A Buddhist parable that applies to the Presbyterian Church in America and race

The Religion Guy urges religion writers to monitor parochial media, but beware the obvious pitfall: Such sources can offer limited perspectives.

Remember the ancient Buddhist parable about blind men and the elephant? One touches the beast’s tail and thinks it’s a rope, another touches the trunk and thinks it’s a tree, a third touches the belly and thinks it’s a wall.  Limited perception distorts the fuller reality, something journalists are duty bound to depict fairly.  

So with the Presbyterian Church in America, well worth coverage as one of this generation’s most successful and innovative denominations, with influential conservatives among its members. Major secular media give the PCA little  notice and ignored its newsworthy General Assembly in June.

Christianity Today headlined a piece on the assembly “PCA Goes Back to Where it Started: Women’s Ordination.” True, one reason the PCA broke from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) in 1973 was opposition to women in  church offices. The 2016 assembly ordered a study of whether women can be ordained as deacons (though not lay elders), and encouraged females’ full participation “in appropriate ministries.”

The assembly also approved overwhelmingly a declaration that the PCA “does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era.” Denounced as past PCA sins were claims “that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages interracial marriage” and members’ “participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations.”

CT reported on this second action, which Religion News Service covered with both a spot item and a Tobin Grant analysis headlined “What Catalyst Started the Presbyterian Church in America? Racism.” Grant thinks “the PCA exists only because of its founders’ defense of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.” That’s truthy, but overly simplified.

A third version of origins, on the official PCA website, mentions the women’s dispute but not race, and portrays the 1973 schism as a rebellion against “long-developing theological liberalism” in the PCUS over the doctrine of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible.

Good journalism would report that in actuality PCA origins had three elephantine aspects that pertain today: the tail of race, the trunk of gender and the belly of biblical authority and doctrine.

The PCA became less Dixiecrat in 1982 by uniting with a smaller group outside the South. Meanwhile, northerners continued to leave “mainline” Presbyterianism for the PCA. In 1989, 15 people began meetings that gave birth to the PCA’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Today this Manhattan megachurch fosters 73 urban church “plants” in the metropolitan New York area, plus many more across the U.S. and internationally.

With Redeemer’s influential Pastor Tim Keller nearing retirement, and with the current discussions about women and race, this is an apt time for newswriters to examine the PCA. It gained nearly 19,000 members the past five years, reaching 370,000. Meanwhile, the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA)  --  formed by a 1983 merger between the southern PCUS and a northern-western denomination -- suffered a net loss of 95,000 members this past year alone. Its 1.6 million membership compares with a 3.9 million total for those two prior denominations when the PCA originated.

Regarding Grant’s piece, note the significant material on white southern Presbyterians in “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow” (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) by historian David L. Chappell (who’s an atheist). The Atlantic magazine called this “one of the three or four most important books on the Civil Rights movement.”

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