Presbyterians Embrace Terminal Irrelevance

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in Detroit from June 14 to 21, 2014

“The vote on same-sex weddings in Presbyterian churches was very skewed–429 to 175. Regional presbyteries still have to vote, but that is unlikely to change what occurred in Detroit–many if not most of those opposed to same-sex marriage have already left the denomination, either by joining more orthodox splinter churches or by swelling the ranks of the so-called”nones” (people who answer “none” when asked in surveys about their religious affiliation). The trend is clear.”

 

The biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in Detroit from June 14 to 21, 2014. It adopted two widely reported measures—one allowing same-sex marriages to be celebrated in the PCUSA, the other divesting the latter from three American corporations whose products supposedly help the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The PCUSA is the largest of several Presbyterian churches in America. It resulted from the merger of two earlier churches in 1983. Endless divisions, schisms and mergers are presumably in the DNA of American Protestantism because of the combination of two factors–the luxurious flowering of pluralism in this country, and the vigorous legal foundation of religious freedom. [Old joke: Two American Protestants stranded on an island will organize three churches. Somewhat related joke: One American Jew so stranded will build two synagogues–one where he goes to pray, the other in which he would not want to be found dead.]

The history of Presbyterians in America is fascinating. Originally they mostly came from Scotland, where Calvinism, the sternest branch of the Protestant Reformation, became the dominant church. The sternness was both doctrinal and ethical–the doctrine exemplified by the terrifying notion of “double predestination” (God has decided from all eternity who will be saved and who will be damned), the ethics promoting hard work, self-denial and a particular abhorrence of sexual sins. (Puritanism, the form in which Calvinism first set foot in America, was once described by H.L. Mencken, perhaps unfairly, as “the fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy”.) American Calvinism became increasingly mellowed by revivalism, which swept over the Presbyterian churches in the 18th century and ever since–the God of merciless judgment replaced by Jesus offering salvation to all who will come forward to confess their sins.

There were other splits, a quite shameful one over slavery between Presbyterians in the South and the North. Differences operating even today were foreshadowed by so-called “fundamentalists” and “modernists” in the early 20th century. The term “fundamentalism” derives from a series of twelve volumes defending Protestant orthodoxy, The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915 out of Princeton Theological Seminary (then a fortress of this orthodoxy–it didn’t last). The notion of “Biblical inerrancy” became a key orthodox doctrine, still today defining the divide between orthodox Evangelicals and liberal “mainline” Protestants. Despite some pockets of resistance, I think it is fair to say that “modernism”/liberalism has come to dominate in the PCUSA. There is another important point to be made about the PCUSA: It is a sharply declining denomination: In 2006 it had 2,671,000 members; in 2012, 1,849,000; in 2013, 1,760,000. This demographic picture resembles that of other “mainline”denominations, while most Evangelical ones have steadily grown. (The banner Evangelical denomination which is also the largest Protestant one in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention, has gone through a modest decline in numbers. I doubt whether this has much to do with issues of sexual ethics, rather with the fact that Baptists like everyone else have fewer kids as they are upwardly mobile. The contrast with liberal churches remains.)

The vote on same-sex weddings in Presbyterian churches was very skewed–429 to 175. Regional presbyteries still have to vote, but that is unlikely to change what occurred in Detroit–many if not most of those opposed to same-sex marriage have already left the denomination, either by joining more orthodox splinter churches or by swelling the ranks of the so-called”nones” (people who answer “none” when asked in surveys about their religious affiliation). The trend is clear. In 2011 the General Assembly voted to ordain clergy openly living in same-sex relationships. Recently the definition of marriage in official statutes was changed from “a union of a man and a woman” to “a union of two people”.

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