The Presbyterian Women's Gathering: One side of the issues PDF Print E-mail

by Terry Schlossberg

Nearly 4000 women met in Louisville for the Presbyterian Women Churchwide Gathering from July 9-13. With little noticeable protest, they allowed themselves to be bombarded with a political agenda that overwhelmed the meeting from plenaries to workshops to forums to exhibit booths. Some women complained privately. One said to multiple "amens" that if she heard the word "globalization" in the worship context one more time, she'd quit attending anything. Others ventured quiet, candid assessments. "You think you're going to a worship service, and it turns out to be political advocacy," said one. "I trust my local Presbyterian Church," said another, "but I've discovered that here I have to read every line of liturgy or prayer ahead before I know whether I can say it. I don't like being where I can't trust what's coming next." And others: "I'm tired of hearing the U.S. blamed for every bad thing in the world."

Denominational leaders were there to praise PW for the large yearly contribution PW makes to the General Assembly programs. Most reports of the Gathering are positive. Many of the women who attend are there at the expense of their congregational or presbytery or synod PW and they want to give a good report when they return. Even many of PW's critics want to see the organization restored to its original purpose. And many women do have a good time by avoiding the most controversial of the nearly one hundred workshops. Any workshop with the word "Bible" or "mission" in it is exceptionally well attended. The others often have fewer than two dozen, sometimes fewer than ten, in attendance.

The worship service on Thursday evening included a concert by the African Sinikithemba Choir. When their soloist raised his hands and voice in emotion-filled praise of our Lord Jesus Christ, the auditorium erupted in a spontaneous standing ovation. It was as if that is what these women had come for and finally their love for the Savior was expressed.

At the Gathering there is only one side to the issues

Morning and evening plenaries focused on Globalization, HIV/AIDS, War and Peace, and Antiracism. Woven throughout the program, in plenaries, workshops, and other forums, was affirmation of the homosexual lifestyle.

We are a denomination of 2.5 million members. Sixty percent are women, and while 4000 appears to be an impressive number, that number comprises less than one-half of one percent of the women in our denomination. And clearly, even at that, the women who attend the Gathering are not of one mind. Gathering officials report a decline in both attendance and in mission pledges.

At home I subscribe to two newspapers, one with a liberal political bent and the other with a conservative political bent. I am often impressed by how much difference there is in the news that is reported. I can read the arguments on both sides of gun control, for example, and the tax cut, affirmative action, and many other issues.

But you will not find that balance in approach to the issues at the PW Gathering. At the Gathering there is only one side of any issue presented. Many of the women I spoke with acknowledged the importance of the issues raised but expressed strong objection to speakers' statements of the problem and their proposed solutions. These women care about the problems of other nations, they said, but they were angry about the continual accusations that the U.S. is to blame. Taking up political issues and failing to allow for more than a single perspective is not education. It is propaganda.

A recent survey of Presbyterians by our own Research Services found that the majority of Presbyterians are Republicans (55%, compared with 25% Democrats). If that is the case, PW leadership fails utterly to represent the view of a majority of Presbyterians on political issues.

The Gathering opposes the church's position on sexuality--again

However, while politics held the spotlight at the Gathering, it was much more disturbing to hear the constant theme of approval of homosexual lifestyle repeated in virtually every venue. It must be said that the PW leadership have for years been using the Gathering as a platform to advance an agenda on sexuality that is opposed to Scripture, our Confessions and our Book of Order.

Speakers in plenaries deplored the exclusion of gays and lesbians. Each afternoon Margaret Dee (Mardee) Rightmyer, a self-affirming lesbian, led a "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Support Group." Rightmyer also led a daily workshop called "Instincts of Love vs. Social Norms" that featured materials and resources from the various groups advocating for ordination of homosexuals: That All May Freely Serve, The Shower of Stoles Project, and the More Light Church Network. Rightmyer introduced herself as an evangelist for That All May Freely Serve.

