We were ambushed last Christmas Eve by a gang of politicians disguised as Presbyterian clergy and elders. The scene was a sanctuary; the occasion a candlelight service. The weapons our assailants used were so subtle: newly printed orders of service with the lyrics to all those familiar Christmas hymns set forth where they were to be sung. And it was there, along this bypass of the old hymnals, that they fell upon us.
As we made our way through the first verse of Edmund H. Sears’s “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” expecting to sing with those bending angels, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” the trap sprang. The awful word, “men,” had been “improved” to read “all.” The word and its note crumbled in our confusion and, weakly, something like “maul” trickled out. Poor Sears.
The enormity of the crime became clear only when, in the “New Hark! The Herald Angels,” the “sons of earth” whom Christ was born to raise were unceremoniously toppled and “each child” enthroned. The evening’s only saving grace was that the High Ideologues of the Presbyterian Church had not yet the temerity to convert the Three Wise Men into the Three Wise Persons. I await this Christmas with trepidation.
The censorship of hymns is a supreme example of undertaking to fix that which is not broken. Is there doubt about whether Christianity includes women among the saved? Of course not, and no Christian woman has ever suffered from the mistaken belief that women are excluded. So what is the point? The point is politics. But the effort to redraft the hymns to suit political purposes is despicable. The lyrics Charles Wesley wrote in 1749 for “Hark! The Herald Angels” are what they are; we moderns no more have the privilege to alter them than we do to reshape Mona Lisa’s smile.
In the Presbyterian Church, or to be more precise, in the Presbyterian administrative and academic hierarchy, partisan politics are now dictating the particulars of church doctrine—right down to the wording of the hymns. Now rewriting hymns may seem a petty affair, but there are graver matters afoot. Consider the source behind the censorship of carols: the Reports on Inclusive Language, composed largely by the Presbyterian Church’s Council on Theology and Culture. The Report itself contains the usual, and now boring, feminist prohibition against the traditional use of the masculine as a pronoun of indefinite gender. This prohibition is so much folly and bother about which the laity cares little and probably will not adopt unless it is forced down their throats. Alas, such coercion is exactly what the Ideologues intend.
What truly gives pause lies deeper in the document. Scripture itself is to be redrafted: When reading the Bible, lectors are to remove indefinite masculine pronouns and replace them with something “inclusive.” The words of Moses, Isaiah, Paul, and Christ Himself are to be changed. The idea grows all the more preposterous when one recalls that the meaning of the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Son was never in doubt.
Redrafts of the future run deeper still. We are to shy away from calling God “Father” too often. Instead, we should tend more toward the likes of “Foundation,” “Helper,” “Triune One,” “Ground of Being,” and the heart-stirring “Other.” And the search is on for the “new terms which refer to the being of the persons of the Trinity. ” We are permitted “for the present” to employ the ancient formula, “Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” but the use of “Mother,” for example, is currently being studied and discussed. In the meantime, there is no prohibition on the use of “Mother” or anything else for that matter.
But more: The epilogue of the Report warns that, while exploring for and discussing new language, we must not become “idolatrous of any particular set of terminology.” The Presbyterian hierarchy clearly means to imply that those who cling to the Father and the ancient Trinity are not only unloving, but idolators as well.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that it is the business of Christianity “to present that which is timeless in the particular language of our own age.” But, he also said, the “bad preacher” does the opposite: “He takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity.”
And it is indeed a battle of ideas, not a loving discussion of linguistics, that presently racks the Presbyterian Church. By importing their own contemporary political ideas, the hierarchy aims at nothing less than converting the church into a partisan political organization.
The long-standing, left-wing politics of the Presbyterian hierarchy form the larger context of the effort to rename God. The proof of their allegiance is manifold, from their gift of $10,000 to the Angela Davis Defense Fund to their routine endorsement of the pronouncements of the National and World Council of Churches on peace and economics.
The spectacle of a modern, leftwing clergy is deeply ironic. As Richard John Neuhaus notes in The Naked Public Square, “The public program of many mainline churches is hardly distinguishable from the program of the American Civil Liberties Union for the elimination of religious influence from American public life.” Neuhaus contends that if the public square is left “naked” (that is, without the benefit of religiously inspired principles) too long, the state will fill the void with amoral or immoral tyranny. Alas, the public square has remained naked too long and the main-line clergy have inhaled too deeply its political fictions. The Ideologues propose new doctrines that tend, incredibly, to eliminate religion from religious life. We shall soon have a naked altar to match our naked square.
