It was our privilege and responsibility to serve as moderator and vice-moderator respectively, of the Ecclesiology Committee of the 217th General Assembly meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. The Committee’s primary responsibility was to recommend actions to the commissioners regarding the Report of the Theological Task Force On the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church. The task before us was daunting; nonetheless, we came away from the experience inspired by the way in which we Presbyterians can come together, with all our inevitable differences of opinion, to seek common ground and unity in spite of disagreement.
Our goal was unwavering fairness of process and the commitment to listen carefully to every voice as we wrestled with the issues before us. This in itself was challenging, given the limits of time and the energy of our members and the many voices that needed to be heard. There were times when we changed our process mid-stream in order to insure fair and open deliberation. In the end, the committee voted to recommend all the Task Force’s recommendations, adding one amendment to Recommendation 5, clarifying that governing bodies have the responsibility to determine “whether the examination complies with the constitution of the PC(USA).” Also offered, unsuccessfully, was a minority report asking that the authoritative interpretation contained in Recommendation 5 be stricken. On the floor of the Assembly, commissioners voted to approve the committee’s recommendation.
In the wake of the General Assembly in Birmingham, we as a denomination are only beginning to deal with the implications of the Assembly’s action. We have observed with grief and concern the decision of a few congregations to separate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Our denomination is diminished by the loss of these voices. We pray that we as a church can give the Spirit time to work in and through us as we seek to be faithful to our ordination standards while finding new ways to work through all our governing bodies. We continue to pray for the peace, unity, and purity of the church.
In the meantime, certain images have remained with us, and give us hope for the hard work before us. We like to think of them as “pictures that will never be in the newspaper.” For us they are “exhibitions of the kingdom of heaven to the world.” (G1.0200) We would like to share them with you, for we believe that they are portraits of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us.
The first picture shows a very large committee of 67 thoughtful commissioners gathered in a Birmingham convention hall meeting room, starting a day early in order to have time to get to know each other, share our common hopes and fears about our work together, and spend generous time in prayer and worship as we began to discern the will of God. In the days that ensued, we laughed together, cried together, and experienced a high level of Christian community over the long hours of deliberation. As you look at this picture, you will see all ages, varied races, backgrounds, and perspectives. You will notice, too, that in spite of various levels of agreement and disagreement, this committee represented a high level of giftedness, strong faith, and a deep desire to work together to discern the will of God. Another snapshot could have been taken in the late evening before our report was to come before the Assembly. We gathered with the two committee members who were sponsoring the minority report, along with a representative of the Office of the Stated Clerk. For a brief time there was some question whether the minority report could properly come before the Assembly, on the basis of a constitutional process issue. As the stated clerk’s representative left us to check on the question, the four of us expressed our concern that not bringing the minority report to the floor on the basis of a constitutional technicality would injure the very cause we were all committed to furthering: the peace, unity, and purity of the church. The picture shows the four of us, hands joined in prayer that God would see to it that both reports came to the Assembly; and that is what happened.
A third picture is similar to the second, except there are more people in the circle. This time you see a larger circle of prayer, gathered just before we climbed the steps to the platform of the Assembly. You will notice the moderator and vice-moderator of the General Assembly, the stated clerk and assistant stated clerk, the sponsors of the minority report, members of the Theological Task Force, committee assistants, and the two of us, gathered in prayer after sharing our concerns and hopes for the Assembly. Once again, our prayer was for God’s leading for us and for the commissioners, into whose hands the decision would now pass.
We know that the consequences of the actions taken at the General Assembly are not fully known yet. Our hope and prayer for the whole church is that we can trust one another and the Holy Spirit enough to listen to each other as we seek to honor God’s Word and our constitution. How can we do that? Perhaps the key lies in the “forgotten first four” of the Task Force’s report. It is our strong feeling that, while we are giving much attention to Recommendation 5, we have given short shrift to Recommendations 1 through 4, which call us to the hard work of finding new ways to work together, to seek unity, to stay engaged with one another, to try new ways of decision making as we seek to be the church of Jesus Christ.
The next picture we would hope for shows a church committed to being the church at its best–fully engaged, fully committed to the unity that the Spirit gives, humble enough to test our opinions and positions in light of Scripture and our present challenge, and patient enough to let the Spirit work among us. We pray for a church committed to the “forgotten first four.”
Blair Russell Monie is pastor/head of staff at Preston Hollow Church in Dallas, Texas. He served as an elected commissioner from Grace Presbytery to the 217th General Assembly and chaired its Ecclesiology Committee. Kate Kotfila is associate pastor of Brunswick Church in Troy, N.Y. At the 217th GA, she was vice moderator of the Ecclesiology Committee.