Several Gatherings ago I wrote ahead to the Gathering leadership for help. I told them I could see the workshop and forum and hospitality offerings in their program that advocated against the church's position on homosexuality. I could not find the places at the Gathering where I could expect the church's position to be upheld. I asked them to point me to those places. They could not point me to a single place at that Gathering where women would hear the church's position explained and defended.

That has not changed. Instead, the attempt is to woo women into acceptance of a practice that Christendom has always opposed.

The effect of such a strong radical feminist agenda is that a meeting that ought to be both edifying and challenging to Christian women as they seek to minister in the church and in the world, is that they are cut off from true community. The severing begins with family. Marriage and family were not subjects of discussion in the Gathering program. A close reading of the entire program showed that the most basic institution for the well-being of any society was absent from consideration.

What is the cause of this disjuncture from the women in our pews?

Pictures from the 2003 Gathering. Click any picture to see it larger.

The PPL booth ready for the exhibit hall to open

One of three aisles of the exhibit hall -- the PPL booth is straight ahead.

PPL Executive Director Terry Schlossberg and board member Peggy MacLeod enjoy a conversation with a Gathering participant.

Where does PW leadership come from? Why are they so impervious to balance on issues and to upholding our church constitution? Why are they so unrepresentative of the women who occupy the pews of our churches and even of those women who together contribute millions of dollars to support the PW agenda believing they are contributing to mission?

The Gathering program book lists 69 members of the Gathering Planning Team and its various committees. It also lists another 49 members of the Churchwide Coordinating Team (CCT). PWs from synods and presbyteries send voting delegates to the business meeting held during each of the Gatherings. There are approximately 350 delegates in the business meeting.

PW doesn't have a Nominating Committee; it has a Search Committee. That committee presents a slate of one person for each slot on the CCT, and the delegates to the business meeting go through the motions of electing women they do not know.

Many churches abandoned PW long ago and, from the look of their diminishing income, PW is continuing to encounter loss of congregational support. One of the renewal organizations, The Network of Presbyterian Women in Leadership (NPWL), published an alternative to this year's Horizons study (Unnamed Women of the Bible). They report brisk sales. NPWL's exhibit at the Gathering was a popular stopping place for women.

PW is an organization that ought to be accountable to women and to the larger church. It has its own voting seat on the General Assembly Council. Presbyterian women who are supporting this organization need to insist that PW uphold the church's constitution, that women hear more than one side of the political issues and, while they're at it, insist on worship that isn't politicized.

Addendum: The PPL Presence at the PW Gathering

My first Gathering was at Ames, Iowa in 1991. I went to see why Presbyterian women reported walking out of meetings and why so many women never went to a second Gathering. Apparently it had been a huge, private meeting that the press didn't attend. My report of that meeting made the front page of the Presbyterian Layman and press attention at the Gathering picked up at ensuing Gatherings.

The very first plenary session of that Gathering featured an Australian Aborigine committed to the religion of Naturalism who declared that "Kangaroos are Human" and added that "yams are human too." That became the headline of the Layman article. Then, as now, support for homosexuality pervaded the Gathering and, I think, much more blatantly than at this recent meeting.

Three renewal organizations were present at this most recent Gathering: Voices of Orthodox Women (VOW), Network of Presbyterian Women in Leadership (NPWL), and Presbyterians Pro-Life (PPL). All three organizations experienced exceptional response from the women attending the Gathering. We all made scores of new contacts. Women walked into the PPL exhibit exclaiming, "I didn't know you existed. I'm so happy to see you here." Some came to gather up our materials and some came to find sympathetic counsel for past abortions which they had never before confided with anyone.

This was the first of the Gatherings I've attended where abortion was not on the program. I have been appealing to PW leadership for years to let PPL speak at the Gathering for the historical view of the Church that is recognized in General Assembly policy on abortion. Like the other issues, abortion at the Gathering has only one side: the abortion rights side. Could my appeals for fairness explain why abortion disappeared from the program altogether this year?

It seems odd though. Abortion looms on the agenda of the General Assembly in its debates over late term pregnancies and abortion. And partial birth abortion is about to be outlawed by the Congress and the President. Why eliminate it from the PW program? Is it only because of the pressure the planners feel to hear the other side?

 

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