Moving Ahead Together in Faith

Moving Ahead Together in Faith: Our Vision for the Church

Pamela Byers
Elder, Old First Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, and
Executive Director, Covenant Network of Presbyterians 

Address to Northwest Regional Covenant Conference
Seattle, WA
October 11,2003

The title of this conference, “What Do We Believe, Anyway? Questions about Scripture, Theology and Polity Facing our Church Today.” is very appropriate to what the Covenant Network is all about. We have gathered today for worship, fellowship, and considering together what it is we believe. Theology does matter — what we say about God. Scripture matters even more — what God says to us. Understanding either or both in any very deep way needs not only the help and guiding presence of the Holy Spirit but also the encouragement and corrective of other faithful believers. So thank you for joining us today.

I’m glad that there are numbers of new as well as old friends here today. As an elder myself, I’m especially pleased that nearly 2/3 are elders, deacons, and members.

“Vocation” or calling is one of my favorite Presbyterian distinctives — the idea that God calls and uses all of us, not just clergy, to live in the light of and bring a little closer, God’s reign.

The Covenant Network was founded six years ago because we had a particular vision of the church. We are a national group of Presbyterian clergy and lay members working to remove the rule that categorically bars gay and lesbian Presbyterians from serving in any ordained office of our church. We believed then and believe today that Amendment B — G-6.0106b in the Book of Order, the “fidelity & chastity” paragraph — has introduced a mischievous and alien spirit into our constitution.

We believe it is

Pastorally hurtful
Practically unintelligible
Theologically indefensible
Evangelically disastrous

It’s also introduced a flurry of litigation in our church courts. It’s depressed the level of civility in too many presbyteries. And it’s utterly preoccupied and distracted the church from the critical work and witness we ought to be offering to the world.

We have worked and will continue to work to get rid of it — but we want to do so in a way that honors our Presbyterian connections and form of government, and especially that continues to respect Presbyterian brothers and sisters who hold a different point of view.

Since our founding we have pursued two goals that may sometimes seem in tension:

  • Welcoming gay and lesbian Presbyterians into full participation in the life and leadership of the church, and
  • Keeping the church from splitting over this or any other non-essential matter

Our vision of the church is summarized in the Call to Covenant Community. The church we seek to forward is

  • Centered on Jesus Christ
  • Showing his gracious hospitality
  • Actively engaged in the world God has made and loves
  • Solidly founded on the Bible, which we read very seriously but not literally, and
  • Acknowledging that Jesus Christ binds us together despite differences

Our reading of Scripture shows God steadily drawing the outsider in, pulling more and more people into the household of God. Our understanding of call says that ordination is an invitation to service, not a good-conduct prize, and that God can call into ordained office whomever God will.

In our own congregations we have experienced gifts for service, ministry, and leadership from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members. Like Peter, recounting his experience with Cornelius, we ask, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

At the same time, we want a broad church that acknowledges that God is far too vast for any one of our imaginations or theological systems to grasp. We need to listen to, engage with, be challenged and corrected by Presbyterians with other emphases. The church, and we liberals, need the insights of evangelicals; and I would say they need ours as well.

I am obviously both strengthened and stretched when I meet with progressive colleagues in the Witherspoon Society or More Light Presbyterians (with whom we don’t always agree, by the way). But I also attend the annual meetings of the Presbyterian Coalition — a major conservative political group — partly to know what’s going on or planned, partly to have a chance for occasional real conversations, but mostly to remind myself how much we hold in common at core. While we remain very far apart on some critical matters, I never fail to gain some genuinely valuable insights or new perspectives.

My colleague Tricia and I were there earlier this week. Although this was one of the less angry — and consequently one of the smaller — of the Coalition meetings I’ve attended, this year did throw into high relief one of the most defining differences between our vision and theirs:

A “New Wineskins” group within the Coalition has been meeting for two years, imagining (I will not say “Re-imagining”!) a new “denomi-network” wholly based on doctrinal uniformity. They have published a proposed page of “essential tenets” which everyone in their new network would affirm. You may remember the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy of the early part of the last century. In 1927 our church decided that Presbyterian clergy did not have to affirm “five Fundamentals” — particular ways of expressing core doctrines in the Westminster Confession. But three of those “five fundamentals” are in one paragraph of the New Wineskins “essential tenets.”

