By Executive Presbyter Scott Lumsden
Grace and peace to you all in the name of our Lord. I pray that this new year is filed the hope of Christ in your life and in the ministry we are all called together to do in Christ’s name. May God’s love grow ever more deeply within us so that our communities might see more and more the love that unites and gives purpose to all we do.
New Opportunities to Serve
Even before this new year began, I had the pleasure of serving in a way I not envisioned before--as pastor of one of our congregations. In November, Mercer Island Presbyterian Church had need of a “gap” pastor to get them through the holidays until their interim arrived in February. This led to a new partnership between the presbytery and MIPC where I served part-time at MIPC and part-time at the presbytery. The good news is that this experiment was a blessing to all. Thus as we continue to seek new ways to serve the needs of our congregations -- we are pleased to announce that Eliana Maxim will be the interim pastor at Southminster (half-time) beginning mid February (through May) as they finalize their search for a new pastor.
New Ideas for our Community
As our committees and council regathered after the Christmas break, attention began to shift to our upcoming General Assembly in Detroit in June. These conversations reminded us again of the blessings we have in the strong relationships in this presbytery and of our need to continue to seek to preserve these relationships as we head into another polity season. I’m sure many good things will come out of our national assembly, but we’re not naive to the fact that we’ll undoubted bump up against the same challenges -- ordination standards and same-sex marriage. Change to either our ordination standards and/or the definition of marriage will renew debate and discussion within our presbytery, but is there anything we can do to prepare for the challenges these debates may cause going forward?
Putting aside for the moment previous conversations about empowering our committees with commission powers, we are beginning to talk about another commission idea that addresses this concern about maintaining our relationships. But before that I want to review how we’re framing our problem.
The Presbyterian Church has long recognized that Christians of good conscience may disagree. Our church since its founding has always maintained that in the pursuit of truth, “we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principals may differ…[and it is] the duty of both private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” (F-3.0105)
These societies are named later to be the councils of our church (session, presbytery, general assembly) however what seems to be missing (in my opinion) is the mechanism by which members within these councils may exercise mutual forbearance toward one another. And by that, I mean meaningful forbearance in which we honor each other by not allowing a difference on one issue to define the whole relationship. This is where we are at as a church in regards to issues of same-sex marriage and gay ordination.
To state it differently, is there any way members within these sessions, presbyteries and general assemblies can agree to disagree? Since there are clear positions and clearly defined groups who ascribe to these positions, isn’t it incumbent upon us to find ways to actually practice mutual forbearance toward one another? What duty do we have to maintain the freedom of conscience of one another in the midst of disagreement?
Our polity here reveals a rather profound and unresolved tension for when this disagreement happens at a council, the majority rules. However when the disagreement applies to an individual, our polity gives this option: “so far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained.” (G-2.0105) Historically, this process is called, “declaring a scruple.”
Yet what if we created a way for congregations within our presbytery to identify their distinctives? Or, what if we officially recognized a session’s membership within organizations that have defined theological distinctives for them (Covenant Network, Fellowship of Presbyterians, etc)? And what if we created a process that honored those distinctives in the application of the standards within our presbytery? Would this not be a way to exercise mutual forbearance toward one another? What if there was way we agreed together about how we would exercise “freedom of conscience within certain bounds”? (G-2.0105)
There is growing consensus among the leadership of our presbytery (specifically from Coordinating Council and Committee on Ministry) that it is time to talk about a way to honor the consciences of our churches on the issues that divide us so as to preserve the relationships that enrich us and our common ministry. One possible way we could do this is to create an additional option during the examination process.
Currently an individual seeking membership in the presbytery is examined by the presbytery during a presbytery meeting or by the Committee on Ministry. However since many sessions have already declared distinctives in regard to their application of the standards of the church by their membership in certain groups (G-2.0104b), individuals seeking membership to serve those churches would be examined by a commission composed of members of and pastors serving those churches.
Practically speaking, it might look like this: A pastor is elected to serve at Bellevue Presbyterian, whose session is a member of the Fellowship of Presbyterians. The presbytery, having already named a Fellowship of Presbyterians Examination Commission from the membership of churches and pastors who are members of that organization, informs the presbytery’s Fellowship of Presbyterians Examination Commission of the need for this pastor’s examination. The examination is performed and the results of that examination are then reported to the presbytery at its next meeting. This same process would be followed for the session’s of Covenant Network churches, or if the session of a church has no affiliations in regard to ordinations standards, then the pastor is examined by the Committee on Ministry.
There is no formal proposal being discussed at the moment, only ideas. It is up to this presbytery, our leadership, and our committees, to formulate and shape any process we might employ going forward. It may not look like the one I just described. My intent in here is only to raise my voice in honor and appreciation of the good ministry and healthy relationships we are blessed with in this presbytery as I continue to remind us of the necessity to keep wrestling with the challenges that we face in the coming year.