Last Weekend Marked the Return of the Mainline Presbyterian


In churches across the country we sing together, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

However, the reality is that for the last 35 years, in my denomination — the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — and in other mainline denominations, we haven’t lived up to this beautiful affirmation of love for all. Instead of welcoming all the children to our churches, we often exclude those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It has made our promise that Jesus loves all the little children of the world a false one.

It’s no wonder why so many of our children have walked away from faith. The last 35 years have marked a decline of membership and vitality for the mainline churches, prompting many to ring the death knell on the mainline strand of American Protestant Christian tradition. In 1976, my presbytery in Pittsburgh was home to 144,000 Presbyterians. Today there are 35,000.

Many continue to seek remedies to this situation. Will this great ship that is the Mainline continue to head to the edge? Will it fall over into oblivion? What wind is needed to turn our sails around?

Watch with me now as this great ship turns toward life, Spirit, energy, vitality. Last weekend marked the moment for my church.

Saturday was the midpoint in the ratification of Amendment 10A, a revision of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) constitution that will open the way for LGBT Presbyterians to be ordained to church office. For the first time, the Yes’s are ahead of the No’s at this point. Some are certain it will pass — may it be so!

Like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the work to open ordination to LGBT candidates in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is reminding us all what exactly the Gospel of Christ is and what it means for our lives.

Jesus’ message was assurance that God is love and that we are made in God’s image. To follow Jesus is to love God and to love our neighbor. Not only is our neighbor every person we meet. Jesus’ pointed story of the Good Samaritan in the gospel of John teaches that our neighbor is definitely the outcast like our LGBT friends, family, and colleagues to whom the church has done immeasurable harm.

The way in which these mainline denominations do this Gospel work of LGBT inclusion is also the same: conversation. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the advocates for passing Amendment 10A are engaged in church-wide phone calling to engage in a wide conversation about the place of LGBT people in the church and Presbyterian tradition. This is a conversation that has eluded us these last thirty-five years but is absolutely necessary for our spiritual health and wholeness. These same kinds of conversations — tailored to each particular tradition — are going on [e2]in all the mainline denominations.

When we embrace LGBT people, we reclaim the Gospel truth that Jesus loves us, everyone. Yes, that is everyone. As Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself.”

In these conversations, one by one, we are finding our voice again by reclaiming the Gospel of God’s love and sharing it with others. And through these conversations the Holy Spirit is filling our sails to turn us toward life.

When we get it right about LGBT equality in the church, the return of the Mainline takes shape. It is happening before our eyes in this vote in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in the other denominations as we bring the Gospel truth of God’s eternal love in Christ into every congregation.

Watch this history being made, and then raise your voice for the Gospel, too. Together, we will return the Mainline to life, to love, to Gospel joy. We will bring truth to the promise that Jesus really does love all the little children, all the children of the world.


Reverend Janet

6 Responses
  • Charles Hale on March 5, 2011

    I’m not sure I agree, Janet.
    “Return of the Mainline” isn’t what I’m seeing. Under the cover of bickering about GLBT inclusion, there is a deeper revolution taking place. The “Mainline” church of yesterday (the last 60 years or so – all I can claim memory of) was modeled on a corporate structure with corporate-style evaluations of success and failure. I think the Conservatives are adding their jazzy gloss to this “Mainline” model, while the “Progressives” among us are actually reaching for entirely new models of what it means to be “Church.” I read seminal thinkers discarding former paradigms of success and reaching for a spiritual body far less structured and measurable. I don’t know what is going to shake out of this, but I don’t think it is in any way I see – a return to something we’ve had before – but rather something quite uncomfortably new, a yeasty ferment quietly taking shape while the sturm und drang of gay ordination has everybody looking elsewhere.

  • Janet Edwards on March 6, 2011

    Dear Charles,

    Thanks for your comment–you are insightful and thought-provoking as ever!

    Of course, the return of the Mainline depends on what one means by the term. If it means the “professional/corporate” structure of the 20th century, then I agree with you. But that is not what I was thinking of as Mainline.

    As I pondered upon this, what emerged for me as Mainline was the perception of God as love, as the “wideness of God’s mercy.” For me the Mainline is a big tent that can hold together both “liberal” and “conservative” strains of this common confession of God’s love in Christ. That central theme of Christ’s love undergirds women’s equality, civil rights, collegial mission work, Israeli/Palestinian accord–much of what I think of as distinguishing the PCUSA in the last century. And it clearly supports LGBT equality.

    I suppose the traditional in me wants to keep some hold on the past as we do enter, as you say, into the new land of the 21st century. I called what I think of as the best of our PCUSA past, Mainline. I do hope that we carry that into the future. Does that make sense to you?

    Peace, Janet

  • Charles Hale on March 6, 2011

    Cecil Lower taught me Polity at McCormick in the late 1950’s. Speaking of “Peace, Unity, and Purity” in ordination vows (which disappeared for awhile, and later re-appeared) he pointed out that we are forever committing ourselves to be in tension. Peace and Unity are always destroyed by the search for “Purity.” “Purity” in Biblical interpretation is the watchword of the Conservative movement of our time – and I believe was the origin of the founding of all the other off-shoot Presbyterian denominations in decades and centuries past. Peace and Unity were sacrificed on the altar of Purity.

    The Presbyterian Church I grew up in wasn’t very serious about theology. Oh, to be sure, for awhile there were Neo-Orthodox preachers with solid theology, and a fairly strong social justice movement (Eugene Carson Blake integrating a Baltimore swimming pool) women’s ordination and women church officers (I introduced women officers in my first two pastorates.) But it wasn’t long until the Jesus movement arrived and serious theology flew the coop. We had love everywhere for everybody and stuck daisies in soldiers’ guns (unless they were firing at students at Kent State.)

