The Liberalism of the Reformed Tradition

The Liberalism of the Reformed Tradition

Address to the Covenant Commissioner Convocation Dinner

214th General Assembly
Columbus, OH
June 14, 2002
Sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians 

John M. Buchanan
CoPastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

The good people of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago are not sure what to make of all of this. They are a happily diverse group: some are life-long Presbyterians, knowledgeable, informed, proud, loyal Presbyterians. But not many. Most of the people I am privileged to look out at on Sunday mornings are a very long way from loyalty to a denomination. In fact, many of them are genuinely surprised to learn that there is such a thing as the PC(USA) with a nationwide network of connectedness and a regional office in Chicago and a national headquarters.

They are not of one mind on the issue of who shall be ordained — nor any other issue: nor should they be — because what they are becoming a part of is a church that loves God, worships God, trusts Jesus Christ, honors his Lordship, and tries to faithfully follow him in its corporate life — and then honors and respects the God-given dignity of each person: honors and respects, under the Lordship of Christ, and the intent to follow him faithfully, a diversity of political, sociological and theological positions: honors and respects the responsibility of the individual, under the Lordship of Christ and within a family of faith, to make faithful decisions about how to be a disciple.

And so, a month or so ago, just when 17 Judicial Proceedings were filed against Presbyterian congregations and leaders for supposedly not abiding by the Presbyterian Church’s new restrictions regarding who is not to be ordained, Joanna Adams and I decided that we’d better let Fourth Church leaders know what was happening in their church. When we did so, the first response was surprise, and then, from Trustees particularly, an immediate revulsion. “This is not how we think a church should be. This is not something we want to be a part of. How do we get out?”

Sane, stable voices prevailed. We will not leave. I’m not going anywhere, although I do confess that the thought of belonging to a church that does not fight quite so relentlessly has a certain allure. But I’m not going, because it is my church and I love it. It is my spiritual home. My parents carried me in and had me baptized into it. It formed me as a child, tolerated me as an adolescent, challenged my mind and spirit as a young adult, called me to service, nurtured me as a young professional, gave me mentors and brothers and sisters and parents in the faith when my own parents died, gave me saints, my “Balcony People,” whose presence in my life is so palpable and important.

I love being a Presbyterian. I love our history. I love what we gave this nation in its infancy and adolescence. I love our brave witness and presence when issues of equal justice convulsed our church and nation. I love what we did in world mission. And I love what we continue to do. I may get tired and discouraged and sometimes angry, but I’m not leaving, because I love my church. And more than anything else, I want my children and grandchildren to love it, too.

But the Trustees’ reaction was a wake-up call. I need to learn a new lesson, and so do you: namely, how to live in a church with which we happen to disagree: how to live comfortably in a home that feels as if it is a different place from the one I remember (maybe comfortability is something I’ll have to let go of). On a deeply personal and spiritual level: how to balance my own integrity with my gratitude for and loyalty to my church: how to keep in appropriate tension my conscience and my church’s newly amended Book of Order.

After our most recent defeat on Amendment A, it occurred to me to acknowledge that for whatever reason, my church has moved. On this issue at least, I cannot live as comfortably in my church as I used to. But that’s all right. That’s not only all right — it’s at least part of the reason I’m a member of this particular family. It honors diversity. It honors and respects dissent — it requires rigorous dissent as part of what it means to be a church. Our friends on the other side of the aisle know about it and have lived uneasily and uncomfortably in a church with which they disagree on many issues, for decades.

So we need to learn a new lesson, and part of it, I believe, is that we are more important to one another now than ever before. This Covenant Network is not my church; but it is a reminder of what my church was. In the meantime, it will provide the welcome, nurture, and vision that I need to keep me going.

But at the heart of this new style of life within my church is my conviction that we must not leave: not physically, not theologically — not for a moment theologically, not politically — which really means incarnationally, and not financially. For, even as you and I try to figure out how to live in a new future, our church nationally also struggles with new realities, and we must not abandon it to those with whom we disagree profoundly on the very nature of a national church, a denomination.

Well, why not leave? Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler, and certainly cheaper, just to walk away and find a like-minded congregation and start a new denomination? Tempting, and there are surely many precedents. In the little pamphlet published by the Office of Theology & Worship, Bearing With One Another, Sheldon Sorge observes that

like most churches we Presbyterians experience disagreement, discord, and conflict. But unlike other ecclesial traditions, we are prone to fracture and fragmentation. Reformed churches are notorious for their tendency toward schism.

Does it matter? Is the unity of the church important? As important as its peace? Its purity? I think it does matter. I don’t think you can read the New Testament and not conclude that the unity of the church is central to the Gospel: that the oneness of Christ’s people is a visual demonstration to the world of the truth of the Gospel: and that the disunity of the church discredits the church’s evangelical mission.

So, yes, it does matter. And no, it isn’t easy, particularly when you’re not sure you’re welcome in the church anymore. And yes, it will take courage, and patience, and grace, and forgiveness, and tolerance, and tenacity. And yes, we can do this — because it is at the heart of our commitment to our Lord, Jesus Christ.

What shall our methodology be? For one thing, we must hold ourselves together.

And for another thing, we must not be angry. Or, as I have been trying to learn all my life, we must not act or speak out of our anger. — Parenthetically, why are they so angry? Every time they get together they can’t stop talking about how angry they are at us. They’ve beaten us three times in a row. You’d think that they’d be happy, joyful, satisfied, content — smug even. Why anger? When do we get to the “magnanimous in victory” part?

