Presbyterians

Remembering the real Mister Rogers -- as in the Rev. Fred Rogers

Remembering the real Mister Rogers -- as in the Rev. Fred Rogers

America was divided, tense and angry in 1969, when Fred Rogers faced a U.S. Senate Subcommittee poised to grant President Richard Nixon his requests for deep budget cuts for public broadcasting.

The news was full of assassinations, riots and images from Vietnam. The pain even soaked into the gentle, calm, safe world of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

Rogers told the senators why he kept telling children they were unique and special. But he also talked about fear, anger and confusion -- because that's what children were feeling. 

Then he read the lyrics of one of his deceptively simple songs: "What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right?" 

The song stressed that kids can make good choices: "I can stop when I want to. Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop anytime. And what a good feeling to feel like this. And know … that there's something deep inside that helps us become what we can."

The senators nixed the cuts, and the Rev. Fred Rogers -- an ordained Presbyterian minister -- continued with his complex blend of television, child development and subtle messages about faith. The Senate showdown is a pivotal moment in "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", a Focus Features documentary just released to theaters nationwide.

"The bottom line for Fred Rogers was that the faith he had in God -- Christian tradition and his own beliefs -- infused everything that he did," said the Rev. George Wirth, a friend and pastor to Rogers for two decades. "He was not a grab you by the lapels man, obviously. He was more careful, and I would say prayerful, in terms of how he discussed faith."

In the documentary, Rogers summed up his approach: "Love is at the root of everything -- all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of what we become." The space created by a TV lens, between himself and a child, was "very holy ground," he said.

Yet another preying Presbyterian?

Once again, shocked onlookers painted from familiar palettes as they described the latest young man to march into the public square with his guns blazing. The alleged killer was a moody, quiet loner who excelled at school. He was a normal guy who loved movies and super-hero tales, only he cheered for the villains. When seen in bars, he was usually sitting alone.

Journalists also quoted people who knew the family and said that James Holmes was once, as The Los Angeles Times noted, "heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church" in San Diego.

You see, even a kid from a normal church can evolve into someone who dyes his hair red, buys 6,000 rounds of ammo, girds himself in a full body-armor suit and, when surrendering to Aurora, Colo., police, identifies himself as The Joker, the incarnation of postmodern evil.

"What does 'Presbyterian' mean in this context? ... It's like no one really stopped to ask if there was there something about this particular label -- the actual content of this word -- that connected in any way to this event," said Aly Colon, a nationally known journalism ethics consultant.

"Does this kind of label give readers anything to stand on? ... It's like these words are hovering up in the sky, with no connection to the facts on the ground."

Truth is, in Southern California "Presbyterian" can describe everything from evangelical megachurches to oldline Protestant congregations on the religious left.

So was the Holmes family active in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or the conservative Presbyterian Church in America? How about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Synod, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or the American Presbyterian Church?

Then again, journalists were soon reporting that this family has been active -- for nearly a decade -- in some brand of Lutheran congregation.

The problem, explained Colon, is that journalists assigned to cover these media storms in the digital age are trying to report as much information as they can, as fast as they can, as easily as they can, while competing against legions of websites, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable news and, often, smartphone videos uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses. Reporters are tempted to use as many easy labels and stereotypes as possible, simply to save time and space.

Almost a decade ago, Colon wrote a Poynter.org essay entitled "Preying Presbyterians?" about a similar media blitz in which a gunman who killed an abortion-clinic doctor was constantly identified as a "former Presbyterian minister." As it turned out, Paul Hill had become so radical that he had already been ejected from a small Presbyterian flock that was very conservative, but also opposed to any use of violence during protests.

None of the mainstream news reports he read, wrote Colon, explained why it mattered that this man had once been some kind of Presbyterian. It was just a religious label with no real content.

"As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain," wrote Colon. "So when I see the word 'Presbyterian,' I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as 'Catholic,' 'Episcopalian,' 'Christian,' 'Hindu,' 'Jew,' 'Mormon,' 'Hindu,' 'Buddhist,' 'Muslim' or 'Pagan.' "

What he wrote then remains true today, as journalists try to find and assemble the pieces of the bloody Aurora puzzle. If religion is going to be included in the coverage, stressed Colon, reporters must work to "connect faith to facts."

In other words, it will be crucial to learn the details of Holmes' real life, in the here and now. Journalists must learn how he spent his time, spent his money and made the decisions that appear to have ended and altered so many lives. If faith -- or some other worldview -- is part of that equation, then so be it.

"It's our duty to drill down and to find facts that add clarity," said Colon. "Maybe this young man once had a membership in a particular Presbyterian church with a particular theology. So what? How is that faith connected to the facts of what happened in Aurora? There must be a connection or what's the point?"

Orthodox bridge to evangelical world

As point man for Russian Orthodox relations with other faith groups, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is used to talking shop with Catholics, Anglicans, leaders in older brands of Protestantism and other world religions. These duties have long been part of his job description. Meeting with leaders from the world's booming evangelical and Pentecostal flocks?

Not so much.

However, recent ecumenical contacts by this high-profile representative of the Moscow Patriarchate is evidence that times are changing. Time after time, during meetings with evangelical leaders and others here in America, Hilarion has stressed that it is time for Orthodox leaders to cooperate with traditional Catholics, evangelical Protestants and others who are trying to defend ancient moral truths in the public square.

"I am here in order to find friends and in order to find allies in our common combat to defend Christian values," said the 44-year-old archbishop, who became a monk after serving in the Soviet army. He also speaks six languages, holds an Oxford University doctorate in philosophy and is an internationally known composer of classical music.