    Except for a few ministers who provided their churches with solid theology for all ages – the Presbyterian church that I remember was “Mom, Dad, and 2 kids on Sunday morning.” World Wide Communion had some fights with the anti-Communists (UNICEF accused of being a Communist front). But for the most part it was “Headquarters” cranking out this year’s glossy programs. There wasn’t much serious theology – except in a few churches where the pastors were zealous about it.

    As they used to say of the British, “It doesn’t matter so much what you believe, as long as you pronounce it correctly.” This was the face of mainline Presbyterianism that I saw (and which permitted the union of north and south, because we were comfortable ignoring theological differences.) I believe we’ve concentrated on merchandising a “product” that attempts to appeal to as many as possible while offending as few as possible – especially now that numbers are dropping. Step up the advertising. Increase the volume. Find new ways to interest new consumers. Consumerism is so firmly rooted in our psyche that it is nearly impossible to approach church from any other mind-set. The religious consumer wants programs that provide religion for their children. Small church without programs? Sorry. Look further. Accept gays? Yes, I guess so. I like the new gay couple that moved in next door. They fixed up their house and that’s good for property values. And if they don’t have kids, that’s even better, because I won’t have to pay taxes for their schools.

    Summary, Janet: I don’t think the “average” Presbyterian church has thought much about theology in depth during my lifetime. The Lutherans have, more than anyone else, and I credit them with keeping Neo-Orthodoxy alive while Presbyterians and Methodists have concentrated on apple pie and Chevrolet. Solid theology is basically anti-consumerism, and thus anti-mainstream from where I view it.

    The ferment that is happening now, to which I referred earlier, is attempting to move outside the consumer model and reach for a different understanding. It’s going to have a tough slog. It’s tough to Twitter. I think it has to do with people touching one another physically, caring with a heart, and then wrestling with theology without clear answers. With our shortening attention spans we need clear, quick answers – unless we realize that this won’t get the theological job done. Can this happen? I don’t know. Some may remember the “East Harlem Protestant Parish.” and the offshoots that continue in our day.

    It could be that the continued decline of the middle class and the increase of the green movement may force us into inter-dependency for survival, and that, in turn, may provide the rich soil in which reflection and commitment can come alive again. It won’t look like the “Mainline” Presbyterianism of the last 6 decades of my memory.

  • Janet Edwards on March 7, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    You press upon me the fact that “Mainline” means basically what our church experience was in the 20th century, more specifically, post-World War II America.

    What lasted for me from Sunday School and Sunday worship during that time was that God is love with all the ramifications of that confession. There was probably a lot more said that did not register with me. Love and Justice formed the foundation of church for me in my mainline congregation.

    Both you and I desire, I expect, what you call “the rich soil in which reflection and commitment can come alive.” That is the fruit of the Holy Spirit moving among us and what we yearn for as the future of the church. It doesn’t matter at all whether it is called “mainline” or not but it is a fact for me that “reflection and commitment” did come alive for me in a mainline congregation which must be why I have faith it could happen again.

    Thanks for your very helpful comments, Chuck. And peace be with you , Janet

  • Charles Hale on March 8, 2011

    Point well taken.
    After all, my faith was born in the mainline Presbyterian church Sunday School – though it took a friend in revivalist church, to lead me to commit my life to Christ and decide to enter the ministry. (Please don’t tell my Presbyterian friends that he also persuaded me to be properly baptized – fully beneath the water.) Actually, my first call came when I was 13 at Camp Harkness in Cleveland, when a young red-headed Canadian was my cabin counselor for part of the week. He said, “Three of you boys have a call to the ministry.” He didn’t specify which three. But three of us did finally enter the ministry. That was Dr. John Middaugh, later of the Brown Memorial church in Baltimore. I use these names because there may be some here who can remember Camp Harkness and Dr. John Middaugh. (sp?) So my faith grew in the context of the mainline church, though it had at least one major side track of major significance.
    I am now reading on “Reverence” – one of my concerns being that the awe that brings me a sense of God’s holy presence in a grand cathedral – and the “otherness” of worship in such a setting – has deep meaning for me. I want my worship experience to include “Reverence” – whether in a quiet campfire, a Bible study, or a worship service. To me, worship without a sense of reverence isn’t worship. I am particularly put off by jazzed-up worship which is supposed to reach the youth. It lacks the “reverence” which for me is absolutely vital for worship of our awesome God. Not that it isn’t an old familiar form. I’m not trying to hang on to a form of the past, but rather to that which inspires reverence.

  • Janet Edwards on March 9, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    Your reminiscences from your experience in the mainline Protestant stream are precious–Thanks for them!

    A transforming moment for me came during Confirmation Class when I stayed overnight one weekend with the daughter of our minister who was teaching the class. We got to talking when the light had been turned off and the question was asked, “What if God does not exist?” A profound silence that was infinitely full settled in as the response. Silence has been my friend ever since. My faith in God in Christ alive now as Holy Spirit sprang from the soil of my life in that moment.

    I am sure experiences like yours and mine come for people in other Christian church families and in other faith traditions (Jesus said, “I have sheep in other folds of which you do not know.”). Modern praise music does not work well for me, either. Electric guitars and drums where the heavy beat is the central thing are completely intolerable to me. But there are other kinds of contemporary services–Taize is an example–that create a space where reverence takes hold for me.

    What I see in the resurgent mainline is a creativity that has great promise for our being alert to the Holy Spirit in a way that has eluded us for a long time. I hope these thoughts give you joy, as they do me.

    Peace, Janet

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