Within our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) there are two different conversations happening simultaneously. But these conversations are not talking with each other. The reality of these two different conversations popped up in my mind as I read through the March 5, 2007 issue of The Presbyterian Outlook.
One may be called the orthodox conversation. This has a lot to do with the institutional disease of our Church. In the Outlook this conversation was highlighted in the article A time to act: NW vote begins movement toward EPC. The New Wineskins is a consortium of about 150 congregations working together for the renewal of the Church with a specific ideal of theological orthodoxy in view. Several of the New Wineskins congregations are negotiating with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The EPC is a small Presbyterian denomination — about 200 congregations and 70,000 members — formed in 1981 when a number of our congregations broke with the northern stream of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The New Wineskins folks are so disgruntled with our PC(USA) that they are either (1) advocating comprehensive reform within our church or (2) expecting to leave our denomination and possibly join the EPC.
This orthodox conversation is part of a long history of theological controversy in American Presbyterianism and, indeed, in American Protestantism generally. The New Wineskins Initiative is a new expression of an old concern. This concern was expressed in the Confessing Church Movement in the 1990s, goes back to the Fundamentalist and Modernist controversy in the 1920s, and before that to the Old School and New School debates.
The orthodox conversation is about the authority of the Bible, the unique power of Jesus Christ, and the correct polity of the institutional Church, including, of course, the question of qualifications for ordination. There are wild differences of opinion on all of these vital theological issues.
I suggest that the heart of the matter for the orthodox conversation is the question of the central tenets of the Reformed Tradition. As mandated in our Book of Order, all officers ordained in our church must affirm this ordination question: Do you affirm the essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition? This ordination vow, of course, begs the question: What are the essential tenets of the Reformed Tradition? In the PC(USA) there is not a definitive answer. I believe that if anyone is going to find a home in the PC(USA) one must understand why we do not, and will not, have a precise, defined answer listing our essential tenets. Compare the long history of conversation around the question of essential tenets in the PC(USA) with the EPC. On the EPC homepage you will find a precise list of their essential tenets. To understand the difference between the two groups on this point is to begin to grasp all the complexity of the orthodox conversation.
I believe most of the work in our church is part of the orthodox conversation. For example, this includes all of the work and discussion around the Peace, Unity, and Purity report. Most of my work as an Executive Presbyter, most of the work of our Presbytery, and particularly the work of our Committee on Ministry, happens within the orthodox conversation. It is a rich, noble, and continuing conversation that is filled with complexity and nuance.
But, alas, there is a very different conversation happening. I call this the emerging conversation. This was reflected in the Outlook article Emergent church conference explores what movement is, isn’t. The emerging conversation blurs across all the stark battle lines of liberal versus conservative. The emerging conversation dismisses the orthodox conversation as irrelevant. There is a deep irony at work in the emerging conversation. On one hand this conversation is inspired by a deep anti-institutional, anti-structure, anti-bureaucracy ethos. But many of the conversation partners are immersed in established institutional positions. For example, I have been blessed by the emerging conversation that flows naturally when our Synod-wide group of Executive Presbyters gathers.
I have also participated in this conversation through my involvement in the Gospel and Our Culture Network. The emerging conversation talks about missional theology that is pushing a new worldview for the church, a new way of thinking about the role of the church in our society. But this new way of talking is in reality a very old, biblical way of thinking. The church and the culture are now completely separated. Thus the church is called to bring the Good News of the Gospel into the strange and foreign culture that surrounds us. The church is missional. This means, in the emerging conversation, that mission is much more than a program, an emphasis or an activity. The missional church means that the church is God’s mission into the world. The church is the means by which God reaches out and into our world. Thinking and talking this way is part of the emerging conversation today.
Our Presbytery’s New Church Development committee is talking within the emerging conversation. We are creating a new position of Evangelist to be responsible for planting a new faith community among the unchurched and de-churched. We must talk about a new faith community, not a new church, because the concept of church carries so much baggage for so many people; baggage that keeps them far away from ever sitting in our pews. A new faith community is about creating authentic spiritual relationships among and between people who are discerning a call to respond to Jesus Christ. It is a very different conversation, an emerging conversation. I have a nagging suspicion that the people we may attract into our new faith community are not interested in our orthodox conversation.
With which conversation are you involved? In which are you most interested? Which is more important for our Church? How may we possibly bring these two conversations together in service to Jesus Christ?
Mark Englund-Krieger is executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Carlisle in Camp Hill, Pa.