MEMPHIS — Spiritual practices — such things as showing hospitality and forgiveness, giving and receiving, reading Scripture, praying, healing, discernment of God’s will — often are messy, full of ambiguity and even conflict.
They aren’t spiritual merit badges — do this as a sign of how good or godly you are.
They aren’t private, transcendent spiritual experiences that no one else can share.
They are instead “an attempt to catch up with and respond to God’s merciful and transforming presence in the world,” said Amy Plantinga Pauw during the opening session of the 2005 national meeting of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.
She said such practices “are like holding out our hand to receive the bread of life at communion,” an act of faith and at the same time “a concrete acknowledgement that we are not whole, that we are not at peace, that we need healing and nourishment that we cannot provide for ourselves.”
Pauw, the Henry P. Mobley professor of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, was speaking on “Graceful Practices.” And the theme of this Covenant Network gathering, held Nov. 3-5 at Idlewild Church in Memphis, is “Disciples in Community,” an exploration in part of how to be faithful in a church with so many opinions of what is right and what is sinful.
Pauw moved back and forth between the general — of seeing spiritual practices as both a response to God and a gateway to reaching closer to God — and more specific thoughts about how the church has not always been full of grace in how it has approached the ever-controversial question of ordination and sexual relationships.
She spoke of how spiritual practices can bring one closer to God — “we trust,” she said, “that in our modest attempts to practice our faith, the Spirit is present.”
And spiritual practices can deepen and challenge one’s religious convictions, she said — sometimes the doing can help one understand what the mind alone cannot. “A practicing Buddhist,” she said, “knows things about Buddhism that an expert in world religions cannot.”
Pauw also said the actual history of Christian practices is ambiguous, “marked by countless examples of good practices done for bad reasons, of once-vibrant practices becoming confused and sinful,” of a misguided understanding that something has to be done a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done.
“To practice our faith gracefully, we do not plow down those who stand in our way,” she said. God has shown us grace, she said, so “we have room to be graceful with those who disagree with us.”
JOHN CALVIN on SHAPING COMMUNITIES
Pauw then turned to John Calvin, a second-generation reformer who struggled in 16th century Geneva with questions involving sexuality and church office, much as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does today.
Calvin agreed with the Reformed view of the church as fallible and in need of change, Pauw said. As the Scots Confession puts it, no “policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times and places.”
And “Calvin was wary of extravagant claims for the holiness of clergy,” Pauw said. He referred to pastors as “when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name.”
Today’s Presbyterians have inherited this understanding, she said — that the church is a flawed body of believers, led by ordinary people, called to faithful discernment.
Calvin also wrote about sexual practices — specifically, arguing that celibacy should not be required for ministers, as was the practice in the Catholic church, and that while celibacy might be liberating for some, others called to ministry “cannot usefully do without marriage.”
It can be dangerous for celibacy to be “honored extravagantly,” Calvin wrote, “for good men may be frightened away from marriage, even when their need of it is urgent.” In other words, Calvin worried that celibacy might become an idol, Pauw said — something Christians use to justify themselves and tyrannize others.
Here, she began to connect the dots to the PC(USA)’s current difficulties.
She wondered how Calvin’s challenging of the rule of the day might have been perceived then. If people aren’t able to be celibate, maybe they’re not really called to be ministers, people might have said. “What gives you the right to lower the church’s standards of holiness” or to challenge centuries of church tradition? Maybe having “an urgent need for marriage” points to a moral deficit. Someone like that might be baptized, “but if you are a self-acknowledged, unrepentant, practicing heterosexual, there is no place for you in the priesthood.”
That language, of course, echoes the arguments now raging in the PC(USA) over ordaining gays and lesbians.
And today, if anything is “honored extravagantly” in the church, it’s heterosexual marriage, Pauw said, adding that “I suspect it has become what celibacy was for the church in Calvin’s time. All the research tells us that what Protestant churches now see as the ideal pastoral candidate is a married man.”
Pauw pointed out that “I am a great supporter of heterosexual marriage. I myself have been happily married for 23 years and I am the mother of three children.” She said she sees a healthy marriage as “a great gift,” but it’s not a gift everyone receives — and the church has not found a way to talk honestly about matters of ministers, their emotional and sexual needs, and holiness.
“I think that helps explain the strong Protestant desire for married clergy,” she said. ‘The assumption is that with a married minister, none of these delicate questions have to come up. We can just assume that all is well in these sensitive areas and focus on important things like administrative skills.”
But the PC(USA) can’t discuss ordination standards without considering those questions, Pauw said — among them, whether there is too much glorification of marriage today and whether some people, including those who are single or divorced or involved in committed same-sex relationships, will be called to ministry but not necessarily to heterosexual marriage.
READING THE BIBLE
Pauw also argued that the spiritual practice of studying Scripture together, in diverse groups such as the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA) has done, can be another way of shaping graceful communities.
Are Presbyterians willing to listen to the voices of gays and lesbians, she asked? And “are we willing to listen to our Christian brothers and sisters in the global south on this issue?”
Pauw argued that Christians need each other and the Holy Spirit’s help to read the Bible gracefully.
“Our confidence in holding `the biblical view’ has been shaken so many times across church history,” she said. “Is the earth the center of the universe? Is the pope the antichrist? Is slavery in accordance with God’s will? Is divorce ever permissible for Christians?”
Changes of mind happen through prayer, repentance, reconciliation, and paying attention to the voices of others, she said.
“Christian history has shown us again and again that one of the most spiritually dangerous questions we can ask is, `What does the Bible say about them,’ “ whether it’s Christians asking that question about Jews, men about women, Protestants about Catholics, and on and on.
A better way, Pauw said, is to gather with those who see things differently, to crack open the Bible together and ask, “What does the Bible say about us?”