To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.
"Rooted and established in love," or in the language of the venerable King James Version in which many of us were nourished, "rooted and grounded in love." That was the theme of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that concluded yesterday in Louisville, Kentucky.
As most of you know, I make it a practice to attend the Assembly every year. After all, it is the highest governing body in our denomination, and the Assembly's pronouncements are listened to around the world as the voice of the Presbyterian Church. Since the Presbyterian Church includes you and me, and since some of those pronouncements in years past have been more than a bit disquieting, particularly as reported in the press, I go to keep track of what is happening, to see if we have shot ourselves in the foot, and then come home to report to you on the state of your church.
I was not looking forward to the Assembly this year. I left Warren last Saturday with more than a little unease. I knew what was coming - we were about to go tooth and nail for the umpteenth time over the issue of whether or not to allow gays and lesbians full participation in the life of our church. All the mainline denominations have been struggling with it. Year after year the same fight, and it is getting old. More about that in a bit.
The first order of business at these annual gatherings is the election of a Moderator, a person whose task is to preside over the meetings but, more than that, to represent our denomination as its highest elected official for the coming year. There are brief nominating speeches, brief statements from the candidates (there were four this year), a question-and-answer period during which commissioners can ask whatever is on their minds with responses coming from each candidate, and finally a vote. One can generally guess who the winner will be by gauging who gives the best answers, who makes the fewest blunders, or, as one of my friends adds, who looks good with their face blown up to twelve feet tall on the giant TV screen. For what it is worth, in my not so humble opinion, the one who did best in the back-and-forth was Dr. Jack Rodgers, a retired Professor from San Francisco Seminary and author of several widely read books on our Presbyterian Confessions. And, yes, Jack did win the election.
Sunday at the Assembly is always highlighted by worship. The Order of Service filled 19 pages with the proceedings lasting two solid hours. A massed choir of several hundred voices from area churches led the music along with a worship band, a small chamber orchestra and traditional organ. Spectacular. Outgoing Assembly Moderator Syngman Rhee was the preacher for the day and his theme was that for the Assembly: Rooted and Grounded in Love. Almost 300 mission workers were commissioned and we capped it all off with a celebration of the Lord's Supper. It would be nice if we did business as well as we do worship.
Monday morning is not normally a highlight of General Assembly, but this year it was. Tony Campolo, that delightful Baptist from the wilds of Philadelphia, addressed the Assembly at breakfast. He was aware of the trouble we have been having. "Most denominational splits have nothing to do with theology," he observed. "Behind all the rhetoric about theology we see power games being played out." Hmm.
Power dynamics also affect family life, Tony said. "Men are usually lousy lovers because they're on power trips all the time." He continued by saying that people frequently ask him who should be the head of the house? "I feel like saying, 'If you were a Christian, you wouldn't ask a stupid question like that.'" He said the question reminded him of the one the disciples asked Jesus about which one of them would sit at his right hand in the coming reign of God. Instead, husbands and wives should be seeking to emulate Jesus, who "emptied himself and took the form of a servant."
"I know what you're thinking: Who's going to be in charge of the family?" he said. "Try Jesus!" Amen! Good ol' Tony!
As every dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian knows, the real work of the church is handled in committees, and at General Assembly, the rule is writ large - 15 standing committees, most with 50 to 60 members who have probably never laid eyes on one another before, dealing with hundreds of items of business, subjects ranging from the nitty-gritty of church government to broad questions of national and international affairs. Committee meetings begin on Sunday night then continue on Monday and Tuesday with Wednesday morning reserved for everyone to read the committee reports of everyone else.
The plenaries resume. The Assembly approved a major report on campus ministry, a good move considering that the college years are when we lose many of our best and brightest. The report calls for the creation of an internship program to train new campus ministers, a system for funding ongoing support of campus ministries, and the development of an electronic notification system so campus ministries know when Presbyterian students come to their schools. Makes good sense.
Upon recommendation of the Committee on Catholicity and Ecumenical Relations, the Assembly affirmed the directions of historic talks currently taking place between us and the Roman Catholic Church. The Assembly instructed our representatives to find "appropriate language" to describe the closer ties developing between the two churches, to find ways to renounce anti-Catholic statements made by the Presbyterian Church in the past, and to join the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference in a study that could lead to a mutual affirmation of each other's baptisms. There are still differences between the churches, as we all know, but they are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Praise God.
