The PCUSA Is to ECO as Auckland Is to Wellington

February 7, 2012

Our two week holiday in New Zealand intentionally bypassed the city of Auckland. Even the locals say, “It’s just another big city.” With all due respect to the Kiwis reading this, the extent of our visit to the North Island’s biggest city was to make a bee-line for the marvelous Maritime Museum. On the way into town, international business, banking, commerce, and suburbs were a familiar sight to one whose own “neighborhood” is the megalopolis of the San Francisco Bay Area.

And then there was Wellington at the southern end of the island. Granted, we had a personal tour of the environs of the city known for its export of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So we got the inside scoop on how the 200,000 citizens of Wellington proper (and maybe 400,000 in the district) “use their city,” according to our guide. He made the comment that the population comes into downtown for their entertainment, dining, shopping, recreation, and cultural enrichment. Regardless of their residential proximity, they feel that Wellington is their city. It is not so small as to be inadequate and not big enough to be intimidating, and therefore is accessible and well-used. I thought that was an interesting insight and wonderful indication of loyalty and social capital.

The PCUSA, with all its bureaucracy, tiers of governance, detailed Book of Order, and other complexities, has an Auckland feel to it: just another big denomination big on government and light on fellowship. The freeway of GA Overtures and Authoritative Interpretations runs between governing bodies, built for efficiency but not for intimacy. The Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) offers a more Wellington feel.  The stated goal is to be simpler, organizationally flatter, more intimate, and accessible for nurturing the life of congregations and their pastors. Greater personal accountability is possible with a smaller group, even if commissioners must travel a greater distance to attend a presbytery meeting. Sharing of best practices, greater trust built on close interaction, and other relational benefits of a smaller body are very attractive and worth pursuing. [This line of reasoning begs another question down the road: is it possible for the ECO to get too big?]

Having said that, the PCUSA has an opportunity to respond to the implied challenges ECO presents. There are some conditions that must change within the denomination in order for Presbyterians to experience the same kind of intimacy and trust within the PCUSA framework:

1. A common confession of faith not only on paper but in proclamation and practice.

2. A true “joyful submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ” and all that implies.

3. Increased visibility, interaction, and impact of PCUSA orthodox/evangelical staffers with congregations and presbyteries. [I know there are more evangelicals than ever in Louisville, but few presbyters have ever met them or been aware of their efforts.]

4. A renewed commitment by the denomination—at all levels—to the health and nurture of congregations.

5. Simplifying denominational structure, perhaps by eliminating the Synod level, in order to get decision-making between national and local levels in sync with each other.

6. Revamping the election of representation at General Assembly to be more representative of the “people in the pew.” It has been demonstrated by GA votes and Presbyterian Panel surveys over the years that GA Commissioners tend to be more liberal than church members overall. [What are the forces at work that create this dichotomy?]

7. Reinvigorating our commitment to church discipline, as a way of fostering “the right kind of diversity” highlighted in yesterday’s post.

It may be possible, with the separation of the ECO from the PCUSA that both bodies end up being the right size: big enough to cover the ministry and small enough to be relationally healthy and mutually accountable according to their different sets of assumptions. Could this be another way of expressing our diversity?

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3 Responses to “The PCUSA Is to ECO as Auckland Is to Wellington”

  1. Dennis Evans Says:

    I guess I have said it many times but there is this huge paradox (re your mention of evangelicals in the Louisville office) that the PCUSA has more evangelicals than it did 50 years ago. When I was a kid (in northern Claifornia) it just seemed common for Presbyterian ministers to not believe in the resurrection of Jesus or in his divinity. My own pastor, when I was in high school said “The Bible doesn’t tell us what God really said and did but about the kind of God its people believed in”. I don’t hear that so often anymore. Our differences are much more radical but this split seems to be happening when the evangelicals are strong in everthing but their representation at GA and other governing bodies.


  2. Yet there is a report that a T.E. who is, based on his responses to questioning at presbytery, is a universalist, and has no belief in the Trinity being approved as pastor in what was once a fairly conservative presbytery.

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