With so many others across the church, I am waiting with curiosity and hope for the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity & Purity of the Church. Reports of their meetings and especially of their faithful process and well-earned mutual regard give me hope that they may be able to offer the church a way forward that we have not yet perceived. (This reflection was written prior to the July 19 release of Task Force report portions.)
The Covenant Network of Presbyterians was founded specifically to try to make a change in our ordination standards that would better reflect our understanding of the gospel. But since our beginning, we have been simultaneously concerned for the wholeness and integrity of the church. We have never sought to impose our reading on others, but only to find a way in which people of differing understandings can serve together in witness to a world in desperate need. I deeply hope that the Task Force may have discerned some new path toward common ground.
The status quo is surely unattractive to nearly everyone in the church. People who share our vision feel that the truth of the gospel is compromised by our present policies. People who support the denomination’s stand on ordination feel that essential ministries are diverted because of ongoing disagreements on one matter. We simply must find a different way of living together.
The kinds of careful, prayerful conversations the Task Force has undertaken, built in every instance on Bible study and worship, offer a model that I hope many will follow. Covenant Network has from our beginning actively supported just such dialogues, and it is encouraging to read of similar efforts now under way in many presbyteries.
My own experience is that we learn best in community. God’s word — always offered to us, rarely self-evidently clear — becomes more visible and instructive as we study it with others. Certainly the several times when I have been privileged to engage in focused Bible study with Covenant Network leaders and with colleagues from groups both to the right and left of us have enriched my own experience of God’s saving and convicting presence in the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit and the insights of others.
One of the five central affirmations of our organizing “Call to Covenant Community” focuses on the Bible as “the evidence of God’s long, patient and persistent relationship with communities and persons of faith … the one true, reliable witness to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ.” The Bible’s witness gives shape and meaning to our lives as disciples. As a necessary foundation for reunion, our church in 1983 adopted policy statements on Biblical Authority and Interpretation and Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture. These two complementary documents, arrived at after the kind of serious, mutual, and faithful study that is most apt to bring light to our conversations, remain rich resources that emphasize both the centrality of Scripture in any Reformed understanding of the world, and the rather broad range of acceptable interpretive approaches. I hope the Task Force will reaffirm both those principles.
God’s word is vaster, God’s claim on our lives is wider-reaching, than any one perspective can adequately reflect. The understanding of any given Presbyterian would be greatly impoverished if we were forced to “choose sides” and study and converse only with those whose understandings are close to our own. Nowhere than in the study of Scripture is the Apostle’s insight more compelling that “the 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.'”
The Task Force was asked to study questions of Christology. It saddens me that this should be a contentious issue within our church. Every member — let alone every officer — founds his or her life on trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Our Confessions and millennia of theology help explain the mystery of Emmanuel. And the church was well served recently by the Office of Theology and Worship’s excellent study document Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Especially in light of recent controversies, I was greatly moved by the Task Force’s deeply thoughtful affirmations that Christ is himself our peace; he is himself our unity; he is himself our purity. I would hope that Presbyterians would read and receive that report with gratitude, would join in its affirmations, and would spend our efforts on living as those claimed by this very Christ.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the Task Force’s mandate was to study issues of power. Oddly, every part of the church seems to feel that they are controlled and inhibited in ministry by distant forces. I wonder whether progressive and conservative Presbyterians might find common cause in looking to the Task Force and each other for new ways of living together that enable each congregation to carry out effective ministry in its own context. God has entrusted different vineyards to each of us. The methods that work in Lafayette, Ind. or Charlotte, N.C. may not be effective in San Francisco or New York. Effective Presbyterian missionaries learned long ago to distinguish the core (unchanging) kerygma from varying cultural contexts. I am hoping very much that the Task Force may offer us new kinds of community that empower each congregation for effective ministry and mission.
I strongly believe that our church’s missional effectiveness and witness to the gospel would be enhanced by a change in our ordination policies. I know that others disagree, just as strongly. I am sincerely hoping that the Task Force will suggest a way for us to move forward together out of our present morass.
Yet even as we await their report, I know that the Covenant Network will remain strongly committed to that manifestation of Christ’s church called the PC(USA). And I hope that all Presbyterians, whatever their views, will also continue to find their Christian identity confirmed and their ministry strengthened within this denominational home. The concluding covenants of our “Call to Covenant Community” commit us to “maintain dialogue, study, and prayer in the spirit of Christ with those with whom we differ” — not just as an expression of fellowship but so that together we can pursue the lifelong vocation to “seek God’s will for the Church through the presence of Christ, the study of Scripture, the guidance of our historic confessions, and the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit.”
God has given us plenty of work to do. I pray that the Task Force will enable us all to get on with the ministries entrusted to our care.