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Word to the Presbyterians from Brian McLaren

I’ve recently discovered the Patheos online community. It looks like a Beliefnet alternative (which is good, since IMNSHO B-net sucks). Admittedly, I haven’t spent much time exploring it, so I don’t know what kinds of goodies I can find there. Based on what I’ve seen so far, though, I’m hopeful.

Anyway, I found an interesting article in a roundabout way through blog links (and unfortunately, I don’t know which blog led me there or I’d offer proper attribution). Unbeknownst to me, Brian McLaren talked with the Presbyterian Stated Clerk about the future of the mainline church. Of course, since I’m a Presbyterian, I found myself quite interested in finding out the specifics of that conversation. Uncovering the video thrilled me beyond belief.

McLaren’s message lightens my heart. My favorite part is where he says,

Mainline protestants need the behavior of waking up in the morning saying, “If we want our tradition to continue into the future, we have to give permission, and indeed encouragement, for creative innovation and creative exploration. (see the 2:40 mark)

I wholeheartedly agree.

Nonetheless, as someone who works on the fringe, I think we have a couple of distinct hurdles to overcome. I’m not talking about the obvious, general cultural issues of a modern institution in a postmodern culture. I’m talking about specific issues for the PC(USA) as a denomination. And, they are hurdles that the system will probably not want to address.

First, we have to deal with theological barriers. The PC(USA) still has a strong conservative wing that has an exclusivist view that narrowly defines Christianity. When it comes to articulating a relevant theology for a postmodern context, we need to be creative. That means, tearing down the walls of the box. Almost assuredly, the theological explorations will be offensive to exclusivists, and if their track record is any indication of future action, they will also almost assuredly work to squash anything that they think is heretical. If we were to assume that about 1/3 of the membership fits into the theologically exclusivist camp, that’s about 1/3 of the power already standing opposed to the creativity that McLaren identifies as necessary to pave the way to a new future.

Second, we have the issue of our polity. This is perhaps an even more sensitive area than creative theology. Institutional Presbyterians often pride themselves on overcoming theological differences by finding their common ground in our Book of Order. The Book of Order is the Presbyterian way of keeping the various parts of the denomination on the same page. This emphasis on polity as a source of unity actually makes sense. After all, when a denomination is this diverse theologically, you naturally end up with antagonistic camps fighting over political agendas. And, one of the ways you bring antagonistic groups to the table of reconciliation is by getting them to agree on ground rules. These rules establish a predictable framework that allows all involved to feel safe. Thus, our polity is a source of security that keeps us in relationship with each other. With polity becoming this important, rules lawyers have turned the Book of Order into their playground. Everything has to be by the book. Deviation is bad. Talk about fear-driven, anal retentive reaction. In this kind of atmosphere, it would be hard to unleash the creativity that McLaren is saying we need to allow.

I don’t know what that means for the Presbyterian Church and its future. The Keepers of the System certainly have a stake in maintaining it’s institutional interests while it works toward revitalization. I suspect that unless this changes, the outcome may be grim.

Still, it is nearly Christmas. It is a time that reminds us that things can and do change. Just because things are “this” way now, doesn’t mean that they have to be the same in the future. Something new is coming, emerging, being born. And, if we are to be faithful, part of our task during this time is to keep our eyes peeled for some sense of divine movement in the perceived void that will guide us into new life.