The governing and probably the only principles of the naked public square are the often contradictory fictions of total liberty and radical egalitarianism. By definition, the naked square is vacuous, devoid of substance, without particular or distinguishing attributes. In short, it is a process or an arena for games without an object. Traditional Christianity, on the other hand, with its God, the Father Almighty, has distinct attributes; it is full of particular substance. In a sense, it is too real for the Ideologues. As a reflection of the public square’s emptiness, the God of the left must be vague, abstract, and, above all, mutable.
Witness a flyer titled “Africa Awareness,” which I recently received from our Synod. It outlined the problem of drought and hunger and noted that money was needed to buy, store, and deliver food. Yet, amazingly, there was no solicitation of funds; we were told, instead, where to write for “resources.” How very much the flyer’s concluding sentence says about the philosophy of the main-line leadership: “A concern is that governments are withdrawing from their moral responsibilities to support global structures for peace and justice through a return to ‘charity’ by individuals.” We have come to this: that our leaders are shameless statists who place their faith in “economic democracy” rather than charity.
Meanwhile, until the Ideologues can establish a new regime in which the objectives of the secular and sectarian realms happily converge, all old forms of authority are under attack. The Presbyterian leaders’ commitment to “sanctuary” for illegal Central American immigrants is proof of their disregard for liberal democracy, which, if it is to have any meaning at all, must rely on the rule of law. If the laws even of a legitimate democracy are not worthy of obedience, then there cannot be government or any secular order among Christians. In fact, it is the very essence of tyranny for one group to place its politics above the law and beyond the claims of the electorate.
But the more telling objection to the Ideologues is that their partisan politics profoundly threaten the church. The political game divides its subjects; it is fractious; it breeds contention. The catholic nature of the faith should bind us in a realm largely separate from the partisan form of politics. The faith, “mere Christianity,” shows us our ends and outlines the broad limits of acceptable means for attaining them. In a democracy, partisan politics involve the selection of the most practical of these acceptable means. For the church to adopt or endorse particular means presumes too much and implies a knowledge of the divine will beyond the church’s capacity. Moreover, the mission of the church is itself conservative in a real, though not political sense. To a large degree, the church’s purpose is to conserve, pass on, and proliferate a message, a witness in as clear and pristine a form as possible. The church cannot place itself in the forefront of a partisan movement without jeopardizing its first principles.
Yet the Ideologues seem intent on schism. According to Pastor Neuhaus, one Methodist Bishop expressed deep distress at a November 1980 meeting of Methodist Bishops over the election of Ronald Reagan: The “saints” had somehow proved weak in their efforts to win over the populace. The Bishop had hope, however, for if the “people of faith” could gain strength from their failure, they might move on to victory next time. Doubtless, not a few good Methodist Republicans would be surprised to learn that they are no longer counted among the “people of faith.”
In the Bishop’s attitude we can see the true, hypocritical nature of the effort to rename God. The Ideologues play shallow linguistic games to demonstrate their magnanimous “inclusion” of women, who never were excluded, but they employ their sanctimonious politics to effect very real exclusion of those who vote a different party line. The renaming of God appears to be part of a larger political program designed not to include women, but to drive the politically undesirable from the church.
For Presbyterians not seduced by politics, the immediate challenge is that of preserving the name of the Father. It ought to be enough to recall that Christ has directed that we address God as Father. Yet by changing the name of God, the Ideologues lay claim to understanding Scripture better or more fully than did two millennia of apostles, church fathers, and humble laity.
True enough, Christians are not anthropomorphists: God is not as human males are. But the Lord as Father is nevertheless a profound symbol to us of certain of His attributes and, in particular, of the special attributes He carries in His revealed relationship with us. Though spirit, God has distinct, personal being, and Fatherhood best reflects what He is to us in our fallen state.
If all the world is an imperfect metaphor for something of God or Heaven, then we must cling tenaciously to the image of the Lord as Father. For the same reason, we must cling to the metaphor of the church as bride and Christ as bridegroom. “We have r.o authority,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “to take the living and semiotive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about.”
Even if we do not fully understand the mysteries and metaphors of God, still we must trust in them. Whatever else it may be. Heaven will not be empty: It will have distinct qualities. In the relations of the sexes, in marriage and family, God grants us—in our better moments—a glimpse of the things of Heaven.
In place of the Father, the Ideologues offer us only abstraction, obscurity, a ad ambivalence in their new image of God. But under a regime of abstraction the church’s discipline will wane and her face to the world dissolve: she will be unable to engender love. Who will run to the Great It for comfort? Desperate men do not seek abstraction.
We must not remake God in our political image. Rather, we must keep the Faith. If it rings true, as it always has, in the ears of the poor, the desperate and the weary, they will come to the Father, not to fill their bellies or cast their ballots, but to save their souls.