Oh, Benjamin! Sparks Fly!
Sucking the Church Dry
O. Benjamin Sparks, Presbyterian Outlook interim editor11/21/2005
Some years ago [I didn’t bother to look up when it was] John Burgess [who you should know, since I do] wrote an essay for The Christian Century [poorly named as it is, since we’re in a new millennium] in which he described the drain on the ordinary life of the PC(USA) [no, I’m not talking about our rapidly depleting membership rolls] by coalitions with “reform” agendas [note the sneer quotes to emphasize my “good” and “fair” intentions] for the denomination.
To whichever coalition or covenant group you belonged [as long as it was one of those nasty ones caught red-handed promoting the historic faith and practices of the Christian church], the dedication and resources with which you once strengthened the church [meaning the national agencies of this denomination] for mission, service, and witness [resources that you now must funnel mainly through means outside the official structure, since the official structure has altered its understandings of “mission, service, and witness”], now went into lobbies [I’ll conveniently act as if the PCUSA doesn’t have an actual lobby in Washington, D.C., that has its own partisan notions of Christian mission, service, and witness] that were hungry for power, for theological dominance, or for political control [not that my opinion of others’ motives is in the least erroneous, jaded, or worldly].
Burgess’ article was written in the ‘90s. Has anyone calculated [I’m sure not going to actually bother to do the math] the hundreds of thousands of dollars which, since then, have been contributed to the Covenant Network [to mention one group on the left, to lend a semblance of balance to my diatribe against the conservatives], the Presbyterian Coalition, PFR, and the Confessing Church movement, and the like [notice how I’ve cleverly lumped together groups standing up for what Christians have always believed with a group that’s trying to undermine orthodox faith and practice, as if it made no difference]—in staff salaries, speakers’ fees, and travel for conferences, phone bills, office equipment, and the like [all made possible with gifts donated by a committed few, who wonder why their per capita isn’t used equally as well]?
If those sums of money were prudently managed and spent, they might eliminate AIDS in a medium-sized African nation [and, then again, they might not, since with this hat-trick statement I’ve scored three times: I exposed my deficiencies in math, my ignorance of the enormity of the AIDS crisis, and an embarrassingly patronizing attitude toward the significance of African countries].
For years I have viewed all these groups with suspicion [okay, with ignorance and jaundice, too, and a lack of interest in the real persons and motives involved], and wondered why the ordinary “means of grace” in congregation, session, presbytery, and General Assembly were not enough [not enough to invigorate a dwindling church, not enough to bring people to joyous faith in Christ, not enough to send off increasing rather than decreasing numbers of missionaries, not enough to stem the tide of secularization sweeping through seminaries and judicatories and congregations—yes, I do wonder why “not enough” pretty well describes official Presbyterianism nowadays]—not enough to assist faithful Presbyterians in resolving the issues that divide us by deciding them and moving on [because, from my Olympian editorial height, I can see all these petty questions of biblical authority, Christology, and sexual morality as minor matters having little to do with the real mission of the church—matters that surely ought not detain the church for more than a year or two].
Why should Presbyterians waste precious time and financial resources on something that is not the church of Jesus Christ our Lord, not the body of Christ, not the royal priesthood, the chosen race, and definitely not the holy repository of Word and Sacrament? [Okay, let me say to anyone snickering at that: I wasn’t describing the PCUSA just now. What I’m getting at is that the PCUSA has exclusive copyright claims to “body of Christ,” and we’re not about to admit that Christ might be speaking or working through any “unofficial” groups.]
We do not baptize persons into the Covenant Network [Hoo-eee! That was my coup de grâce!]. And as for the Confessing Church – I already belong to a Confessing Church and wish that presbyteries and sessions had the gumption to hold officers accountable to our constitutional standards [which, hmmm…which suggests the need for the Confessing Church Movement, I suppose].
What has happened to us [and when I say “us,” I mean the Presbyterians just like me and not those other critters with whom I disagree, who are only posing as real Presbyterians] and other mainline churches is similar to what has happened to American cities. When those with power and money lose control of the political process and the schools [well, okay, since they lose control, they must not have power, so I really meant “those with money.” Actually, I’m not sure what I meant, but never mind; I’m speechifying!] – they move to the suburbs, build their own schools and systems, abandoning those without money and power to leftovers [Oops! The copy editor didn’t save me from either my bad punctuation or my breakdown in parallelism!].
