The Presbyterian Church (USA), like all the mainline denominations, is torn by an ideological and theological competition. A small left and a larger right compete with each other for the hearts and minds of the center. The center is more amorphous. They are mostly conservative, like the conservatives, but they also are mostly tolerant of extremes, unlike the conservatives (and also unlike most of the liberals). What the center folks are most committed to is preserving the church. They are loyalists to the actual church, not to the hypothetical church of either the left or the right.
The issue of the moment dividing the Presbyterian Church is the ordination of homosexuals. To the left, this is about equality and civil liberties. To the right this is about staying faithful to the Bible. To the loyalists, the overriding issue is preserving the church with minimal injustice to everyone.
The history of the Presbyterian Church has always been divided by competitions like this. The issues change; the structure of the competition does not. For more details about this history, see my books Presbyterian Pluralism and Leading From the Center. Moreover, I think the Presbyterian Church always will be divided by competitions like this, until Jesus returns and ends history as we know it. And this is true of every large church. And always has been, and always will be.
After decades of fighting, the church created a Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church in 2001. The Task Force made its report a few months ago, and will be voted on at the General Assembly next June. The Task Force took a loyalist line: they kept the traditional views already embodied in the church’s constitution, but called on everyone to trust the local ordaining bodies to apply those standards correctly. The local ordaining bodies -- the regional presbyteries in the case of ministers, the local congregations (session) in the case of lay elders – have been trusted with this authority, with a few exceptions, since the Presbyterian Church codified the rule in 1729. This means that different ordaining bodies will apply those standards a little differently.
Liberals have rejected the Task Force report because it keeps the current constitutional standards. Conservatives have rejected it because it allows some leeway in applying those standards. Loyalists will now have to choose.
When liberals were in the saddle in the 1970s, they ended the church’s longstanding practice of trusting the local ordaining bodies, in order to insist that every church body, at every level, ordain and hire women. It was the liberals who ended what is called “local option” – or more properly, local application – of the constitutional standards. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it is the liberals who want local application, and the conservatives who don’t. Conservatives have rejected the Task Force report because it sacrifices the purity of the church in the interests of peace and, in an attenuated sense, unity. Just as the liberals would have done if they had been faced with a similar report thirty years ago.
The attempt to make every congregation and every presbytery follow the same standard will fail. And if it does not fail, it would produce a schism in which pure (or purer) congregations pull out to form a new sect. Yet the history of such sects is that they are soon split again and again to try to make them really pure, and then really, really pure. And the schisms are always much smaller than their proponents think they will be. One of the pro-schism organization in the Presbyterian Church, newPCUS, which wants to revive the old Southern Presbyterian Church, has been having a debate about what would happen if 500 or 1000 out of the 11,000 congregations in the PC(USA) withdrew. But this is not what would happen if the Task Force report is adopted. I think that if there were a schism, it would be closer to 50 congregations that would actually withdraw. Sure, most Presbyterians are conservative. But most of them are loyalists. They aren’t liberal, but they are willing to live in a mixed, impure church, with liberals.
A church of millions will never be pure.