by Jerry Andrews
We meet separately now.
I did not want this. I had worked and prayed that it would not be so. I had valued the shared evangelical witness within the PC(USA). I thought it held promise —the promise that an evangelical witness gladly offered to and received by the PC(USA) would prove salutary both to the communion and the evangelical movement within it. The witness was not received; the movement separated.
This year, for the first time, ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians and the Fellowship Community, the continuing evangelical witness within the PC(USA), met separately. For nearly five years we have met as one under the banner of the Fellowship of Presbyterians, discerning a way forward both for those congregations who could no longer imagine living with integrity within the PC(USA) and for those who could.
The Fellowship Community met in August. ECO, with its own constitution and the full blessing and burden of a new freedom to call it as it sees it, will gather for its national synod meeting in January 2016. Though there is reasonable hope, articulated often, of meeting together again, the simple fact is: We meet separately now.
HOPE OF REGATHERING
Though some rejoice while others lament this departure of the way, none should be surprised. Many remember stories of the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in the early part of the century. When I was in seminary, the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was still newsworthy. Shortly after I graduated, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) was formed. My home church, one of its flagships, continues to bless my ministry in the PC(USA). My parents’ Sunday school class still lovingly prays for me nearly 50 after they first began, when I was a high school student and they were encouraging me to consider ordained ministry.
We have lived our ecclesial lives apart all these years. There is no surprise in its repetition now, neither is there any joy.
But there is hope — hope that will not disappoint. And surprisingly, it is characterized as regathering, reconnecting and recommitting. (Evangelicals love “re-” words.)
The evangelical witness within the PC(USA) quite quickly regathered. Five hundred teaching and ruling elders attended the first annual gathering of the Fellowship. In a late night meeting at that gathering, over 30 pastors, each leading a congregation of over 1,000 members, met to reestablish our sense of companionship on the common road ahead. This was not so much a show of strength as a very glad expression of being together. When the invitations were given and the report spread of a gathering attended by those whose path ahead also would be within the PC(USA) and thus shared, I saw grown men cry. Really. (Admittedly, I saw more laughter and pouring of single malts than tears.)
This logic seems inescapable for all of us: We are here in this denomination. And if we are here, we are here by God’s providence. And if we are here by God’s providence, we are here for God’s purposes. And if so, then we are obligated to discern — as much as we are able, and as much as God is willing to reveal to us — what are those purposes and to commit to fulfill them. Together.
HOPE OF RECONNECTING
The most recent division of the evangelical witness was negotiated with mutual hopes of staying as close together as being in two ecclesial fellowships will allow. Anathemas were not announced; the blessings spoken were genuine. The love will not be lost. Relationships, however, cannot be inherited. The younger leaders, now quickly emerging, will need to find ways to connect when formal division is already present. They are, as a whole, more relational than the generations before them (including my own). We pray that the mantra “If you must go, don’t go far” will help them to lean toward one another.
Here we have another announced hope. If two can hold together in spite of ecclesial division, why not three, then four and more? The reconnections with the EPC, PCA, even OPC — and all of the split P’s — along with the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church and others among the more than two dozen Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in North America are more possible given this recent separating. The old alignments prevented progress in reconnection. The new opportunities may be simply a product of enough time passing. Wounds have had more time to heal; beginnings are not imagined as destinies; and identities are less about differentiations as they are missional. But also, it is new leadership who now invite and receive invitations. For the PC(USA), this hope of reconnecting the sons and daughters of Calvin is now engaged. The speakers at the second annual Theology Conference of the Fellowship Community are from the PC(USA), ECO, EPC, and the United Reformed Churches in North America, with others fully expected.
Is it too much to hope for God’s blessing? It is not too much, we believe, for us to pray and to work.
Is it an irony, or just an undeserved blessing of a gracious God, that disunion can lead to a greater reunion? Again, recent history alone may explain this new opportunity. Some, indeed many, of the PC(USA)’s global partners — Reformed and evangelical all of them — are troubled and compromised by a continuing connection to the PC(USA). Some, against the pleading of the Fellowship Community, formally have broken fellowship. In all those places and within all those communions, the evangelical congregations of the PC(USA) have significant ties — ties often formed long ago by mission workers from our congregations, ties which now remain strong with our ongoing partnerships, ties that continue to bind us and that, again only by the grace of God, they value all the more because of a deep desire to go but not go far. Connecting with us has helped them, they say.
HOPE OF RECOMMITTING
The reunion to which we commit is not only with those nearby and around the world, but also with the church throughout the ages. Efforts need be made to attend to these other reconnections, but perhaps more efforts need be expended here. Evangelicals instinctively connect with those of shared faith and similar sense of what that faith requires, but we all too often think that faith to be of our invention, borrowed directly from the Bible without helpers found along the way of the church’s history with the God of the Bible.
Faithfulness did not begin with the Westminster Standards or the Great Awakenings, much less some combination of the two in America. The faith and the faithfulness that it invites and enables was forged on the anvil of the prophetic and apostolic record by the hammers wielded in the hands of those who long ago lived and died in the faith. Now is the time to reconnect with the bishops at Nicaea, the divines at Westminster and the confessors at Barmen; the martyrs of Rome, the apologists of Athens, the theologians of monasteries and convents and the reformers of cities and peoples; the women and men who lived in times and places so different from (and almost always more difficult than) our own. They patiently beckon us to connect with them. We do not imagine that this hope will disappoint.
This is a change of focus for the Fellowship Community. Recently we have had given much attention to the reformation of the PC(USA) and offered a partnership to those least likely to accept it.
HOPE OF GIFTS SHARED
We come as we are, bearing the gifts we believe God has given us:
- An unflinching commitment to Scripture as the final arbiter in the debates and differences that divide and distance us from each other;
- A ready recognition that to obey Christ requires obedience to the Word, for the prophets were his prophets and the apostles his apostles;
- An unashamed joy in proclaiming that a personal relationship with Jesus is possible, desirable and irreplaceable, thus we will not apologize for speaking of him promiscuously and invite others to do the same; and
- An unwavering belief that God converts us and the world wholly to God by the power and presence of God’s Spirit, a belief that requires us with urgency to announce the gospel in ways that invite repentance and amendment within the human heart and human society.
It may be difficult for others to receive these gifts. They are what we offer.
The Fellowship Community is committed to being a differentiated subset within the whole of the PC(USA) — perhaps as an order, perhaps as a movement, perhaps as a fellowship or community (we do have the most redundant name in all of Christendom). This commitment is for the sake of the world that does not know a loving God has sent a crucified Savior to reconcile humanity to himself; for the sake of the integrity of the gospel that is God’s power unto salvation; for the sake of the church which has a faith without which she cannot live faithfully; for our sake, and for yours.
Perhaps we can meet.
JERRY ANDREWS is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in San Diego. He is also a member of the board and chair of the theology task force of the Fellowship Community.