Guest commentary by Mike Hoyt
The members of Foothills Presbytery who are working toward reform of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s approach to social witness are genuinely grateful for the responses offered by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and from Ray Roberts. As teaching and ruling elders who are committed to the social witness of the PC(USA) we find Roberts’ articulation of Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom especially compelling. In fact, we heartily agree with his fine statement of the church’s call to social witness, and we appreciate his taking the time to draft it.
While there is much to commend about the ACSWP response, there are also points on which we disagree with their characterization of our efforts. After initiating a “consultation” with the ACSWP in June of this year and sending them working drafts of several of our overtures, we were advised that the committee would review our work on either June 16 or 17. We had hoped for an opportunity to be in conversation with members of the ACSWP about our ideas; however, we heard nothing from the committee until they presented us with their “response” in mid-October. While we understand that we all have busy schedules, we are disappointed that the “consultation” could not be more conversational. Be that as it may, we will continue conversation through the church press, if that is the only vehicle available.
Foothills Presbytery and social witness
Due to the deep commitment to the social witness of the PC(USA) among the reform-minded members of Foothills Presbytery, we want to be quite clear: We do not wish to silence the church’s witness. We would, however, like to redirect the work of the ACSWP in enabling that witness to grow from a broader and deeper engagement of the whole church — an engagement that seeks to transform the church even as we strive to bear witness to the world.
Perhaps a recent meeting of Foothills Presbytery might serve as an example. We are experimenting with a new element in our meetings that we call “PresbyExpress” — a sort of TED Talk approach to enriching our dialogue around important aspects of church life. We enjoyed two such talks at the November meeting, one by a white community minister in the Greenville-Spartanburg area who has been leading dialogues on race relations for the past year, and a one by an African-American graduate student involved in the Black Lives Matter campaign. While 30 minutes of inspirational talk at a presbytery meeting may not seem like much, these talks were expressive of the deeper work that Foothills is engaging in this area. For instance, Speaking Down Barriers gathers people from across racial and economic lines to hear one another’s stories, to connect, to rethink societal issues in a real, honest and unscripted way through spoken word poetry on difficult topics.
Furthermore, while it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the turmoil in many of our congregations around the issue of same-gender marriage, it is also worth noting that Foothills Presbytery approved the change in the definition of marriage by a vote of 84-61, as recommended by our unity & community team (bills & overtures) with a vote of 6-1 by that committee. Many, perhaps most, of the teaching elders involved in Foothills’ GA reform work are supportive of same-gender marriage. Foothills reforms are not about the marriage issue.
Finally, the Foothills reform group embraces much of the rationale in the beautifully and powerfully written landmark document, “Why and How the Church Makes a Social Policy Witness,” adopted by the 205th GA in Orlando in 1993 (at which this writer served as a theological student advisory delegate, and “voted” in favor of that great statement). However, the concerns raised by the series of overtures in the 1980s that led to the appointment of the Why-and-How task force are still prevalent concerns in the broader church. The Foothills group does not doubt that the Scriptures, theological tradition and other resources are being consulted in the development of recent social witness policy. We do, however, want to know more about the processes by which the “advice of members and all [councils] of the church” are being included in the discernment process, per requirement d(6) of that document. We believe these processes need to be more robust.
The unity of the Great Ends of the Church — Foothills’ point, exactly!
Included in the responses by ACSWP and Roberts is a critique of our use of the Great Ends of the Church as an organizing rubric to achieve a broader focus for General Assembly meetings. We fully agree with Roberts that, “The Great Ends of the Church are integrally related dimensions of the church’s single response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” Roberts nicely describes the relation of the church’s proclamation and worship, for instance, to its promotion of social righteousness. We discussed the holistic nature of the Great Ends in the meetings of our reform group. As preaching pastors, several of us have preached sermon series on the Great Ends, making this very point. At the same time, however, the Great Ends are distinctly named to help the church more clearly assess its life and mission to ensure a full and faithful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It is telling that, upon hearing the news of the work of a General Assembly, many Presbyterians feel a significant disconnect from the work and worship of their own congregations to such an extent that it seems to many as if some of the Great Ends are much more greatly emphasized than others.
The good news about this conversation on the Great Ends of the Church is the conversation itself. We appreciate the chance to hold dialogue with our sisters and brothers about how we are living into the Great Ends of the Church as a denomination, as presbyteries and as congregations.
Speaking of great conversation, we are grateful for Paul Hooker’s reminder to us that the organizing rubric for the work of all councils of the church, including the assembly, is not the Great Ends but the Reformation Notes. We would welcome a reassessment of the work of GA under this rubric and would gladly shift our attention there if doing so would further the conversation.
