The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHOSE CHURCH IS IT ANYWAY?

Delivered 7/14/96
Text: Col. 1:15-20 (Amos 5:21-24)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"He...Jesus Christ...is the head of the body, the church..." (Col. 1:18a). A good reminder anytime, and a WONDERFUL reminder when it comes to weeks such as we have just gone through in Albuquerque - the annual gathering of the Presbyterian faithful in solemn General Assembly.

No one knew quite what to expect as we came together from all over the country. After all, 90% of the folks had never even been to a General Assembly before - our strange annual Presbyterian predilection for what one of my friends calls "Rule by Rookies."(1) We were all aware of the potential for an especially rancorous and mean-spirited several days. After all, this assembly would be asked to make a decision on an issue which mainline churches have been trying desperately to avoid for years: should we allow practicing gay and lesbian persons to be ordained to church office? Passionate arguments had been offered on both sides of the issue, and over fifty overtures had come from presbyteries on the subject, some saying yes, some saying no, some saying do nothing, some saying keep out of it and let us decide. Someone suggested that the appropriate scripture text for the meeting would be Acts 19:32: "Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together." No matter what this assembly would finally conclude, there would be pain, and no one looked forward to that.

Business began on Saturday night with the election of a Moderator (a person to not only chair the week's meetings, but also to officially represent us as a denomination over the coming year). There were three candidates - on the ordination issue, one was pro, one con, and one in between, wanting to simply let churches and presbyteries make their own decisions. The one in between, Dr. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Church in Chicago, was elected on the second ballot. Within hours, as the headlines on the election began appearing in the next morning's papers, we knew it would be a tough week - because John had taken a middle ground, the media put their own spin to work and said this was a positive sign for those in favor of allowing church office to gays and lesbians. Stay tuned.

Down to business. Following worship on Sunday morning and a farewell sermon by outgoing Moderator Marj Carpenter who had earlier thanked the Assembly for the privilege of serving as Moderator and allowing her to sound the theme of her moderatorial year, "mission, mission, mission instead of sex, sex, sex," it was time for work. Standing Committees, among whom would be assigned over 900 pieces of business, convened for hearings, deliberations, and decisions to recommend to the whole assembly. The committees would be at work (sometimes till the wee hours of the morning) until Wednesday afternoon when, except for daily morning worship, commissioners could finally gather as one body.

Yes, believe it or not, there was work on the docket that had nothing to do with sex. We heard the annual bad news about membership statistics. At the end of 1995, our number stood at 2,665,276, a decline of 33,000 from the previous year. The loss was less than 1994, when membership declined by 44,000, if that is any consolation. Presbyterians put a total of $1.55 billion in their churches' collection plates in 1995, an average of $582 per member. We celebrated the commissioning of more than 400 missionaries, paid and volunteer, to places throughout the United States and in more than 40 countries overseas.

The Assembly approved recommendations that, if approved by presbyteries, greatly expand the responsibilities and duties of Commissioned Lay Pastors who serve small churches which are unable to afford seminary-trained leadership. Up till now, lay pastors have been able to preach and administer communion. The proposed changes will allow them to moderate session meetings, conduct baptisms, perform weddings in states where it is allowed and vote in meetings of their presbyteries.

Commissioners rejected a proposal that would have converted alternate-year meetings of the General Assembly from business meetings to gatherings that would feature mission presentations, theological discussions, worship, celebration and leadership development workshops. Presbyterians like to tinker, but not this much.

In a "no-surprise" action, we condemned the epidemic of black church burnings. We committed Presbyterians at all levels of the church "to vigilant prayer and concrete ministry with both the victims and perpetrators of this racial hatred."

Continuing our tradition of speaking to governments around the world (whether they listen to us or not), the Assembly made strong statements advocating increased enforcement of human rights in China, Tibet and Guatemala. Commissioners also asked the US government to ease the sanctions on Iraq that are producing hunger and lack of adequate medical care among the civilian population of that country. Nations which have nuclear weapons were called upon to continue work toward their elimination and to extend those efforts to getting rid of chemical and biological weapons as well. We also adopted a report that encourages all parties to Middle East peace negotiations to press for a final settlement to the conflict in that region. Nothing earth-shaking in any of that, but our concerns were given voice.

In the most stunning vote in many years, commissioners refused to confirm a second four-year term for Dr. James Brown as executive director of the General Assembly Council. Despite the fact that his reappointment had been recommended by the Council and the responsible Assembly Committee, he was rejected in a move that is widely seen as a reaction to general dissatisfaction with denominational leadership. Similarly, the committee responsible for nominating a replacement for Dr. James Andrews, our retiring Stated Clerk, was greeted with four more nominees from the floor. Eventually, the committee choice, Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, for the past eight years the director of our Worldwide Ministries Division (and in my estimation, a WONDERFUL choice) was overwhelmingly elected.

For Presbyterians, other than the ordination issue, the one which held the most potential for divisiveness was our continued participation in the ecumenical effort known as COCU - the Church of Christ Uniting - a nine-denomination consortium that, once all details are ironed out, would insure that all parties recognize the work and worship of the individual communions as legitimate expressions of the whole church of Jesus Christ with ministerial credentials being mutually recognized.

Presbyterians have been a part of COCU from the beginning in the early `60's. The dream was a cessation of "hostilities" between the various Christian denominations and eventually one Mega-church which would make Jesus' prayer in John 17, "...that they may be one..." a reality. The Mega-church idea quickly died as impractical, but efforts continued to make some visible expression of the fact that Christians do believe that, despite denominational labels, we really are ONE CHURCH of Jesus Christ.

So saying, to be painfully honest, COCU may well be an idea whose time has come...and gone. The people in the pews already work as brothers and sisters in Christ with members of other denominations at Urban Ministry, Habitat for Humanity, CROP Walks, and so on. If a Methodist or Episcopalian appeared in this pulpit, no one would give it a second thought. Still, given our Presbyterian heritage of ecumenical leadership, we press forward.

The sticking point in current negotiations is the insistence by other denominations that we create an office that would be comparable to their bishops who would participate in "covenanting councils." Part of the problem is that Presbyterians consider the Presbytery as our CORPORATE bishop, so we do not believe we need another one. Another part is that Presbyterians place great stock in the involvement of lay Elders in affairs of church government and insist on a parity between Ministers and Elders when we gather to do our business - there was no significant place for the office of Elder in this new COCU configuration. Since Presbyteries often do business by appointing Commissions (always comprised of both Ministers and Elders) to act in their behalf, the Assembly voted to say we would participate in these new COCU relationships in our traditional manner: "Hello, Bishop; meet our Commission." It remains to be seen whether or not our COCU partners will understand our concerns and go along.

Now, the biggee. Should the Presbyterian Church allow self-affirmed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained as officers and ministers in the church? This is an issue that has been on the agenda of all mainline churches for almost a generation. Our church has done everything it could to delay a definitive decision. Not because we are not concerned with the issue, but that we ARE concerned with the PEOPLE involved - we do everything we can to avoid hurting feelings. Dr. Tom Gillespie, the President of Princeton Seminary, told of a senator facing a controversial bill who said, "`Well, some of my friends are for it, and some of my friends are against it, and I want you to know that I'm for my friends.'" Tom said he was for his friends, too, and he wanted to maintain those friendships, but "there is a seriousness about this issue that cannot be dodged."(2)

In response to some 50 overtures from Presbyteries around the country, the Committee on Ordination and Human Sexuality was formed and heard dozens of people testify in open hearings. They heard from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution offering them three options - forbid, allow, or let the presbyteries have a yea or nay vote on it. After painstakingly careful deliberation, the committee, by about a three-to-two majority, recommended an exceedingly conservative position to the Assembly and asked that the following Book of Order language be sent for the approval of presbyteries:

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 of a man and a woman (W-4.9001), 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.

A minority report was also offered which would have left the option of making ordination decisions at the local level. This was turned down on the basis that "local option" is not part of Presbyterian tradition. The final Assembly vote in favor of the majority report was 313 to 236, almost 3-to-2.

There was silence in the hall. Even those who had been very much in favor of the adopted motion felt no particular joy at what had taken place. Everyone knew that some people were deeply hurt by the action.

After a few moments, from the back of the auditorium, a column of gays, lesbians and their supporters began a slow, silent march through the huge room. Most were wearing liturgical stoles to represent those ordained in the church, but silenced, and those who cannot be ordained. They marched, three, four, and five abreast, holding each other, tears streaming down many of the faces. Some were carrying a large wooden cross. Soon, someone started softly singing "We Are Marching in the Light of God," then another and another and another. More and more joined in. "We Are Marching in the Light of God." Soon, people began to leave their seats and join the march - observers, staff, commissioners...easily a thousand people of the some 5,000 in the room. People saw the tears; they saw the pain. And whether or not they agreed with the marchers, they wanted to show they cared. The soft singing continued, "We Are Marching in the Light of God...then another verse, "We are Living in the Light of God"...and finally, "We are Loving in the Light of God." It was a moving and amazing moment, and regardless of their position on the vote, everyone was touched by it.

What next? The proposed language will go to the Presbyteries for their affirmative or negative vote. If a majority pass it (which is by no means certain because the language may well be far more restrictive than the committee intended), this will become our official standard. If the amendment fails, we will be right where we are at the moment - not allowing the ordination of practicing homosexuals (nor prohibiting the ordination of those who remain celibate [a position which would not change even if the amendment is adopted]) but not having the language in our constitution. We will wait and see.

PresbyNet reported that the Board of Pensions sponsored its first-ever 5K walk/run/whatever event on July 4. As nearly 100 Presbyterians set out on the early morning trek, one participant was heard to say: "This is the first time in 208 years everyone is going in the same direction."(3)

Well, I do not worry about that. You see, I remember the scripture lesson. I know that someone else is ultimately in charge.

Perhaps you are familiar with the name Angelo Roncalli. You may know him better by the name he took late in life, Pope John XXIII. It is safe to say the John XXIII made more of an impact on the life of the Christian church than anyone since Martin Luther. It was John XXIII who was responsible for the sweeping changes brought about by Vatican II - a less legalistic approach to faith, worship in the language of the people, an openness to non-Catholic Christians, to name just a few. It is said that Pope John's bedtime prayer was routinely the kind of conversation between himself and the Lord that prayer ought to be. As he reflected on the events of the day, the trials and tribulations of leadership, he heard, "Whose church is it anyway? Yours? or Mine?" There would be no need to respond. Then he would hear, "Very well then. Go to sleep, Angelo. Go to sleep."

Whose church is it anyway, David? Very well. Go to sleep then, go to sleep.

Amen!


1. Houston Hodges, PresbyNet, 6/30/96

2. Bill Lancaster, PresbyNet, "PCUSA NEWS," #3689, 7/3/96

3.Jerry Van Marter, PresbyNet, "PCUSA NEWS," Note #3722, 7/9/96

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