History is not very encouraging about the likelihood of strict doctrinal conformity lasting. For just one example, the Presbyterian Church in America, which split off from the PCUS in the ’70s over the issue of women’s ordination, is arguing this year over the age of the earth.

But even if maintaining complete doctrinal unity were plausible, we don’t think it’s desirable. We appreciate the breadth of theological reflection that the Presbyterian church has traditionally permitted and encouraged. We think it’s necessary, to help each of us get a little closer to understanding God, and to enlarge and refine our sense of God’s call on our lives.

I am very encouraged by reports coming out of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, & Purity of the Church. This carefully chosen, widely varying group, meant to represent the full range of our Presbyterian family, started out very far apart. For all I know, they are still far apart on key questions. But they are apparently developing great mutual respect, as they listen thoughtfully to one another, passionately exploring theology together. I don’t know what they will decide — I doubt they do, either. But I am encouraged by the reports of their process.

We need to develop the same kind of mutual regard within our presbyteries. I hope we will learn more about one another, come to appreciate one another’s faith and ministries. I doubt we will all come to agree on everything — however brilliantly persuasive we may each think ourselves! We don’t need to agree on things that are not essential. As our Book of Order says, “There are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” (G-1.0305)

Our Board of Directors, meeting two weeks ago, issued a statement that recognizes that our church will need to make major decisions about how we live together, when it receives the report of the Task Force at the 2006 General Assembly. The Board statement reiterates our commitment to removing the arbitrary bars to service of any of our members. It acknowledges that only God knows when this change will come to the church. Our role in the meantime is to help prepare the church to move together into a changed future.

To that end, we plan the following actions in the months ahead:

  • We will support overtures to eliminate the obsolete and even more arbitrary “Authoritative Interpretations” that predate the adoption of G-6.0106b — the other leg on which our exclusionary policies are held to stand
  • We will continue to offer legal counsel and defense to officers and sessions attacked under G-6.0106b
  • We will contribute to church-wide dialogue by offering major theological reflection in our Covenant Conference on the church in 2003, on sexual ethics in 2004, on Christian discipleship in 2005, and on the meaning of ordination in 2006
  • To help inform discussion in presbyteries, we are at work on a major new video that will tell stories of faithful people and congregations adversely affected by G-6.0106b; we will also shortly publish a booklet of stories of the many dozens of Presbyterians whose passionately offered gifts for ministry have been rejected by our church
  • We continue to strengthen networks for dialogue, support, and change in presbyteries across the country

In short we are actively engaged in a number of initiatives that we hope will bear fruit, and we invite your active participation. We are an advocacy group, unashamedly working within the polity — the political processes of the church to try to effect change. But we have no desire to be a party or faction.

Since our founding, an important discipline — I would even call it a spiritual discipline — has been for us to refer consistently to those who differ from us as “Other Presbyterians” — not “our opponents” or “the other side” or “them.” It’s a way of reminding us that though we are not all of one mind, we are of one family.

One of most challenging but useful things any of us can do to help prepare the church for change is to commit to engage with “Other Presbyterians,” finding where you differ but especially finding what you share — person to person or session to session. Committed conversation is needed to help get past stereotypes and caricatures to discover that these really are family members.

The differences within our church — theological differences, racial and cultural differences, differences in worship styles and music, different leadership styles — are a lot like those in the early church. The whole New Testament shows God reconciling people with little in common. As the New Testament letters show, we face no problems that they did not confront in spades.

But Paul firmly told the Ephesians to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). That’s the charge given to us as well.

This desperately fractured world needs the church to demonstrate the deep unity that only God can give. God’s invitation in Christ is plenty big enough to encompass and include all of us.

We continue to work very hard to try to advance the church we envision, and we invite your active participation. But, thank God, we know whose church it is, and who holds the church. When the road feels very long, we know, as Paul wrote in that same letter, that God “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).

May it be so.

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