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What does it mean to be a connectional church in the 21st century? Well, we have met the metaphor and the metaphor is us, er uh, we. Actually it goes under the name of Les.
Les is the handy-dandy, internet-intranet computer system utilized at the 217th General Assembly in Birmingham. Les was developed for all the right reasons: a chance to provide constantly current communications to commissioners, delegates and observers–and to save a few thousand trees’ worth of paper. Who wouldn’t like that?
Well, as you can infer, most everybody could dislike it. Not only did it function on-and-off; it slowed to a crawl at times; people could not figure out how to find the right folders; the system crashed; and a bunch of other technical aggravations arose. It also provided just the entertainment (how many versions of solitaire do you know?) to occupy minds with off-the-subject diversions. What a great way to enhance our communications!
The good news is that its name isn’t Hal.
Now it takes no Calvin scholar to point out the fact that real communications these days travel through more media than we could have imagined even ten years ago. We can converse instantly with most anybody on the planet. Yet we have used the life-broadening, world-shrinking communications technologies mostly to bond with people just like ourselves. We have huddled in enclaves of agreement. And even there, the relentless sensory input has so overloaded our concentration capacities that much of our communications fall on tin ears.
In the church, real communications between real people may be worse than ever. We are more huddled in cliques and divided into camps than ever. That is, until we gather at a General Assembly, where so many of those enclaves begin to intermingle.
Les comes along and tries its best to reconnect us, and so does a newly elected moderator, and so does an initiative to promote peace, unity, and purity among us, and so does our worship of God, and so does each missional proposal, and so does oh well, lots of stuff.
But do they succeed?
Joan tried to reconnect us. The moderatorial election proved to be the closest in recent memory. Four candidates split the first ballot in a virtual tie; a margin of just 34 votes separated the first place candidate from the fourth. Two ballots later, the Rev. Joan S. Gray from Atlanta took the majority. Gray calls herself a “polity wonk,” having co-authored a book on the subject, but she also is a certified spiritual director, a woman of prayer. As an intentional interim pastor, she has guided seven congregations through the troubled waters of transition, thus bringing needed skills to a conflicted denomination. Her gracious presence and sense of humor set many a commissioner at ease. When she called us into prayer, and held everyone silent for seeming eons, she was magnetically pulling all present into an awareness of the One whose unity is a gift. She tried.
The Task Force tried to reconnect us. The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity, after nearly five years of work, presented its hope for a new way to do church. The Assembly quickly and overwhelmingly approved the first four parts of its report–beginning with a call to stay one church together and then supplementing that with a call to study its theological prologue and to utilize a broad range of tools to enhance our attentiveness to one another. Then the commissioners took up one of the most controversial aspect of the report and amended it to reassure that this would not be paving a pathway away from the Constitution. The amended authoritative interpretation was adopted but by a narrower margin: 57% to 43%. The unanimous Task Force had been received by a divided Assembly. Try as they did to unite, the conclusion disconnected many from the rest.
The Peacemaking Committee tried to reconnect us. For two years the church has suffered upheaval over the 2004 GA’s initiation of a program of financial divestment from Israel. Relationships with Jewish neighbors have been strained. So the Peacemaking and International Issues Committee actually used some of the processes modeled and encourage by the TTFPUP to try to work through their conflicted convictions on the Middle East. They found near unanimity around a plan to issue a new statement that expresses regrets for the hurt the previous action caused, encourages a two-state solution, urges an end of all violence, and resolves to invest in “peaceful pursuits” in the region. Sure enough, when they brought their proposal to the floor of the GA, it was adopted overwhelmingly. That did reconnect us.
Our theology tried to reconnect us. A controversial theological study on the trinity was presented for adoption as a study paper (not as a policy paper nor as a confession of faith). The authors were striving to strengthen the church’s proclamation of the trinity, and they built the paper upon the ground of the essential language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However they quickly moved from that kind of naming to other triads, some used by rather significant figures like St. Augustine, but to many modern minds, such routes looked too scenic to be real. The Assembly amended the report to strengthen the proclamation of Jesus Christ and to clarify that baptism is to be in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But confidence did not prevail. The Assembly finally chose to “receive” the paper, hence making it available for study but not adding a particular denominational endorsement to it.
