DENVER – The crowd is small, and the way forward not entirely clear. With a big chunk of its advocacy agenda accomplished – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) now allows gays and lesbians in partnerships to be ordained, and PC(USA) ministers are free to perform same-sex marriages – the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is trying to discern the way forward.
The Covenant Network’s 2015 national conference opened Nov. 5, with about 150 participants and a theme of “Unity Matters” (compared to the theme in 2013 of “Marriage Matters”). Two years ago, the Covenant Network was pushing hard to convince the 2014 General Assembly to allow PC(USA) ministers to perform same-gender marriage – and earlier this year, the PC(USA) changed the definition of Christian marriage in its constitution to do exactly that.
So the mood at the conference Nov. 5-7 in Denver is quietly celebratory – a recognition that the Covenant Network gave its time, money and sweat equity for 20 years working for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. Beth Hessel, executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, announced that her staff is conducting “living history” interviews of people involved in that campaign. And the opening session included a tribute to Pamela Byers, the Network’s founding executive director, who died in 2014 and who weathered so many defeats in the long campaign that “we actually started to refer to ourselves as the women at the tomb,” said Deborah Block, a pastor from Milwaukee and a former Covenant Network co-moderator.
Now, the change has come – sweeping across the nation much faster than many could ever have predicted.
And the Covenant Network is turning its attention to making sure that full inclusion is lived out in reality, and to matters of unity – particularly racial reconciliation. The attendance, significantly lower than at the last conference in 2013, may be a sign that the shift has its challenges – and that with so many conservatives leaving the PC(USA), the locus of energy in the denomination is shifting as well.
“We are living in a different church,” said Brian Ellison, Covenant Network’s executive director. “We are living in a different nation in many ways. We are a different organization.”
The three preachers during worship at this conference are focusing on the Confession of Belhar from South Africa, which the 2016 General Assembly in Portland will be asked to approve – the last step in adding that confession to the PC(USA) Book of Confessions.
In the opening plenary, Cynthia Rigby, a professor of systematic theology from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, spoke of forgiveness and the theology behind it. It’s not enough to say “forgive and forget,” Rigby said – because Reformed Christians believe that “the kingdom of God should and does break into our reality” on earth and that Christians should be partners with Christ in the work of reconciliation.
Many of the “nones” – those who do not affiliate with organized religion – contend that “church folks like us are a bunch of hypocrites,” who say one thing but do another, Rigby pointed out. “Are we showing our love for one another to the world?”
From her perspective, Forgiveness + Justice = Unity. Forgiveness involves reconciliation of broken relationships, Rigby said, naming oppressions while living into the hope of the resurrection.
Paul T. Roberts, the president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, preached during opening worship that “nice is not enough.” The deaths of other young people of color (and he gave a list) have taught his own three church-raised, brown-skinned children that “being nice does not assure them of the same protections as whites,” and that when their civil rights have been violated, “nice does not guarantee that justice will be served.”
To be light and salt in the world, as Jesus called for in the Sermon on the Mount, may be a call to disruption – “the whole of the Bible is all about disruption,” Roberts said. Jesus disrupted Sabbath practices, fed the hungry, spoke to the outcast Samaritan woman at the well, raised the dead.
If being salt and light in the world, bringing “disruption of the best kind,” can contribute to “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Roberts said, then do it.
Speakers Nov. 6 at the “Unity Matters” conference include Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s former stated clerk and now a professor of world Christianity and ecumenical studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and J. Herbert Nelson, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness.