It had been one week since the gavel was laid down at the General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. My energy level had rebounded–it can be tough work as an “observer.” But, I was finding it more difficult to bounce back emotionally and vocationally from GA. After hours of debates in committee, debates on the floor, asking whether or not the minority should become the majority report, trying to figure out LES (the electronic report system) and hearing countless people refer to the decline of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and threats of leaving, I was left wondering isn’t there more to life than this? Is there a place to start over fresh? Is staying in this denomination worth it?
So, as a young pastor in West Philadelphia, why would I want to stay in the PC(USA)? Frankly, I have no other place to go. As a self-identified –ok, now get ready for a slew of adjectives that could be worn on a T-shirt or bumper sticker–catholic, evangelical, Reformed, feminist, missional, genX, liturgical, charismatic, female person, the PC(USA) is the place for me. The UCC is too congregational, the PCA won’t ordain me, the EPC is too locally minded and has trouble making decisions for the whole church. Others?
The PC(USA) has room in it to allow me to be the aforementioned bumper sticker. I am grateful that there is form to our way of being, yet a freedom to follow the Spirit of Christ; that biblically informed theological engagement is encouraged and affirmed in my local congregation; that we can honor the life of the mind, while protesting the unfair labor practices of Taco Bell; that we care about peacemaking and that we are looking forward to church planting and church transformation.
But, if I were to allow my answer to this question to rely myopically on the actions and attitudes of the church at the national level, I would be naÃ¯ve. The biennial General Assembly, much less the Office of the General Assembly and its committees, do not fairly represent the common Presbyterian, nor do they equal the church. The balance is off in many directions but most crucially it lacks the theological diversity present in the 11,000+ congregations. That the national level is overwhelmingly liberal-minded does not give me permission to leave. Rather this inequity is another reason for me to stay.
Since the year 2000, I have made some amazing friends and colleagues in the Church through an affinity group called Presbyterians for Renewal. Had I not met other women, including women pastors, I don’t know that I would be staying. I have come to know evangelical women (and men) in this church locally and nationally, who share the same passion for Jesus Christ and for seeing women develop their full gifts for ministry. They help keep me in the game. These women are intelligent, articulate, theologically thoughtful, politically competent and love the Lord Jesus Christ. Some even have hyphenated names like me. But their voices are rarely heard.
I will stay to continue to work towards a PC(USA) that is balanced and together seeks the will of the Christ. I will attempt to mobilize a movement for fair representation at the national level especially in regards to theological diversity, but also to break down the barriers of class, gender, race, and marital status that bar certain members of the body from participating in the biennial meetings (what working class single mother of two do you know who can afford to get 10 days off to go to General Assembly?)
In the meantime, I will continue to do what I have been doing–being a pastor with my husband to an urban congregation, thinking missionally about the church with colleagues, meeting with people “across the aisle,” attending presbytery and GA, connecting women pastors with women seminarians, using my voice and privilege to call attention to systemic oppression, preaching the gospel of Jesus to sinners, breaking bread with believers, praying for the church global and the PC(USA), and learning all I can about the Scriptures and what they say to us about who we are and who we are called to be.
I am going to stay (some of you by now may be wishing I was leaving). I am staying because the Spirit of the Lord still rests on the PC(USA). I am not taking my ball and going to another game. Frankly, I am not leaving until I get kicked out! Perhaps there will come a day when I will have to refuse to bow down to any idol that the PC(USA) has begun to worship and in turn, I get the boot. But I have hope that the church will create a new presence in the world, that a revival and renewal is headed our way. Lord, don’t let us miss it! But, thanks be to God that ultimately our hope is not in a denomination, but in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.
May grace and peace be with us all.
Fairlight Collins-Jones is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament and co-pastor, with her husband, Scott, of Woodland Church in West Philadelphia, Pa. She graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2002.