Another theological paper, this one focusing on the sacraments and particularly asking if the sacrament of holy communion must be limited to the baptized (as in, ‘what about a new believer who hasn’t been baptized yet?’). The normal response suggested in the paper, and affirmed by the Assembly is to maintain the succession of baptism-then-communion. Then again, the paper suggests that our churches ought to join the many Christian traditions that share the Lord’s Supper more frequently. The Assembly united in its vote. The table of the Lord is supposed to unite us, to reconnect us. Will it?
Family matters tried to reconnect us. For once, the commissioners found common ground on one matter in the pro-life/pro-choice debate. By a wide margin the commissioners voted to approve a statement that the lives of viable unborn babies ought to be preserved and cared for–not aborted. They also said that the church ought to provide help to moms wanting to place their child for adoption.
History-keeping tried to reconnect us. One last vestige of the pre-reunion, PCUS family was converged with the pre-reunion, UPCUSA. Yes, the two denominations reunited in 1983. But the two repositories of denominational, regional, and congregational histories remained in place: at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina and in Philadelphia. After much study, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) determined last year to close the Montreat site and to move its contents mostly to Philadelphia, with some of it being taken to Columbia Theological Seminary. Twenty-one presbyteries in ten states filed overtures to block that decision. Nearly a million dollars was pledged to provide support for the Montreat history office to remain open without taxing denominational funds. After eight hours of committee discussions, they voted their concurrence with COGA. So did the whole General Assembly. Many a Southerner felt a major disconnect, to be sure.
Our social witness tried to connect us. Given that our mission in the world has long provided a glue to mend us (the old adage, “Theology divides; mission unites”), perhaps a common vision for mission in the world could help us reconnect. This Assembly adopted a resolution opposing the use of torture and called upon Congress to establish an investigative committee to determine just who is truly responsible for recent reports of inhumane treatment of military prisoners by our government.
The commissioners weighed in on recent concerns regarding immigrants by challenging all Presbyterians to welcome and advocate on behalf of immigrants, and to press the government to institute humanitarian border protection policies.
They issued a plea to work toward an end of homelessness.
They declared that suicide bombing is a crime against humanity.
They launched an investigation into possible divestment of funds from companies profiting from non-humanitarian business in Sudan.
They called upon the government to help Haitians, and especially to cease the practice of sending back to the island nation those fleeing here by boat.
Some reconnecting around mission was percolating among us.
Our Constitution tried to reconnect us. In the hope of moving the denomination from being a regulatory agency into a mission agency, the Assembly created a task force with the directive to simplify the 14th chapter of the Book of Order. That’s the ever-growing chapter that lists rule after rule about who can pastor, and what steps are necessary to find a pastor, and how lots of people don’t qualify, and, well, it has become a veritable operating manual. In the hope of releasing churches from so much red tape, the commissioners directed a task force to find ways to simplify and empower the churches as they seek quality pastoral leadership.
Our ecumenical efforts tried to reconnect us. After nearly two centuries apart, this General Assembly met concurrently with the General Assemblies of the two Cumberland Presbyterian Churches for daily worship, fellowship and dialogue. A great opportunity was opened to fellowship with brothers and sisters in those Presbyterian communities. And how great an opportunity it was to look beyond the borders of our own troubles to be refreshed by the mix those colleagues brought. Great reconnecting was going on there!
We did make connections. We connected with Linda Valentine who was confirmed to be the new Executive Director of the General Assembly Council. We found her to be a delightful conversationalist who is eager to connect with folks throughout the church.
We connected with our older adults as we launched all new initiatives for ministry among them. We connected with persons with disabilities in empowering their callings to serve God. We connected our connectionalism, by saying “No” to those who would like to wrest control of their property, or would like to transfer from one presbytery to another, and we connected our freedom from control by denying an attempt to make per capita mandatory.
In the end, some among us went home feeling alienated, disconnected. It’s not new. Most every GA sends home winners and losers. How tragic that is. How seemingly contrary to the gospel to even be using such athletic or pugilistic terms as “winners” and “losers.” Some are huddling again, now talking about disconnecting even more than the technologies of this reconnected disconnected era have brought upon us.
We learned one thing about Les, our friendly metaphor. That handy-dandy, internet-intranet system didn’t connect the commissioners in unity. Yes, it created channels for communicating in formal ways. But the real connections took place over meals, around tables, in the breaking of bread, and in circles of prayer. This disconnectional church can become the reconnectional church of the 21st century, but we are going to need to use some tools that come from the first century. The kinds of tools that connected disparate believers then just might reconnect disparate believers today.