By Rev. Scott Lumsden, Executive Presbyter
Affiliation will be one of a number of possibilities for the PC(USA) discussed at Presbyfest.
When Christians Disagree
It happens from time to time, Christians disagree. Back in the day, Paul, a gifted evangelist and theologian from Antioch, and Barnabas, his friend and fellow pastor, began to plan a return trip to the churches they had helped establish. Yet as they discussed their plan, a disagreement erupted. Paul didn’t trust Mark (Barnabas’ cousin) and refused to allow him to come with them, so they parted ways: Barnabas took Mark and sailed east to Cyprus; and Paul chose Silas and journeyed West for Syria. (Acts 15:36-41)
I use this example because it’s becoming increasingly clear to many within the church that there are similar “second leg of the journey” dynamics at work within the PC(USA). We’ve reached a disagreement on how and where to go regarding the next leg of our missionary journey together and it scares us. Though the surface disagreement seems to be about ordination standards, there are other factors that are equally important such as: the changing nature of the church and society; post-denominationalism; decades of mainline decline; and uncertainty about our future.
There are of course benefits in times of disagreement in that they challenge us to be clear and honest in our communication and help us clarify our positions. Disagreement forces to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions instead of expecting others to think and act on our behalf. Yet to continue in disagreement without recognizing alternative ways of addressing it may have serious ramifications for the mission of the PC(USA).
There are a number of ideas recently that have been proposed that attempt to deal with these dynamics of disagreement within the PC(USA). Many of these proposals were presented as tiers during the Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in August. However, leaders (and presbyteries) across a wide theological spectrum of the PC(USA) are increasingly drawn toward some variation of what I will describe below as affiliation. (Sometimes affiliation is likened to orders within the Catholic church.)
The idea in a nutshell goes something like this. For the purpose of providing greater clarity of mission within the PC(USA), congregations through their councils (sessions) may affiliate with a national body approved by the General Assembly. This would be completely elective on the part of a council, but would be an option for those who sought direction and support from a national group within the PC(USA). In other words, if the Fellowship of Presbyterians declared essential tenets of the Reformed faith and a session felt led to adopt them or make them their own, they could formally affiliate with that national body. In addition, if a congregation felt led to affiliate with the Covenant Network or similar body, its council (session) could formally affiliate with that body. Presbyteries would be encouraged to develop ways to honor these affiliations while also maintaining a missional identity of the whole in all its work.
The thought here is that we’ve reached a place in the church where we need to allow congregations to more clearly define the path they’re following within the PC(USA). Our Book of Order empowers councils to this type of discernment and action in G-3.0102:
“Councils of this church have only ecclesiastical jurisdiction for the purpose of serving Jesus Christ and declaring and obeying his will in relation to truth and service, order and discipline. They may frame statements of faith, bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience, and decide issues properly brought before them under the provisions of this Book of Order. They may authorize the administration of the sacraments in accordance with the Directory for Worship. They have power to establish plans and rules for the worship, mission, government, and discipline of the church and to do those things necessary to the peace, purity, unity, and progress of the church under the will of Christ. They have responsibility for the leadership, guidance, and government of that portion of the church that is under their jurisdiction” (italics mine).
Within such a richly diverse church, what we haven’t yet fully come to terms with is that there can be multiple ways for a council to discern and live out its mission. For a long time in our life together we’ve mostly required the same discernment of mission within our congregations and presbyteries. We’ve done this despite the fact that there are also areas of “sharp disagreement” among us. In practical terms, we admit to and even accept some level of difference within the church, yet at the moment we have no official way to honor this reality.
To use the example of Paul and Barnabas, one benefit of their decision to part ways was that two missionary journeys began from Antioch that spring rather than one. What if God’s mission in Jesus Christ was furthered and not hindered by more than one missionary journey emerging out of our differences? What if two, three or four major missionary movements arose from within the PC(USA), rather than discord?
Affiliation and Our Future
There is much to be discerned in the months ahead and this is only one idea among many. What is clear is that we are in the throes of yet another reformation of our identity, mission and relationships within the PC(USA). Affiliation addresses the fact that differentiation in some key areas of ministry within the PC(USA) may be a helpful way to maintain unity while allowing for a greater number of missional pathways to emerge within the larger church. The good news in all this for me is that among all these ideas about how to order our lives anew, honoring our relationships as the body of Christ is common to all.