In similar fashion, when I cannot get my way in the church [Why bother attributing more noble and true motives when I can cheaply smear my foes as solely being interested in getting their way, which is all that matters in church politics, isn’t it?], I form a group and not only try to change the church’s direction [please pay no attention to the fact that I myself am trying to change the church’s direction as I write this editorial], but also relentlessly attack the church for its apostasy or its lack of courage and prophetic zeal [but it’s decidedly okay for me to relentlessly attack the committed church reformers for their cussedness or their courage and prophetic zeal.]. I then weaken the church sufficiently [yes, of course, the only goal of renewal groups is to weaken the church; how blind of people not to see it before I point it out so plainly!], so that when my group finally takes control, what do I have [obviously a mean-spirited argument that holds no water!]?
The Report of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church has revealed this [petulant penchant for incoherence on my part] as nothing else in recent Presbyterian history [my knowledge of which may be incomplete, but it is so easy to make a sweeping but mindless claim once the keyboard starts clicking]. Even with its flaws and the risks to which it calls the church, the 20 people [Copy editor! Where’s the copy editor who should have saved me from dangling modifiers like this?] on the TF have proven – at least to themselves [in their dreams] – that the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than its expensive factions [which are forced to supplement what the official structures fail to do].
They found that they all belong to something higher and larger and grander than any coalition from which they come – with an intentionally limited vision. They belong to [the great kindergarten in the sky, where every child is special and no one takes cuts in line—wait, I digress] Jesus Christ and they need each other [because everyone else not enchanted with their cheery group-think is seeing through their putative solution]. In addition to the General Assembly recommendations, they invite us to discover among ourselves what they have learned [specifically, that if you use enough ambiguous words loosely, everybody finds something that he or she can like, and they all may just miss the bomb you’re dropping in the recommendations].
A group of young ministers, all of whom happened to be from Columbia Seminary, (See “Common Ground” articles, Outlook issue of May 30, 2005) discovered the same thing when they met together – that the Christ who called them to serve the church is more compelling and lovely than the issues that divide them [such as what it means to dedicatedly follow that Christ and make that Christ LORD, not one’s own devices and desires].
It is foolish to expect all these coalitions to disappear, or to wither away, or to be required to hold their meetings in Harare, Zimbabwe [although that doesn’t restrain me from suggesting it], while the General Assembly is meeting in Birmingham, Alabama [under the complete and undisputed sway of the national church agencies, which would be the only voice heard, rather than only the most privileged voice heard].
But it is not too much to expect, for ministers and elders from the 50 largest congregations (or even the 15 largest) to follow the example of those young ministers and meet together, so that – for the good of the church of Jesus Christ under the leadership of the Spirit – they may learn that the gospel vocation that binds them together is bigger, deeper, and broader than any issue dividing them [and I suggest this without a whit of acknowledgement that most of the 50 largest congregations are solidly on one side (the orthodox side) of the debate, that their pastors aren’t ninnies, that they may have already engaged in many such “dialogues,” and that they have learned the limits of what such “dialogue” can accomplish].
Hey, even the Layman and the Outlook [notice how I’ve neatly placed the Outlook up against the Layman, evaporating any semblance of neutrality about the Outlook’s self-perceived stance] might learn to break bread together – on our knees!
Instead of a sucked-dry chalice – we need to become a cup overflowing with the wine of reconciliation and peace. [Yes, please do follow my example of utter kindness and generosity in reaching out in reconciliation and peace to those dirty, rotten scoundrels, those politically motivated money-grubbers who are sucking our church dry with their sick cravings for conflict.] Christ died – not for any group’s agenda, but for the church [of which I am one of the sole remaining shining examples, unlike those other people with an agenda].
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Editor’s note: It occurs to me that some budding private detectives with a dubious streak might uncover the fact that this blogger earns part of his living leading one of those dread “coalitions with a ‘reform’ agenda.” Yes, fans, according to Sparks, I’m a sucker-dry of all that is good and noble! By his calculations, AIDS is still ravaging Africa because I’m a Presbyterian parasite. It’s a heavy burden of guilt to bear, but in spite of it, I try to practice my Christian faith and journalism with a particular attitude that seems outside the comprehension of those who can only envision power politics or personal gain: seeking altruistically to glorify God in Jesus Christ, speaking the truth of his Word, and applying it to the church and the world as best I can, as the Holy Spirit leads.