian Church of Seneca Falls, just next door to Auburn.
Clearly, Auburn is an area that throughout our nation’s history has taken a strong stand toward progressive understandings of a number of social justice issues, and more often than not, by way of progressive religious doctrine which was considered by some to be extremist, dangerous, unorthodox, and sometimes even heretical. And the Auburn Affirmation, which speaks so eloquently and strongly against the positions that, almost a hundred years later, your organization continues to espouse, is one of the crowning achievements of this city’s proud history.
Your recent mailing referred to “the disaster that comes with incremental revisionist, progressive liberalism;” considering this to be an “assault on Christ and His Word.”
Frankly, I couldn’t disagree with you and your organization more strongly. I believe that the social justice advances that I’ve alluded to, in which Auburn has played such a vital part, are unquestionable success stories made possible in large part by progressive strains within Christ’s Church. These are successes – and other examples could be offered – which, in their time, were fought tooth and nail by the more staid, conservative strands of the faith as being contrary to the supposedly clear teachings of scripture. These repeated failings of the conservative wing of the church to see what time has proven to have been the path most consistent with God’s will, Christ’s teaching, and the fullest meaning of scripture, have become utter embarrassments in the history of the Church; shameful bits of history for which repentance is called for.
Continuing this city’s proud history of working for social justice for an ever-expanding circle of God’s people; and recognizing the ongoing disputes within our denomination over questions of the role of LGBTQ Christians in the life of the Church, including serving as ordained servant/leaders; a number of years ago the Session of the Westminster Presbyterian Church adopted the following statement of inclusion:
“Westminster welcomes everyone, no matter where you are on your faith journey or your life journey. In faithfulness to our understanding of Christ, Westminster affirms the full inclusion of all God’s people in the life and ministry of the church. We welcome persons of every race, gender, age, sexual orientation, family status, and economic status into full participation in our faith community. We value questions as much as answers. We encourage curiosity, discovery, and honest struggling with questions of faith.”
Since its adoption, Westminster Church has not merely paid lip service to this policy, but it has lived it out, in faithful obedience to Christ, in any number of ways – not least of which is the fact that the Session has entered into an Interim Pastor agreement with me – an ordained Teaching Elder, a deeply committed Christian who loves the Lord and works each day to proclaim the gospel in word and deed and to serve and lead this congregation, who also happens to be openly gay. Further, without trying to sound immodest, I believe the congregation overall is quite pleased with my pastoral service to them, and is perfectly convinced of my qualifications and the validity of my call to ordered ministry – something that you and your organization would flatly refuse to accept.
Thanks be to God, every day more and more Christians are coming to see the error of our past understanding of LGBTQ-related issues within the church. Most significantly, this is a phenomenon seen across nearly the full spectrum of Christian traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant; Mainline and Evangelical, Liberal and Conservative. With God’s help, I believe that this will be a complete, or nearly complete, non-issue within the Church within a single generation’s time.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will finally see this situation for what I, and many, many other Christians believe it to be: evidence of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, bringing us all to an increasingly accurate understanding of God’s will, just as we had to painfully learn from the Church’s erroneous positions with regard to those other issues from the past.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will recognize the thoroughly and unnecessarily negative and divisive role that you are occupying within the Church, and that you will repent of your actions.
It is my sincere prayer that at some point, you and your organization will come to understand the immense damage that the Church’s traditional understandings have caused in the lives of millions of LGBTQ people, both within and outside of the Church, over the course of the past 2,000 years. I hope that you finally feel the weight – the evil – that we, the Church, have either perpetrated directly or enabled through others in the lives of these people, all of whom were created in the very image of God, including the sexual orientation with which God chose to bless them.
In light of my strong opposition to the stated mission of your organization, and my doubts that any kind of reversal or repentance on your part is likely to occur any time soon, it’s also my sincere prayer that you don’t hold your breath waiting for a financial contribution from me.
Conservative and Progressive brothers and sisters in Christ are called to work together, serving as a check and balance against excesses of either tendency. I humbly suggest that at this point, the Holy Spirit is making abundantly more clear every day that in this matter, the misguided excess – the error – is found in the positions that your organization is fighting for.
I pray God’s fullest and deepest blessings upon you.
Rev. Dwain W. Lee
Westminster Presbyterian Church