Using the New Authoritative Interpretation in the Life of the Church

Remarks to the Covenant Network of Presbyterians
Atlanta • November 2, 2007

John Wilkinson
Pastor, Third Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY

For the past 10 plus years, I have been both privileged and perplexed to be a Covenant Network board member. So much for term limits!

And – like Anna Carter Florence’s young friend – I am a Chicago Cubs fan. Really. Martin Marty said one time that to find the best theological definition of hope, look to a Chicago Cubs fan. Our favorite hymn, by the way, is “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” with its all-too true affirmation about the dream dying at opening day.

With your permission, perhaps we can set the context a bit by overhearing testimony from the Apostle Paul.

I Corinthians 12:14-26 (NRSV)
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

I was glad to hear the “Far Side” referenced yesterday afternoon. I am primarily a Doonesbury reader, which, with rare exceptions, will not preach. Peanuts used to preach. But now Peanuts is making a comeback. A new book on Charles Schulz – and a PBS special. And so Tuesday morning – and I am not making this up –  I found Peanuts, after many years.

Linus and Lucy are arguing.

Lucy: “Santa Claus is TWICE THE MAN THE Great Pumpkin is.”

Linus: “You’re crazy.”

Lucy: “The great pumpkin doesn’t even exist.”

Linus: “Why don’t you keep quiet – you don’t even know what you are talking about.”

Lucy: “Well, you’re so stupid, you believe anything.”

Charlie Brown (who has been watching it all): “I’m always disturbed by denominational squabbling.”

Some 16 months ago, when we departed from Birmingham, we were not sure what to expect. We weren’t even necessarily sure we knew what had just happened. Simple, straightforward topics like divestment and the Trinity were given attention, plenty to be sure, but at the end of the day, it was the report of the Theological Task Force, entitled “A Season of Discernment,” or as I called it one time in a stroke of marketing genius, “Harry Potter and the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church.”

As you know, the first four recommendations were passed by something like 91-9. Recommendation 5, after considerable parliamentary machination, both in committee and on the floor, passed 57-43, a margin that any of our several hundred presidential candidates would be very happy with. We will get to Recommendation 5 in a bit.

You will remember the heated debate leading up to the Assembly, which continued there, and followed thereafter. The heat was sustained by perceptions of what had or hadn’t happened, what it did or did not mean, and what the impact would or would not be.

Fueled by internet frenzy, two scenarios, rather drastic ones, were cast: that a flood of controversial ordinations would take place and that full schism would happen. Not quite on either.

What has happened is a season, or rather a spectrum of seasons: deep anger, to the point of departure, deep confusion, deep anxiety, mild hopefulness, and everywhere in between. And even now, still we are not quite sure.

What did happen is this: The General Assembly acted as faithfully as it knew how, and adopted a series of recommendations. You know them, or well enough:

  • a call to stay together – visible oneness and renewed covenanted partnerships
  • encourage to use discernment – whatever that means
  • encouragement to study the theological reflection section, not as a new confession, but as an example of theological reflection by a highly diverse group
  • an exploration of alternative forms of discernment and decision-making – not to toss Robert’s out – be still my soul – but in order to ask the question about the best way to decide things
  • and then #5 – a new Authoritative interpretation, or AI, based on G-6.0108

You may disagree with it, but it seems clear; and it seems clear that the AI’s job was to make things more clear:

  • Church-wide standards – which cannot be added to nor subtracted from
  • Application, locally, by the particular ordaining and installing body on an individual, case-by-case basis

The big issue was what has historically been called a scruple – a term that the TTF report does not use – or departure. And what happens when one declares one.

Let’s unpack this a bit. First, you may remember that at the time, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians offered the overall Task Force report a favorable review, and the infamous Recommendation 5 a somewhat mixed review. The phrase repeatedly used – that nothing had really changed – was all too true when it came to what we continue to call Amendment B, some 10 years later, G-6.0106b. The Covenant Network continues to believe that that constitutional provision reflects dysfunctional polity, faulty theological reasoning, misguided biblical interpretation and a deep absence of pastoral sensitivity.

Since we came into being to pass an amendment A, it’s not quite accurate to say that we’ve always been about deleting B. But for some 10 years – with some of our dearest friends at it much longer –  we have been about change, changing our teaching and practice.

