We think we’re beginning to see an answer. Here, we call it the Baltimore Covenant.
Yes, Baltimore Presbytery presented several overtures to the General Assembly in San Jose, including overtures regarding marriage and ordination standards. And we are likely to do the same in Minneapolis. Many across the denomination assume Baltimore delights in such efforts. The truth is we are not of one mind in the Presbytery of Baltimore and our past decisions have been a source of pain and anguish for virtually everyone. Therefore, we sought a different way of discerning God’s will.
Even before San Jose, we worked to develop a process that would allow the presbytery, when it was faced with controversial issues, to call for additional discernment. Once that process was formulated, we began work on something we would call the Baltimore Covenant. It was designed to be a straightforward affirmation of how we will live together, especially when faced with difficult issues. It took more than a year and multiple meetings, but the end result was an affirmation of the Baltimore Covenant.
In keeping with this Covenant, we instituted several procedures that have taken the edge off our deliberations. When we vote on overtures — both going to General Assembly and coming from the Assembly — we vote by secret ballot. All the overtures under consideration at a particular meeting appear on one ballot. Thus folks no longer sit back and take note of how each person votes and, more importantly, all overtures are treated equally.
We see a trend emerging in our decision-making regarding G-6.0106b and the nature of Christian marriage. After countless votes on ordination and three meetings devoted to marriage, we have grown weary of such debates and the pain they have inflicted. Only one person rose to speak to the overture that was recently defeated by the presbyteries. We generally know how our vote will turn out, and so we have tacitly agreed to simply vote.
However, while this lack of debate makes for less stressful meetings, it also limits our ability to discern God’s leading. The issues that have been so divisive within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now consume less of our energy and that has allowed something else to happen here. We still hold fast to our desire to “participate in God’s activity … by engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice.” (G-3.0300 c.3.a.) At the very same time we find ourselves exploring with more intentionality our hunger for authentic community, our desire for deeper spirituality, and our need for more nourishment from the presbytery (G-3.0300 c.2.). Our discussion of how we want to live together has provided the space for these questions to emerge.
In Baltimore, many are asking themselves, “how can we continue to lift what feels like one of the last voices for justice while at the same time grow as a spiritual community that nourishes its members?” To answer that question, we must first answer the questions: “Are we all that God’s wants us to be?” and “Where is God leading us?”
We have started a process to discern the future to which God calls us. We randomly assigned people to table groups over dinner (leaving a seat open for the presence of Christ and setting at His place bread and wine). People at table 19 felt driven by the prophets’ call for justice and also affirmed that if we are doing God’s will, then others will be drawn to our ministry and numerically grow the membership of Christ’s church. To the casual observer, some of those who sat at this table came from our most “progressive churches” and others from our most “evangelical churches.” At Table 19, folks did come from East and West, North and South. They discovered common ground, in spite of their lack of agreement on issues of marriage and ordination.
We hope that the Covenant we made here in Baltimore will encourage this kind of conversation and mutual affirmation of how God has called us to carry on the ministry of Christ Jesus.
Peter Nord is executive presbyter of the Baltimore (Md.) Presbytery.