The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a “Charter of Compassion,” which according to PC(USA) stated clerk Gradye Parsons, was the “product of a multi-faith, web-based collaboration.” While the charter, as an inter-faith document, does not quote any Christian scriptures, it broadly calls for “justice, equity, and respect” and for nurturing “informed empathy” with those who suffer. Our clerk has written a letter to introduce the Charter.
In his letter he tells us that the Charter also calls for “teaching appreciation for cultural and religious differences.” In his letter, the clerk has helpfully given to his fellows PC(USA) Presbyterians various citations from the Directory of Worship in Part II of our Constitution which support participation in ministries of justice, compassion, and reconciliation.
My concern is not with what his letter said, but with what it did not say. Here is what I feel strongly should have been added.
–Although many Presbyterians do not know it, and although the office of the General Assembly does not often point it out, pronouncements by a General Assembly (or even endorsements of pre-existing statements like the affirmation of “the Charter of Compassion”) are of relatively low authority (compared to provisions of the church’s Constitution which have also been approved by a majority [in the case of the Book of Order] or 2/3rds [in the case of the Book of Confessions] of the presbyteries.) The Westminster Confessions, 6.174, says about the decrees of church councils (such as a GA statement) that these “decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission….” In other words they are advice which we should respectfully receive and search the scriptures to confirm. As Charles Wiley, coordinator of our Theology and Worship ministry area has helpfully put it.
“There’s an ongoing confusion. Sometimes folks will think these” (General Assembly theological statements or study papers) “are the theological policy of the church…the church has only one theological policy, and that is the Book of Confessions, a book that is subordinate to the scripture and yet is the constitutional embodiment of our theological standards.”
–This leads to my second point. I am happy our clerk quoted from Part II of our Constitution, the Book of Order, in support and in further explanation of the General Assembly’s affirmation of “A Charter of Compassion.” But I also wish he had quoted from what Charles Wiley calls “the theological policy of the church,” our Book of Confessions! Indeed when I first read the “Charter of Compassion” and the clerk’s accompanying letter, I immediately thought of the Confession of 1967, which was a part of the Plan of Reunion, which in 1983, received the votes not just of a General Assembly, but of 90 % of the presbyteries. (As part of our Constitution, C-67 is considerably more authoritative than any GA statement.)
The Confession of 1967 speaks clearly of the need to respect persons of all religions, but it also speaks a word we need to hear– that in the midst of love, compassion and working for justice, we must not let a sort of in-vogue political correctness prevent us from remembering–and obeying—Jesus’ command to take his gospel to all people.
C-67, section 9.42, says:
“ The Christian finds parallels between other religions and his own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal. But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian. The gift of God in Christ is for all men. The church, therefore, is commissioned to carry the gospel to all men whatever their religion may be and even when they profess none.”
“A Charter of Compassion” is a well-meaning and even important attempt by persons of many religions to come up with a common statement about compassion, tolerance, and justice. Its affirmation by the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) means that congregations and presbyteries should prayerfully study and consider being guided by it in the light of scripture. But A” Charter of Compassion” is not the church’s theological policy! As Charles Wiley reminds us, our confessions and our confessions alone are our theological policy!
According to the Standing Rules of the General Assembly, part of the role of our stated clerk is to “preserve and defend the Constitution.” Our church is hungry for that. Our church needs that. Especially when prayerfully and respectfully considering statements of General Assemblies, our church needs the greater depth, wisdom, and authority of our confessions. The clerk’s job is to support decisions of General Assembly and to preserve and defend the Constitution. It is possible to do both.
Winfield Casey Jones is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pearland, Texas