3.18.2010

Decently and in Order

My life is - as usual - crazy-busy; so my planned set of posts is taking a long time. This will be the 3rd of 4 planned posts, which I listed out 2 posts ago. The topic of this particular post is "speaking truth out of appropriate authority (and holding that truth unspoken when that is appropriate)".

First, though, on the "crazy-busy" thing: I spent a good 15 years of my adult life in salaried full-time positions working for someone else as I also raised kids. My life simply didn't allow enough time to even make sure I always had enough sleep, clean clothes for tomorrow, and all the bills paid even if there was money to pay them -- and I had no real choice in this. I did the best I could, and was always exhausted, and was never satisfied with the effort I could invest in any of the things I cared about, whether job, home, kids, or health. There simply wasn't even time to think of luxuries like reading or having real friends.

Now I have a situation where I can have a clean house, can NOT exist in a sleep-deprived state, can have real friends, can read books, and can write, work, and invest my time as my husband and I decide is best. My income is necessary for our current budget, but we have enough income to be able to make real choices as to the balance between smaller and bigger budgets and smaller and bigger amounts of my time being used for work. So my "crazy-busy" life is really very leisurely compared to what I experienced in my 20s and 30s, and it is VERY discretionary. I get to choose what I put in, what I take out, and the pace at which I juggle. And I love it, and am very grateful for the luxury. I know full-well how many other people in our economy have very limited choices in the life they feel forced into by work just to have a fairly minimum standard of living. This is not the world my mom and dad knew.

Okay . . . so WHAT did that have to do with the topic of this post? The topic of this post is modern Presbyterianism in the PCUSA, and the positions we all play if we choose to play in that ballpark. And my previous 2 paragraphs set the context in which my generation lives, which makes a big difference in Presbyterianism 30 years ago and Presbyterianism today. You can't understand what follows if you don't understand what I just said.

Each denomination has its own personality, and attracts people with certain characteristics. I won't presume to know what other denominations feel like from the inside, but I do have my own perceptions of them all, and some experience participating from the inside in many different places. The PCUSA is best known by the "decently and in order" quote, and by our commitment to an educated clergy. We are also known for our polity, which is not congregational but rather representative. We are also "reformed and always reforming", which means that we strive to understand God's word and keep applying it consistently as times change and our understandings change. In theory, this keeps us from becoming stagnant and Pharisaical. In practice it keeps us bound up in the politics of whatever the current tension is between the understanding of our grandparent's generation and the understanding of our children's generation.

I love the PCUSA enough that I keep choosing it even though it is not really very welcoming to my generation of women. We are the "missing generation", and that is largely because our parents and grandparents couldn't understand the life we have led and the values we have embraced. While the PCA simply maintained the rhetoric that kept women in their "scriptural" place, the PCUSA opened the door for women to climb to positions of power and authority equal to those of men -- whether as lay leaders in governance or as clergy in pastoral roles. What they couldn't understand was the response of my generation to that permission: we wanted a turning away from the old hierarchical structure rather than to assume the roles of leader over and against others who remained in subservient roles.

So if the PCUSA is representative and structured in polity, and if the women of my generation tended to reject authoritarian structures rather than become insiders to them, why would I embrace the PCUSA? Am I different, and I like hierarchy? No, as much as I love the women who have taken the challenge to climb and serve from positions of structural authority, that's not me. I love order that is deliberate and thoughtful, and I find that in the Book of Order, and I find that in our history, and I find that in our values. I also love education, and without an educated clergy an educated laity is an impossibility -- although I would very much like to see new initiatives toward an educated laity.

Our tradition allows for everyone to have a voice. Elders rule. Deacons serve. Ministers of the Word and Sacrament lead us and teach us and care for us. And everyone else can be a voting member who elects the nominating committee from which elders, deacons, and pastors are launched, and who can participate in the other ways provided for in the Book of Order. We all have a time and place where we can speak our perspective, if the intent of the Book of Order is followed by a given congregation or presbytery. None of this clashes with the values of my generation for teams rather than for hierarchy.

In practice, of course, most congregations have a preponderance of certain opinions and a culture that moves into squashing voices that don't match the majority. The values of the older generations support this with a very authoritarian view, that uses scripture and the Book of Order to justify an interpretation of "respect your elders" and "respect those in authority" that would see voicing a dissonant opinion as disrespectful. Those who don't fit are urged to find a different congregation or different denomination where they do fit. And so my whole "missing generation" has done just that, or has dropped out of church entirely.

The remedy, from my perspective, is to encourage a place for the voice of each person, and to discourage a culture that squashes different perspectives. I see many in the PCUSA and many in my own congregation who are doing just that, and building bridges for the survival of the best part of our polity and tradition even into the new century. I want to be part of that, and so I have acted deliberately to do just that. "Majority rules" can be good and godly only if the majority is committed to hearing -- authentically hearing and understanding and loving -- the voices of the minorities among us, and never trying to disengage from conflict until the conflict of the current generation gives way to consensus on those issue and moves on to the conflict of the next generation.

So I said this post was on "speaking truth out of appropriate authority (and holding that truth unspoken when that is appropriate)", and what that needs to mean to the PCUSA now is that each congregation and each presbytery and synod and general assembly takes care to encourage each member to voice their own perspectives on our life together, and to share their own stories of their own individual experiences of life. That won't make us congregational. Our polity is sound, and works well even if we hold authority in the tension in which is was designed to be held. It will make us authentically Presbyterian in every sense of the word.

And beyond what that means to the PCUSA . . . what that means to you and me and to every other individual is that we will practice Jesus' teaching about exercising lovingkindness toward each other and the stranger and the enemy. We will each speak our own truth even when that robs us of political clout because we don't mesh well with the powers that be. Even more, we will each champion the right to be heard of others, and actually LISTEN to them until we can imagine ourselves in their shoes, feeling as they do, living as they do, and championing positions that clash with our own.

This will take us beyond "authentically Presbyterian", and will lead us into a place where we are actually following the words of Jesus. That is my goal, and I am a Presbyterian (PCUSA) because I believe actually following the words of Jesus is best accomplished for me here, from the pew and from my home and from where I now click "publish post", at my desk at work.

(If you read this far, thanks! You have showed the kind of love I was talking about. Now share your voice somewhere so I can give you my time and attention in hearing you, because THAT is where it is appropriate to "hold the truth unspoken": when speaking my truth gets in the way of listening to yours!)

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