As expected, the Assembly extended the current "Year of the Child" mission emphasis to a "Decade of the Child," in which congregations, members and church agencies will be encouraged to continue the efforts they have begun and explore new ways to be in ministry with children and their families in the years to come. The Assembly also approved a major policy statement on domestic violence entitled "Turn Mourning into Dancing!" The 84-page report addresses the causes of the problem in American society and in more than 60 recommendations proposes ways in which the church can be more effective in reducing the incidents and effects of domestic violence in the country.
On another sensitive issue, the Assembly adopted moral and ethical guidelines for stem cell and fetal tissue research. Recognizing both the great progress in that area as well as the complexity of the moral issues involved, the guidelines offer counsel on the use of tissue derived from fetuses, subjecting it to appropriate limitations. Under the guidelines, the decision to have an abortion would be separate from the decision to donate fetal tissue and the sale or commercialization of fetal tissue would be legally prohibited.
In the midst of all the other business, the Assembly approved formation of a task force that had been recommended by a number of our denominational leaders. Over the next four years it will examine in detail the theological issues that have divided the Presbyterian Church (USA) in recent times. The 17-member group, to be appointed by the moderators of the three most recent General Assemblies, was directed "to lead the PC(USA) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity, seeking the peace, unity and purity of the church." Among the subjects the task force was asked to explore are issues related to our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.
Friday afternoon arrived and with it the committee report that would respond to the approximately 30 overtures from presbyteries around the nation dealing with the ever-present sexuality issues. The committee was recommending a proposed constitutional amendment to the presbyteries that, if ratified by a majority of them in the coming year, would delete the paragraph from our Book of Order which had been inserted in 1996 saying,
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."(2)That was the passage inserted five years ago to exclude openly gay people from office in the church (even though they are not directly mentioned in the language). Knowing that the task force to study our conflicts had been established earlier in the week, the easy thing to do would have been for the Assembly to simply refer the report to that group for deliberation - let them battle about it for the next four years. But no. By an almost 2-1 margin, the committee's recommendation was adopted, and the decision will be put to the presbyteries during the coming year.
At a press conference following the vote, both conservatives and liberals held forth, either pointing with pride or viewing with alarm. After both groups had had their say, Moderator Rogers spoke: "The scriptures say 'Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.' I am rejoicing that this group now has hope, and weep with those who sincerely believe the church has done a wrong thing." I feel the same way; I have friends on both sides.
The reality is that these sexuality questions are with us as a church because they continue to be with us as a society. In my view, no matter what we say or refuse to say is going to end the discussion, no matter how tired we are of it or how much we wish it would go away.
During the course of an Assembly week, we learn a lot. For example, did you know that the letters in Britney Spears name can be rearranged to spell Presbyterians? I knew you would be excited. At the Assembly I run into many friends and colleagues from years past. It is a time of catching up. "Where are you these days?"
"Where is that?"
Northwestern part of the state. Don't worry about it, you can't get there from here anyway.
We talk about the past and the future. One of my old friends wondered, in light of all the conflict and confusion, if there would be any church at all in which to do her ministry as the years progressed. I told her I was not worried about that, and the reason I am not worried is this is not our church anyway. This is the Lord's church, and that means, through thick and thin, it will not only survive, it will thrive.
Need proof? Do you remember where you were on Fathers Day last year? Many of you were right here, and some of you have told me that you had been genuinely concerned about the future of this church. As you sat here last year, at this very hour you were listening to someone whom your Pulpit Committee was proposing to become your next pastor. At the conclusion of the service, you voted. And things have not been the same since. The words of despair have become words of delight. All in one year. How did that happen? At the heart of it, I believe with every fibre of my being that God put the pieces together. You and you and you and you and you and you and you and even me. All together..."ROOTED AND GROUNDED in love that [we] may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ..." And then to share that love. That IS why God put us here. This is, after all, God's church. Always has been. Always will be.
Rooted and grounded in love. There is nothing more to be said than to echo the words of the Apostle: "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!"
1. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs, CO : Navpress, 1995), p. 408