In college I became very interested in the problem of pluralism. How can an organization both believe in truth, and believe that different understandings of truth can coexist in the same institution?
This led me to study the Presbyterian Church, which has both an official confession of what it believes, and an established practice of accepting a fairly broad range of views within the church. My dissertation was published as Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House. I came to see that the one confession that all officers of the church adhere to was balanced by a practice of allowing the presbyteries - the regional governing bodies at the heart of the Presbyterian Church - some leeway in judging how strictly any given officer had to adhere to that one confession. Liberal presbyteries tolerated more diversity, conservative presbyteries tolerated less diversity. When ministers moved from one presbytery to another they could be in for some sharp questioning, and even be denied permission to "preach within the bounds" of the new presbytery.
Over time, this balanced system broke down. The authority of the one confession was watered down by adding many other confessions. Liberal political correctness limited leeway on some issues, which led to conservative political correctness limiting leeway on other issues. The fights in the denomination shifted from the confessional standards to the administrative rules of the church. The fights got bigger, more regular, and exhausting. The church started a decline that has only sped up in recent years.
A few years ago the wiser heads in the church proposed a new Form of Government (nFOG), which would restore the leeway that presbyteries used to have in judging their own officers. Instead of providing detailed rules on what all officers must and must not do, the church's constitution would lay out the general principles of the whole church. The presbyteries could follow model manuals and rules provided by the denomination, or adapt them to local circumstances.
This week the new Form of Government was adopted by a majority of presbyteries. As of July 10, 2011, it will become the constitutional rule of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Now if we can get back to having one confession that we actually believe in, I will feel fully vindicated.