We do this not just to open the door, or rather to help nudge the church to a point where it might open the door. God knows how many of our clearly gifted and profoundly called sisters and brothers might have those gifts tested through the vocational discernment process and offer their service to a church that so desperately needs it.

We do it for that reason, but not only that. The church wounded itself when it adopted Amendment B, and the peace, unity and purity of the church will never be furthered as far as it might until that wound is healed.

So, the Covenant Network still believes B-gone by God. At the same time, the Covenant Network saw in the Task Force recommendation –  which is now not a task force recommendation but an action of a General Assembly –  and especially in the new AI, an opportunity, an opportunity to do and be church differently. Discernment became the watchword – discernment perhaps being a corollary of the “testimony” we’re discussing here – discernment that might lead us unto a different kind of future by reminding ourselves of and relying on some bedrock Presbyterian principles and practices.

The church sets standards. There is a clear and time-honored way of doing so. They are for the whole church. No governing body – no session or presbytery particularly – can add to them, nor can they subtract from them. No local option on standards. And standards matter when they are applied, applied fairly, equitably, “discern-ably,” if that’s a word, not in a pre-determined way, not in a one-size-fits-all way, but as they were, and are, intended, on an individual, case-by-case basis.

Remember, as we’ve said, standards are set by and for the whole church. No G.A., nor any lower governing body, may act on its own to change them. They cannot even codify an approach as to how those standards would be applied. That would in effect create a new standard.

They cannot be ignored. They cannot be augmented. They can be applied.

If the word “local” is ever to be used accurately in this conversation, it is in the application process, what has been called “local discernment.” I simply call it a session or presbytery doing its job.

Two things happen in that discernment process, what we typically call an examination. A candidate shows up, or rather shows up because already there has been some discernment, by an individual and by a nominating committee who has deemed some kind of appropriate fit.

A candidate shows up. What the Task Force did do was place a newfound, or rather a recovered, emphasis on rigorous examination. And in the context of such a rigorous examination, a candidate may declare a departure from a church-wide standard. That is nothing new. In fact, coming from the former northern church, I am told that in previous eras, the declaration of departures, or scruples, was a fairly common practice in the southern church, a practice that led to a greater sense of theological integrity as well as covenantal community. Conscience is a critical aspect of faith, and we believe strongly that God alone is Lord of the conscience. So a candidate may declare a departure.

As Presbyterians, believers as we are in the sovereignty of God, we believe that theology and polity are inextricably linked. Our polity is an extension of our theology and our theology has embedded within it the kernels of how we organize and order ourselves. Put in the negative, there can be no Presbyterian dichotomy between what we believe and how we behave.

Therefore, a candidate may declare a departure on a matter of doctrine or on a manner of life. That is not novel either. The Adopting Act of 1729 used the phrase “doctrine, worship or government” when working this all out. Our beloved Book of Order continues that tradition by codifying language more than 200 years old: “The inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.” That’s G-1.0304 for those of you keeping score at home. The Task Force report clearly and plainly sought to restore the balance of ”faith and practice” – belief and behavior – to an equal footing, and it seems to me that if the commissioners in Birmingham had not understood this proposed AI to be about both, then the debate would have lasted about five minutes.

So, a candidate shows up and may or may not declare a departure.

Parenthetically, as you are aware, some number of congregations have left our denominational family, or are exploring doing so, or have expressed the impulse. If we take Paul’s words seriously about the body, and how we need each other, might we be grieved every time that happens, as we are grieved when Amendment B hurts another part of the body?

I try to track the stories of congregational departure. Invariably, they will cite this new AI as a reason, sometimes the final straw, often embracing the suggestion that the new AI permits anyone to declare anything to be a non-essential. That’s true, by the way, but it is also not new. What those stories also invariably fail to acknowledge is that the examining bodies are never compelled to accept such declared departures. That is to say, I can identify a fourth person of the Trinity, express my doubts about the adequacy of the canon, refuse to take an elder with me on home communion or ponder the possibility of re-baptism. But that doesn’t mean that the examining body will accept such departures.

And that’s the point. Discernment. By a candidate or by the body. Departures may be articulated. But they may not be accepted. Or they may. That’s the point of an examination. It is a governing body’s role and responsibility, and not a higher one’s, to determine fitness for service, and only in the context of individual examinations. Only the examining/ordaining body can assess a particular candidate’s position in light of his/her statement of faith, manner of life, reasons for apparent departure from more common understandings of the point at issue, and the like.

