Can the PC(USA) Really Change?

February 21, 2013

Last Sunday night, my husband and I hosted a black-tie five-course dinner for eleven other friends in our home. The occasion was the finale of Season Three of Downton Abbey, giving us the opportunity to live a brief fantasy of British aristocracy. The purpose of the evening was to enjoy the company of friends, have a luscious meal served to us (the thirteenth person, by prior arrangement, was our footman—and a fine one he was indeed), and discuss the characters and plot lines of the British television series. [May I just say, in a moment of personal privilege, that the program’s tragic ending ruined the mood of my dinner party…but I digress.]

A couple of the guests were barely conversant on the arc of the story, so we reviewed Seasons One, Two, and Three in the sort of detail only a group brainstorming session can conjure. Then we asked, “What secrets were held by whom?” which gave us an opportunity to delve into the motivations of each character, starting with the Crawleys upstairs and concluding with the servants downstairs. We had to ask, “Where is the vicar when he is needed?” and “What role is faith playing in the life and plot of these people?” and the Jesus question, “With whom are you willing to have dinner?” 

But the most important question, in my mind, was whether or not a person who had fallen from grace could experience personal transformation and be restored socially. Though applied unevenly, it turns out, the operating principle at Downton Abbey seemed to be, “Once a sinner, always shunned.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter comes to mind. And yet, the hopelessness of that answer chafed at least a couple of the characters into giving Ethyl another chance at a respectable life and Thomas a compassionate reprieve.

It is a matter of Christian faith that the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful and able to reach the hearts and minds of the wayward, turn them around, and save them from the consequences of their sin. We profess this, though I think our culture is cautious about certain types of sinners and would seem to prefer cities of refuge to a return to respectable society. That topic, though interesting, is beyond my pay-grade today.

But what about the church itself? I have intimated many times in the last eighteen months that the PC(USA) has gone a bit haywire theologically and ethically and is losing its way. Is it possible for the organization, the institution, to repent corporately and receive as a body the forgiveness, demonstrate the repentance, and live a new life as a result of the saving work of Christ on the Cross? Is it necessary for its members to do the same individually in order for the body to experience the transforming power of our Savior? Evangelicals probably feel more comfortable with the second, individualized, movement taking priority, but the first, corporate, movement should not be discounted in value or dismissed as unrealistic. There have been seasons, perhaps even in your congregation, where under the leadership of a new pastor or executive director or pope, when a body changed its tone and refocused its attention on the essentials of faith and practice.

The Catholic Church is presented with such a moment in the unusual transition of leadership in its immediate future. I have greatly admired Pope Benedict XVI, and appreciate the courage of his choice of downward mobility. TIME Magazine, in this week’s cover story entitled “Second Act: How Benedict XVI may become more influential after his resignation,” reflects on what Benedict was able and not able to accomplish during his tenure:

Benedict’s successor will inherit a long list of problems. The wounds from the priest sexual-molestation scandals are deep, and it may take generations to win back once fervently Catholic nations like Ireland. While Benedict did more than John Paul II to try to make amends for the crimes, he was too much a part of the compromised bureaucracy to truly cleanse the organization. (Vol. 181, No. 7, p. 21).

The Catholic Church is not unique among religious institutions in its suffering from corruption, immorality, and power-brokering. If one with as much authority as the Pope is unable to transform one church, we must all throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and plead for his transforming power to work miracles in and among us. Our only recourse is to cooperate with the refining fire of God’s Spirit and submit to the discipline required to set us on the right track again. We must pray for our leaders to make this submission visible, and pray that God would start with us. The PC(USA) can change, but only if we truly repent individually and corporately of our disobedience, recommit ourselves to God’s Word in faith and action, and take the painful steps of repentance to unlink our structures from worldly ways and means. And then perhaps we can hope that our witness to a hurting world can be strengthened and those like myself—who have been scandalized by the behavior and message of so many within our tribe—can rejoice and welcome a transformed PC(USA) into our hearts and around our table again.


2 Responses to “Can the PC(USA) Really Change?”

  1. Thank you..agree..also reminded me of this George MacDonald quote:
    Divine Burning

    Divine Burning
    He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he
    is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth
    eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that
    is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have
    purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; yea,
    will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to
    its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest
    consciousness of life, the presence of God.

  2. Mary, I would love to be proven wrong. But I do not believe the PC(USA) has a shot at being transformed. It will become more post-christian in its theology and more neo-pagan in its morality. I think that perhaps we need to be wondering whether God, a la Romans 1, has abandonded it over to its passions. There will be faithful congregations here and there, and faithful individuals in the midst of congregations that have succombed. But I harbor no hope for the denomination or its institutions. The bigger question for me is how we deal with this reality.

    But again, I hope I am wrong; but fear I am right.

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