‘Prayer, the Word and relationships’: a conversation with Gradye Parsons

With no other candidates vying for the position, Gradye Parsons’ election at the upcoming General Assembly to a second term as Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is assured. Leslie Scanlon sat down with him to look ahead to the next four years. Their conversation has been edited due to space constraints.

Q: What impact do you think it has on the denomination that there is only one candidate for stated clerk?

“I’m very humbled by the whole thing. It’s one less contentious thing at the assembly. We can deal with this on Sunday and focus our energy on other things. It’s also in some ways a healthy sign that people don’t see that the only way to change the denomination is from Louisville. They see there are other ways to impact the system.”

Q: You say you see the ecumenical movement in America being at a real crossroads. What do you mean by that?

“Institutions like the NCC (National Council of Churches) and some others that have been around a long time — they were all based on a certain notion of church. The whole notion of what it means to be church is changing. So how does the NCC or what it is to become — how does it work with that? A helpful thing is this difference between an organization and an organism. The organization is the bones and structures, the formats, all that sort of stuff. The organism is that living, breathing ethos that is what that is about. For us it would be our Reformed heritage and how we see the world. The conversation we’re having is ‘How is the organism that is the ecumenical movement, how does that move forward? What body or what structure does it need to help bring life to it and bring hope to it?’ Being ecumenical means a whole lot of different things now than maybe it did. It’s not just a matter of the traditional mainlines getting together. What does it mean for some of these megachurches to be part of this? What does it mean for the people who are spiritual but not religious to be part of all this?”

Q: And who’s listening, when so many people are outside organized religion? When a stated clerk for a denomination speaks, who pays attention? What impact does it have for there to be a formal, public voice for this denomination?

“I think it’s important to remember that I’m not the only one sending letters in (to public officials). There are people sending letters in who have very different policy views than the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So if our voice is not there, it doesn’t get heard. I do think that where our greatest impact would be is the two million people who are part of the Presbyterian Church — if we could find ways to motivate them to speak up in their local setting and also with their local policy makers.”

Q: What about the work of the General Assembly Mid Councils Commission? Have they met your hopes, and what do you want to see happen with their proposals?

“I hope the people take the time to read the narrative (of the commission’s report). The narrative, especially the models section, speaks to the hopes we had for the commission. The whole mid councils’ life is in a state of flux. There’s no one fix to that — it’s very contextual.”

(The commission is recommending that the 16 synods be discontinued as ecclesiastical bodies. Parsons said the idea of discontinuing synods):

“ … has been a part of the discussion in church life as long as I’ve been a minister — 33 years, 34 this summer. What they’ve suggested is interesting because it still leaves that multi-presbytery ministry out there, but lets people shape it in a different way. When I was an EP (executive presbyter) in the Synod of Living Waters, when we were putting together Living Waters for the World, we purposely put it together so that whether there was a synod or not, it could still live. … The nongeographic presbytery thing is causing a lot of conversation out in the church. Everywhere I go, people want to talk about it. … It would be a big change for us. We have some questions about the impact as far as commissioners at future assemblies and those kinds of things. But I think the church needs to have a discussion: Is geography the way we define ourselves in this day and age, when people relate virtually more than they do physically? They’re asking the right questions.”

Q: Do you sense the conversation you’re hearing about nongeographics is different than the kind of conversation you heard about that in previous years?

“Yes.”

Q: Different in what way?

“There’s no question that the passage of 10-A has fed into the conversation. That’s part of what I’m hearing, that people want to be in presbyteries where there are people more in theological agreement with them. … And some people are having a really hard time appreciating what would be the value added in reorganizing the church at this point.”

Q: We’ve seen the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the new ECO denomination emerge. What do you think of those organizations, and what effect do you think they’re having on the landscape?

“The Fellowship is offering people who maybe have some uncertainty about the passage of 10-A, they’re offering them a chance to have conversations and discussions, and to link up with other people who have those same concerns. … We will have to live out how we relate to them in the future. We certainly have found ways to do that with other Presbyterian bodies that came from us.”

Q: Going back some months, there had been some informal discussions, some private discussions, with those folks and folks from OGA. Is that still ongoing?

“There are not many formal discussions going on anymore. There is still conversation. I talk to those folks fairly regularly. I think fundamentally the way you work towards reconciliation is to stay in relationship. That’s my ultimate hope — at the end of some day, whatever day that might be, whether it’s in my children’s lifetime or my grandchildren’s lifetime, there could be reconciliation with us.”

Q: Do you think it helps congregations that disagree with 10-A to have some options, rather than simply stay or go?

“It’s always helpful to have some relationships where you feel supported. The Fellowship may offer that for some folks. I can’t rejoice about any congregation that leaves. We’re diminished — in some way we’re diminished by that. It’s always a great sadness. I went through a church split in my first church, at least through the first two or three chapters of it. These are always painful conversations. You can have families split and friends split. This is all tough stuff.”

Q: What message has OGA been sending for churches to stay in the PC(USA) — or have you been sending that message?

“The main place where this conversation needs to take place, or is taking place, is in the presbyteries. It’s presbytery people who already are in relationship to each other, talking to each other about why they need to stay together in mission. We are trying to make the case that we are a more faithful witness together. … These are hard conversations. But to be in relationship with those with whom we disagree is healthy for us. It makes us better people.” 

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