It's hard to know what to say about a Presbyterian church that accepts an avowed atheist as a member. And what do you say about a pastor and session that would willfully ignore the PCUSA's Book of Order requirement (W-4.003) that those seeking membership in the church must first "profess faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior" and allow an affirmation that he "endorsed the core principles in Christ's teaching" to substitute for that required profession of faith?
How, then, to respond when this man, Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin and well-known liberal activist, uses his professional skills and contacts to write a personal opinion column that is published on the front page of today's Sunday editorial section of the Houston Chronicle publicizing this travesty?
I googled the church and learned that its pastor is Rev. Jim Rigby. Rev. Rigby invited (and received) charges made against him for violating the Book of Order by publicly presiding over a gay marriage. He said at that time that he welcomed the charges and wanted to be the subject of a test case in his presbytery. The charges were recently dismissed without explanation, so there will be no test case. I have served on judicial panels in my own presbytery and know that dismissals often come when the complainant, for one reason or another, withdraws or fails to cooperate with the investigating committee.
Here's what I have to say about this situation:
At my church, as at most churches, there are people who attend with varying frequencies who are not Christians. They are usually the agnostic, Jewish, or atheist spouses or other relatives of church members. They are most welcome to participate in the worship and life of the church in any way except for voting in congregational meetings or being eligible to teach in the church or nominated for election as an officer of the church. Sometimes the Holy Spirit works in the lives of the non-believer and the doubter and they become Christians--and sometime they don't--but they should always be welcomed.
However, it is a farce and a perversion of the Book of Order to accept as a member someone who publicly states:
I don't believe in God. I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in, nor do I believe Jesus rose from the dead to ascend to a heaven that I don't believe exists.
It looks like the Rev. Rigby is courting another "show trial" by creating this situation and that he colluded with Prof. Jensen to publicize this defiance of our constitution using this opinion piece which now has wide circulation by virtue of its publication in the Houston Chronicle. The question is, will someone in Mission Presbytery respond by filing charges against Rev. Rigby and members of the session of this church under the Rules of Discipline and then will the presbytery prosecute the case?
There is a lot of controversy in the church now about the recommendations from the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church which will come before the General Assembly at its June meeting because they are being characterized as allowing presbyteries "local option" in deciding who they can ordain. Historically the PCUSA has not permitted presbyteries to make their own rules for ordination of pastors and elders, but requires adherence to common standards set out in the Book of Order. If this action of St. Andrews church in Austin is permitted to stand then we will have "local option" that allows individual churches to write their own requirements for membership.
The most basic tie that binds members of Presbyterian churches together regardless of local church affiliation is the confession that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior. It is a foundational statement of basic Christian doctrine. If that requirement for membership does not have to be honored then the church is no different from the Rotary or Kiwanis Club. We are truly dissolved into a chaotic mass of "do your own thing" congregations with no unifying principle to draw us together.
For shame, Rev. Rigby and Prof. Jensen!
For shame, Rev. Rigby and Prof. Jensen!