Interest in creating union congregations and presbyteries has emerged as part of efforts to create the New Reformed Body (NRB) under the Fellowship of Presbyterians. As one who served in an original union presbytery for a dozen years before they went out of existence with the formation of the PC(USA) in 1983, I am compelled to ask, “To what end and so what?” Revisiting the intent and outcome of those earlier experiences and a few preliminary observations on my part of the present efforts may provide a context for others more closely involved to answer these questions.
The dream and theological basis of the Union Presbytery Movement (UPM), whose life spanned the years 1970-1983, was to further “the unity of the church” in response to Jesus’ prayer in John 17, “that the church may be one.” This unity–a unity of spirit–was not to be confused with uniformity—a uniformity of theology, rite or opinion. Prior to 1970 Northern and Southern Presbyterian synods, presbyteries and congregations in Border States had cooperated for years in many aspects of their lives in spite of their differences.
Finally the point was reached where it made more sense to be “together” than to be “apart.” As a result of this new reality, union presbyteries and congregations were created, but not union synods. They were based on developing strong diverse gifts and inclusive relationships built on trust and mutual respect for differences but with constructive resolution of conflict as their goals.
Each union presbytery and congregation became “one entity living in two worlds” based primarily on what they held in common, not what was different about them. Each union presbytery and congregation was a full member of both worlds. As a tangible witness, each entity modeled its commitment to “the unity of the church” institutionalized through a single organizational structure with multiple relationships, varied only from others in detail by particular context.
To address common challenges facing congregations and presbyteries created by living in two worlds, representatives of the union presbyteries–and in time sets of co-operating presbyteries–voluntarily came together in problem analyzing/solving consultations to find constructive ways to live in those two worlds. These became known as the Consultation of/on Union Presbyteries (COUP). Informal consensus was the process for making informal decisions about proposed solutions to the problems identified. Resolution initiatives from these consultations found their way into the formal structures of both denominations at many levels bringing about significant change.
In addition to resolving the challenges of living in two worlds, the other stated goal of COUP was to help create “one new world” out of “two worlds” through the reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Church of which they were members. When that came about all presbyteries became “union presbyteries” though many in non-overlapping geographic areas did not experience the same sense of unity as those in overlapping areas.
The dream was that what union presbyteries had learned in their experience could shape a new witness to “the unity of the church” in the reunited church. However, reunion dissolved the creative tension of the two worlds that nurtured this dream and dissipated its energy and influence. Threats emerged leaving the dream of such a broader witness of “unity” mostly unrealized as “one new world”–PC(USA)–became a reality.
These threats took many corrosive forms: close majority votes, win-lose mentalities, theological anemia, residual racism, noise of cultural wars, nightmares of polarization, prejudiced silos of self-interest from which to attack the “other.” Overshadowed were learnings from the Union Presbytery Movement that threats could be overcome, reunion could work, and people and structures could be transformed by a steadfast belief that God is the redeemer of history. *
The reappearance of union congregations and presbyteries in the present discussion led me to pull up the Draft of the Polity for the NRB and look at pertinent passages (5.0201-5.203.) On the surface they look similar to or compatible with the new Form of Government (G 5.04-5.05) though with some difference in nomenclature. FOG refers to union congregations as “Joint Congregational Witness.” Do these two designations have equal standing or does one have official jurisdictional standing while the other has only cooperative missional standing?
What also is not clear in the wording of NRB 5.0202 is whether a congregation that wishes to remain a member of the PC(USA) but also wants to join the NRB, becomes fully a member of both denominations. Or is it construed to mean that a certain portion of the congregation is under the jurisdiction of one denomination while another portion is under the jurisdiction of the other denomination. In times of disagreement, parties in such an arrangement might then easily retreat to the “shelter” of their respective portions rather than engaging in the difficult work of reconciliation of real or imagined differences.
Some may be motivated to use NRB 5.0202 on union congregations in a strategy to withdraw from the PC(USA) but retain some of the benefits accrued while members. After a “denominational split” from the PC(USA) a particular congregation could then rejoin it as a union congregation, affiliated both with the PCUSA and the NRB. Critics might label such tactics as disingenuous.
At present it is not clear to me if this is a real consideration. If, however, the current Draft of the Polity intends to create union presbyteries in order to allow two governing structures to exist within a given union congregation as a strategy to prevent wholesale defection, retain benefits, preserve property and funds, or for conflict avoidance, then the intention of such an arrangement is very contradictory to the intent of the original union presbyteries. This would be more akin to “two entities living in one world” based primarily on what was different about them, not what they held in common. Such an outcome, combined with the time and energy expended in creating the NRB, could be seen as working counter to the “unity of the church.”
Given the current climate in the PC(USA), it might be difficult to make a convincing case that the driving force in creating the NRB is the same as the impetus in forming the original union presbyteries. I am not sure in proposing this current version of union congregations and presbyteries that the players have reached the point where it makes more sense to be “together” than to be “apart” as their witness to “the unity of the church.” But that is for others to judge and not for me to say.
“The church as an institution may falter and be divided at the hands of dysfunctional human beings, but [I fervently believe] the hands of an everlasting God [still move in our midst to] unite the church as to body of Christ. Human institutions can divide and disintegrate in watershed moments, or they can be united and transformed into the body of Christ by el Espiritu Santo [the Holy Spirit] when least expected.”** Jesus’ prayer “that the church may be one” is as compelling today as the day he uttered it. It is in this spirit I share these reflections as an outside observer to all these current proceedings.
William G. McAtee is executive presbyter emeritus of Transylvania Presbytery.
* for more details of the UPM and its outcome in the reunited church, see McAtee, William G. Dreams, Where Have You Gone? Clues for Unity and Hope. Louisville, Kentucky: Witherspoon Press, 2006, especially Chapters 12, 15, 16, and Epilogue.
** Dreams, p. 380.