It is a sobering thought that it has been 31 months (!) since my last blog entry. It will take some time for me to shake the rust off and get back to this with any skill, so please bear with me. I’m still trying to figure out how I had everything setup in wordpress, much less remembering the attributes I have attempted to include in good blog writing, the flow with which everything ought to be offered.
But I’m worried that if I take too much time getting those details straight, I may lose important memories of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, earlier this month. I was honored to be one of six elected commissioners from Heartland Presbytery (along with an exceptionally bright and capable Young Adult Advisory Delegate), the regional council of the denomination in which I serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament and Teaching Elder. I was further honored to be asked to moderate one of the 20 or so committees that were created by the General Assembly to process the business brought before us and to make recommendations about these to the whole assembly when it meets in plenary.
Eventually, I want to reflect on many things: the work of the committee I was asked to moderate (the Assembly Committee on Church Growth and the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program), some of the controversial or weighty matters the assembly addressed, and the takeaway I have as I process, with the benefit of some distance, the tone and tenor of this gathering for the future of our church.
But first I want to consider why we do any of this in the first place.
Denominations are taking a lot of heat these days, some of it merited. Institutions of all sorts are slow to change, and it takes some work for individual members in institutions (in our case, whether members, or congregations, or even whole presbyteries) to interpret the cost/benefit of remaining part of the collective. If we disagree with others who call themselves Presbyterian over Marriage, or ways of promoting peace in the Middle East, or how we should structure ourselves into Presbyteries or Synods, it takes emotional and cognitive work to subordinate those differences to the larger good of being the church together.
The effort it takes to understand why we still engage with other churches or the larger denomination is not trivial, even for those congregations that are solidly Presbyterian. Sometimes even the effort to educate ourselves about the work being done on our behalf is time consuming. Add to that the cost of our biennial gatherings (something around $2.6 Million), resources that could have such a beneficial impact in so many other areas of our life together–from disaster assistance to new church planting to advocacy on behalf of the hungry, the immigrant, the prisoner–and you can see why those challenging the connectional church model have some important things for us to hear.
But I would argue that our General Assembly gatherings themselves (and their smaller counterparts in other councils of the church, such as the Presbytery) are essential witness for what we as Presbyterians understand to be the very purpose of the church. When we gather (whether on Session, or in Presbytery, or at the General Assembly) to be the church, each of us is charged not to promote our own agenda but to seek the mind of Christ. We are called to serve in Christ’s name together, whether we are right, left, or center on any particular topic. So we gather knowing that not all of us hear Christ’s guidance the same way, or as saying the same thing, and we adjudicate that difference through discussion, prayer, and ultimately democratic vote.
In other words, we agree that there is something important about subordinating our individual perspectives of faith (as deeply formed and prayerful and attuned to scripture as each of them, though disparate, are presumed to be) to the larger movement of the Spirit when we are assembled together.
We trust that the voice of those we don’t agree wither is itself deeply faithful, trying to discern the same mind of Christ that we are.
We assert that that other voice matters, and that we are impoverished when the voices at the table are just like our own.
This is the fundamental reason why I didn’t support the efforts made to establish, even on a provisional basis, non-geographical presbyteries, which would have been allowed based on shared missional identity. I am in favor of reworking our mid council structure, but this proposal cut too deeply at what is, in my view, fundamentally Presbyterian. That all of our groups that we form, from churches to the General Assembly, ought to be the rough, human, frail, seeking jumble of people who happen to be there, all of whom ought to be welcome and invited to speak honestly and given a vote at the table.
(And I’ve had long and respectful discussions about this with my friend John Vest, who was part of the group that proposed these non-geographic presbyteries and who has blogged extensively about it, such as in this post after the proposal was defeated. John also has a recent post about his doubts about denominationalism, and I agree with him about finding ways of being together that don’t inflame the winner-take-all celebration of whomever wins the day. My view is that we need to seek new ways of relating together, but we have to do so while valuing and encouraging those with whom we disagree to join in witness together.)
And at its heart, that’s what our biennial national gathering is: joint witness. We come together and we are the church. We have a shared structure that is based on the idea that the different results of our reading Scripture don’t diminish us, but rather strengthen us, as disciples.
That is itself a witness to an increasingly fragmented culture. It is a witness to all who play identity politics or who claim with absolute certainty that they bear the one authentic voice of God that, no, we are engaged in a humble exercise to be engaged with fear and trembling, respectful of others and always humble, always seeking the truth in love, always guided by love of God and love of neighbor.
I am grateful to be a part of this denomination, whatever its weaknesses, whatever the failings of institutional religion might be. I trust God is doing great things among us. I hope to take part and offer my share of hope along the way.
And with that effort to re-enter blogging after 31 months, we’ll see if I can polish this craft once again.