For too long, Orthodox leaders have remained silent. The goal now, he said, is to find ways to cooperate with other religious groups that want to "keep the traditional lines of Christian moral teaching, who care about the family, who care about such notions as marital fidelity, as giving birth to and bringing up children and in the value of human life from conception until natural death."

On this occasion earlier in the year, Hilarion was preaching from the pulpit of the 5,000-member Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, a conservative congregation that remains part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which recently approved the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

While in Dallas, Metropolitan Hilarion's public schedule included meetings at Dallas Theological Seminary, a prominent institution among many of America's most conservative evangelical leaders. He has also, during the first half of the year, met with nationally known evangelical leaders in New York, Washington, D.C., and at Princeton University.

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, one of evangelicalism's flagship publications, the archbishop said it is crucial for all churches -- including Eastern Orthodox churches -- to expand their work into public life, even if this creates controversy in some quarters.

"Very often nowadays our church will publicly express positions on what's happening in the country," he said. "Some people ask, 'Why does the church interfere? It's not their business.' We believe that the church can express its opinion on all aspects of human life. We do not impose our opinions on the people, but we should be free to express them. And people will have to choose whether to follow or not to follow, whether to listen to what we say or to ignore it."

The archbishop's statements were especially significant and timely because of a related conflict now raging in the Orthodox Church in America, which has Russian roots.

A major cause of the controversy was the decision by the church's leader, Metropolitan Jonah Paffhausen, to privately endorse The Manhattan Declaration, a document produced by a coalition of conservative Christians that focuses on abortion, euthanasia, sexual morality and religious liberty issues. Numerous Catholic bishops and several other Orthodox leaders have also signed as private citizens, not in their roles as church officials.

At the very least, this bitter dispute has demonstrated that some OCA leaders are opposed to public stands on hot-button political issues, especially any that proclaim the church's teachings on sexuality. Some prefer isolation and silence.

However, Metropolitan Hilarion, in his taped sermon in Dallas, said it is shocking to see churches divided by "what hitherto seemed unthinkable -- namely marked differences among Christians in their understanding of moral law. ... There has surfaced a desire to revise, or to be more precise, to adjust, the unambiguous commandments of God to any manifestation of human fancy, a trend that has spread out with the speed of a cancer. ...

"Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many families break, why so many marriages end up with divorce, why so many children are raised without a father or a mother and why the birthrates in many countries have become so low. ... Family is no longer a primary value to many young people. This is a tragedy of our times and this is a challenge that we can face together."

Presbyterian alphabet soup, again

To follow Presbyterian news updates, outsiders need to learn a few key facts.

The Presbyterian Church in America is not the same thing as the American Presbyterian Church. Also, Orthodox Presbyterians are not to be confused with Bible Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Reformed Presbyterians or Evangelical Presbyterians.

This Presbyterian alphabet soup became less complicated in 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. joined with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the so-called Southern branch. This created the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which today has about 2.3 million members.

Is that clear? If so, take a deep breath because Presbyterian affairs are about to get more complicated as new divisions and unions reshape the churches that trace their roots to John Calvin and his Reformed branch of Protestantism.

"While we're seeing churches fly away from the core doctrines that once held them together, we're also seeing new bonds being formed that are truly interesting," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, whose work in the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper has made him a mainline Protestant lightning rod.

"We're seeing a realignment across the boundaries between our churches. This unity will be doctrinal -- not legal. There may not be a formal structure that forms out of all of this. We don't need a big new denominational headquarters to replace the old denominational headquarters."

These are, of course, fighting words at the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been forced to downsize its Louisville staff several times in the past 15 years. Membership statistics and donations have declined in an era of conflict about biblical authority, ordination standards, sexual ethics and a host of ancient doctrines, especially the belief that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, these riptides of change have also affected the Layman, a newspaper born in 1965 when the old United Presbyterian Church began work on a modernized confession of faith. That fight reopened wounds from a 1924 battle, when its General Assembly decided that literal views of key doctrines -- such as the virgin birth, deity and resurrection of Jesus -- did not have to be used as a test for ordinations.

After decades of focusing on what has become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Layman's August issue included several pages of coverage of events in the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In the future, said Williamson, it will include news about the Presbyterian Church in America and other conservative Reformed bodies.

This will get complicated because "lots of things are happening at once" as church leaders try to plan for the future, he said.

Some congregations have decided to stay in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but their leaders are loosening their national ties. Williamson noted that leaders of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta have voted to try to stop their per-capita financial contributions from going to the national offices in Louisville. Instead, they want this money to back a new network called the Presbyterian Global Fellowship.

"So they're staying in the PCUSA, but they're doing what I call 'leaving, in place.' They're staying ... but they've made it clear that this isn't business as usual," he said. "Now that's the largest church in the denomination, so when it does something like that it gives cover for smaller churches and their pastors who have been afraid to take a stand."

Some churches are openly attempting to cut their mainline ties and join the New Wineskins/Evangelical Presbyterian Church Transitional Presbytery. Other congregations are revising legal documents that bind them to their regional Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries, in case they want to exit in the future.

Leaders on both sides know it may take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to tie up the many loose ends in this legal fight -- affecting millions of dollars worth of pensions, endowments and church properties nationwide. Similar conflicts are shaking the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other oldline Protestant bodies.

There will be unity in the future, said Williamson, but it will not look like the unity of the past.

"There isn't going to be a central, merged denominational office somewhere," he said. "The new church unity will be in new networks of people with common beliefs. It's going to look more like the World Wide Web, not the old industrial model."