So let’s not be angry. And let’s ask of them and ourselves:

  • Accuracy, as we talk about one another, and;
  • Fairness, as we describe what one another is up to; and
  • Courtesy. I’m thinking now of those basic ground rules of how Christians should treat each other during conflict, not issued by our G.A., but by St. Paul writing to those obstreperous stubborn, mean-talking brothers and sisters in Corinth:
    * Patience, kindness, not boastful or rude
    * Love, the better way to be church, Paul argued, “does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.”

Can you imagine the difference it would make in the life of this institution if we, all of us, the Lay Committee, the Coalition, the Confessing Church, the Covenant Network, the Witherspoon Society, More Light Presbyterians, adopted a few verses of 1 Corinthians 13 as operating principles in the years ahead?

It is not a holy war. It is a difference of opinion, a difference in biblical interpretation and hermeneutics, a difference in mission priorities, maybe even a deep difference over ecclesiology — important differences; but it is not a holy war. And let us resolve not to act and speak as if it were.

I am deeply grateful for wise leadership from the other side and for promising and encouraging conversations I have had with individuals who disagree with my position on G.61066b but who believe as I do that this is not the issue that should divide our church, separate us. It shouldn’t even paralyze and preoccupy us. I believe that there are signs, not that the PC(USA) is about to change its mind and overturn G.60106b this year, but that wise leaders on both sides are agreeing that there must be a way to accommodate genuine difference in our family on this issue.

I am also more grateful than I can say for the fact that there are a lot of us, in spite of the fact that we have not been able to achieve a majority vote in the majority of Presbyteries. But the fact is — and everybody knows it — there are a lot of us who want our church to be more inclusive and who have worked and prayed and will continue to work and pray to bring it about.

What this disagreement is about finally, I believe, is what the Reformed Tradition is and must be for the 21st Century.

In a terrible way this moment in time was defined by a bit of graffiti scribbled on a wall in Washington D.C. a few days after September 11th:

“Dear God, save us from the people who believe in you.”

No religious tradition is without guilt in the long, sad story of intolerance born of theological absolutism, nurtured in communities of religious exclusivism, fanned to white-hot violence by self-righteous certainty. “Save us, dear God, from those who believe in you.”

What the world needs is a religion that is always self-critical, a religious tradition always open to the winds of the spirit, a religion that understands that God alone is absolute, not ideas about God. Juergan Moltmann wrote recently:

It is not theology that has an absolute claim — what does have that claim is the one God, about whom theology talks in human terms.

What the world needs is a Christian tradition that holds tightly to Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, the life, and understands that he — not the tradition itself — is the way, the truth, and the life.

This conversation we are having is about a precious gift we have to give to the world.

None other than John Leith said it, and The Outlook published it on the cover:

As heirs of the Reformation we must keep alive the task of the Reformation. No creed, no polity, no institution, no social conscience is ever final, absolute, or irreformable. [I would add: No Book of Order, no theological statement, no amendment.]

In practice as well as theory, our whole life must be continually reformed in the light of the Christians, not simply the Presbyterian community’s apprehension of what God says it us today in Christ, our Lord.

This is the liberalism of the Reformed Tradition.

“We do not lose heart,” St. Paul wrote. In the letter the Co-Moderators of the Covenant Network recently wrote to the church, Joanna and Gene said:

“A world in which religious disagreement threatens to destroy whole countries or regions needs the witness of a church that can demonstrate a love that transcends and overcomes differences.”

I believe that the PC(USA) is called to that high and holy task.

I believe in our church’s strength and faithfulness — to do it.

But more than anything, I believe in that love that transcends and overcomes differences and heals and rebuilds and makes whole again.

I believe it because I have seen it.

Every one of us who has taken our stand and spoken and worked for this cause has been criticized personally and publicly. We have had unkind things said about us and it has hurt. It has hurt more than any of us would say, because it comes from fellow Presbyterians, fellow Christians. I received an e-mail this week from an elder in Alabama who suggested that I should rethink my calling. Each member of the Covenant Network Board received a letter from a retired minister who told us in no uncertain terms that God would punish us for our stand.

I have become accustomed to it. But one incident bothered me more than any other.

I was invited to speak to the student body of one of our seminaries. Jerry Andrews had spoken a few weeks before for the Coalition. I made my presentation and was received cordially. From the Q&A time it was clear that the group of students was about evenly divided on the issue, which was about what I expected. The dialogue was good and respectful and when it was over several students stood in line to have a personal word.

At the end of the line was a young man who had asked several tough, not particularly friendly, questions. When only he and I were left, I extended my hand. I was stunned when, instead of extending his, he took the piece of paper he was holding, a copy of the Covenant Network’s Call to Covenant Community — angrily tore it in half, dropped it on the floor, turned his back, and walked away.

It bothered me a lot. I thought about him, how angry that gesture was — a lot. I thought about him and I found myself praying for him. And then a month ago I received a letter from him. I didn’t even know his name; but he identified himself and he apologized, which was nice. But more important, he closed by saying that while we still disagreed, he hoped that with time we might resolve the issues, might even work together, he said, to find solutions that would honor God and faithfully represent Jesus Christ.

That is the hope, brother and sisters –our only hope — a love that transcends and overcomes differences.

Thanks be to God.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.