This AI makes clear that sessions and presbyteries are to assess persons’ fitness for office on a case-by-case basis, making a good-faith effort to apply only standards established by the whole church, but with respect and mutual forbearance in non-essential matters of conscience. Mutual forbearance. A phrase worth remembering.

Yes, this raises the expectation bar for examinations. Yes, candidate A could declare a departure that would be accepted and candidate B could declare the very same departure that would not be accepted. Yes, there is risk involved. High risk. There always has been. If the result of an examination were predetermined, then why bother at all?

In short, a presbytery or session has the responsibility to consider each particular candidate in light of its experience with that candidate, including his or her demeanor, statement of faith, answers to questions posed during examination, demonstrated manner of life, etc., etc., etc.  And a candidate has the opportunity, engrossed in our constitution, to express his or her conscience and to engage in meaningful and mutual discernment with the examining body about what such departures, points of difference, might mean.

It seems as if the 217th General Assembly’s authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 left no participant in recent church controversies entirely content. Those who urge greater acceptance of gay and lesbian persons, such as the Covenant Network, were disappointed that restrictive standards remain in place. Those who wish to exclude such persons were disappointed at the recognition that standards must be applied with flexibility and particularity.

What does that mean for us?

It means that we press on with our educational agenda – fully utilizing our educational resources – theology and the Bible – to make the case for change. We will publish books, DVD’s, CD’s, shill shamelessly for Jack Rogers’ book, have conferences, hear stories, tell stories, embody stories.

We will also continue to be very active in legal efforts to ensure that this new AI is properly and fairly implemented. If, as been rightly suggested, we’ve moved from a legislative to a judicial season, we must make witness in this new season with the same passion and zeal with which we have approached our earlier tasks.

What this also means is that we bring our energy and resources to bear on the new church intimated by the Task Force report and emerging and evolving before our very eyes. A subtext of the assembly conversation was the re-emphasis of presbytery life. We must show up for those conversations.

In the course of the last several years I visited about 20 presbytery meetings. It’s not as exciting as it sounds. And to a one, even in the midst of differences around this conflict, all were asking the same questions. Who are we? Who are we to become? What kind of leadership will we need? How do we exist with diminishing, or the perception of diminishing resources? How do we envision our new life together? (And…what we do with our camp – sometimes the most contentious question of all!)

If these are the conversations presbyteries are having, and if new environments for examinations are unfolding in this new context, then we simply must be there to help usher this new thing in, to form and reform and transform presbyteries into what they were originally intended to be, true crucibles of dialogue and discipline.

It is happening in some places. It’s not always straightforward work, or glamorous, and it’s never easy. Building meaningful relationships, either on one side of the aisle or across the aisle, never is. But it must happen, and might it even happen before controversy hits the floor.

My friend and Covenant Network colleague Tim Hart-Andersen reminded us several years ago of a saying found on a wall in a Presbyterian church in Cuba: “There will be better times, but this is our time.”

This is our time. A conservative friend identified the Task Force report and the new AI as post-modern, and did so in a positive way. I’m not sure what that means.

But I do know that a new church is emerging, more local, more missional, and we have resources – including leadership – to bring to that table. And even as that church emerges, it can be a place where true discernment happens, where fair and equitable examinations happen.

And I do know as well, that in a broken and fearful world, and in a broken and fearful church, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, and that the Spirit gives us resources, gifts and graces, for a church hungry for good news seeking to witness in a world aching for reconciliation. In stewardship season, we are called to be stewards of those great gifts – the word (incarnate and written), our theological heritage and its covenantal trajectories, our polity, our relationships.

Every time I leave Rochester, I take a little detour on the way to the airport so that I drive past Mt. Hope Cemetery, where many saints are buried, including Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Susan B. said that “failure is impossible,” which I believe to be both a political affirmation and a theological truth.

I want to be part of that “failure is impossible” conversation, and I believe that we, the Covenant Network and its friends, are called to be part of that conversation. Together.

No authoritative interpretation of a constitutional provision will make that happen. But if, as we believe, God is doing a new thing, perhaps we have been presented with a modest opportunity, a glimpse, a season, to do things just a little bit differently, to inch toward the horizon just a little farther, to ease Charlie Brown’s anxiety just a little bit, toward a church as just and as generous as God’s grace – a provisional, in the meantime, demonstration of God’s righteousness and mercy and love.

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