Opinion: Michael Gryboski
A historical tour from last September comes to mind. Going into Old Town Alexandria, one finds the farthest past of the city. The grid layout, the occasional cobblestone streets, and buildings from the colonial era. When tracing the route that the congregation of Trinity United Methodist Church took through the generations, a building associated with its history can still be found among the elder edifices. Washington Street United Methodist Church was once part of the Trinity church, back in the 19th century. And yet these days outside of the denominational connection, the two congregations are separate. This was not a planned separation per se; rather it was the product of intense moral debate and conflict. For one congregation was sympathetic to the institution of slavery and the other was not.
This split between the two churches was hardly an atypical event, as churches across the country found themselves breaking apart, just as family members would find themselves firing volleys at each other during the American Civil War. It was almost as though the conflict within the churches of the day spilled over into everyday life and so served as a warning that greater conflict was to come. Despite the sense of doom, ultimately both Washington Street and Trinity exist to this day, albeit as separate churches. They still hold services, they still perform sacraments, even as the issue that once divided their members into the two camps has long been resolved.
This is an important lesson from the past when looking at the upcoming week as another Protestant denomination sees itself further rupturing over a nationwide hot button issue. This week over 2,000 people representing scores of congregations within the Presbyterian Church (USA) will converge on Orlando, Florida to what has been dubbed a “Covenanting Conference.” First, some back story. Over the years tensions have developed between the liberals and the conservatives within Presbyterian Church (USA). These differences include most notably the differing opinions over the issue of homosexuality.
In 2010, at the 219th General Assembly of PC(USA), a slim majority of the presbyteries (or regional governing bodies) of the denomination voted to amend their church’s ordination rules. The vote allowed for each presbytery to approve the ordination of people who were involved in homosexual relationships. Since then, a growing number of PC(USA) congregations have voted to leave the denomination and either join some preexisting conservative theological alternatives or become part of “New Reformed Body” that is being proposed by a group called The Fellowship of Presbyterians. Granted, Fellowship representatives have made it clear that only a small percentage of those meeting in Orlando have actually decided to leave PC(USA). Other congregations simply want joint membership or want to serve as an “evangelical witness” within the more theologically progressive PC(USA). Still, the Orlando conference has caught sufficient attention from the PC(USA). Eight leaders including the official Moderator of the 219th General Assembly issued a letter and video pleading with Presbyterians to rethink leaving the denomination and to be wary of groups like the Fellowship. They feel that the cost of division could be far greater than the attendees of the Orlando conference may appreciate.
This plea seems to have a sense of existential worry attached to it. Other denominations, the so-called Protestant mainline churches, have struggled with the issue of homosexuality and to what extent should it be acceptable. The Episcopal Church, for example, had its hierarchy fully accept homosexuality. As a result, large numbers of congregations have left the Church and chapters abroad have cut their ties. Recently, the Episcopal Church’s membership reached a historic low of fewer than 2 million members, making them less than 1 percent of the American population. This is frighteningly awful given that when the nation was first founded they were one of the largest religious groups. So some do fear that Presbyterianism itself could be threatened with destruction over a contemporary issue.
And then I remember those two churches of Trinity and Washington Street. The contemporary issue that divided them now settled, the congregations and the denomination they represent still present. Like other mainline churches the United Methodist Church suffers from declining membership, but the issue of slavery has nothing to do with it. So maybe, just maybe, the fate of Presbyterian Church USA and the Fellowship of Presbyterians and all those caught in between is not so set for doom after all. Odds are good they will survive; it would not be without historical precedent.
Ultimately, however, the greatest concern may come not from the divisions and fierce verbal conflict happening within the protestant churches. It may become the scary reality that the divisions occurring in the pews will soon spill over into secular society, creating division that goes far beyond what is healthy for our public sphere. That, unfortunately, is also not without historical precedent.