Although Presbyterian parliamentarians use the language of “perfecting” overtures, none of us in Foothills Presbytery would claim that there is anything near perfect in the solutions we are offering. However, we must start somewhere. We know we speak for many Presbyterians who believe that our system of doing business and bearing witness is deeply flawed at the General Assembly level. The response we often hear from those invested in the current system amounts to saying, “Look how well we are following our rules.” To those with this level of institutional confidence, we would ask what sort of fruit our rules are bearing in the church and in the world? We believe we could be doing better.
Now, who is romanticizing the 1960s?
We are not sure Roberts heard what we are saying about our time in comparison with the 1960s. We agree that “there is widespread questioning of authority, especially among the younger generation … widespread anger among members of both political parties” and that “people do not trust that the institutions of society are interested in their future.” Exactly! Even given the “question-authority” mentality for which the 1960s is famous, a greater culture of allegiance persisted among members of mainline denominations at that time that does not exist today. Members generally identified with their denominations, still had a significant level of trust in institutions (at least, those who were still active in mainline denominations) and respected the authority of those institutions—at least, to a greater degree than is the case today.
Because of our situation, says Roberts, “this is just the time for the church to make a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.” Here in Foothills Presbytery, we could not agree more! We just have a very different view of how the church ought to go about discerning that faithful witness. The loss of members and congregations to the Presbyterian Church in America in the 1970s and 80s (and this writer’s childhood congregation was one of them) is a pattern that was, perhaps, exacerbated by the methods of our social witness. Are we destined to repeat that pattern? Is this the only way? In contrast, our call for reform of the ACSWP approach is a call not to romanticize the church’s social witness in the1960s, but to seek a better way.
The conversation we hope for
The 2014 Montreat Leadership Conference was titled “More Than None,” referring to the growing number of younger Americans who respond to surveys about religious preference by checking the option “none of the above.” One of the keynoters was Gabe Lyons, co-author of “unChristian” and “The Next Christians” and cofounder of Catalyst, the nation’s largest gathering of young Christian leaders. Lyons writes, “the next Christians realize that short-term political maneuvering cannot shape the long-term morals, beliefs, and attitudes of the greater culture. … Solving the challenges of our day requires a different approach than we’ve seen modeled in recent years. …Civility grounds our approach. … It shapes our tone and seasons our rhetoric. This mentality moves conversations and engagement beyond the immediacy of winning the momentary battle to laying the groundwork for a better future.”
On a similar note, James Calvin Davis, Presbyterian teaching elder and professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, speaks of the “habits of civil discourse that religious communities encourage” as “the real gifts they give to American public life.” In his book, “In Defense of Civility,” he wrote, “In many ways, those habits of civil conversation are more important than any consensus we might hope to achieve on heretofore divisive issues. [James] Gustafson was sure that promoting conversation, not necessarily agreement, was religious communities’ most important moral achievement. He argued that ‘participation in a serious moral dialogue moving toward consensus is more important than the consensus itself,’ because ‘participation in moral discourse deepens, broadens, and extends [people’s] capacity to make responsible moral judgments’ themselves. Striving for healthier, more respectful conversation will yield fruit, not just because it will move us toward mutual understanding and possibly substantial agreement, but because it will teach us how to think ethically, as individuals and as a society.”
Again, in concert with these other voices, the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, commissioned by the PC(USA) General Assembly, concluded its report to the 217th General Assembly (2006), saying, “The task force is convinced that the world is watching the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other denominations as we engage in highly publicized debates. To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together—our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ—is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”
The Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force recommended, among other things, that the 217th General Assembly “urge governing bodies, congregations, and other groups of Presbyterians to follow the example of the task force and other groups that, in the face of difficult issues, have engaged in processes of intensive discernment through worship, community building, study, and collaborative work,” and “direct the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, and urge those who plan and moderate meetings of other governing bodies, to explore the use of alternative forms of discernment preliminary to decision-making, especially in dealing with potentially divisive issues.”
Doing business and bearing witness
We believe that a large part of our witness as a Christian body depends upon the manner in which we relate to one another. If we try to speak a prophetic word when we do not have our own house in order, our witness will be ineffective, at best, and may even undermine the gospel we proclaim. In our culture of national politics and pervasive media coverage, we seem to have become enamored with speaking loud words at the national level. In contrast to this GA-level approach, the Foothills overtures are grounded in the belief that we are better able to discern our witness in conversations that are cultivated at the local level. Would we not be better served by an ACSWP that utilizes our energies and resources generating intentional acts of discernment among the presbyteries of our denomination? Rather than appointing task forces that meet several times, removed from their communities, to discuss papers and write statements, we believe God is calling us to do the hard work of dialogue in our actual Presbyterian communities in a way that will transform the church.
It is this dialogue at the local level that appears to be largely missing from our discernment process. We need leaders at all levels of the church who are committed to getting Presbyterians of diverse perspectives to sit down together in real communities to discern God’s work of social justice in those particular places. It is our conviction that these conversations have the potential to generate a whole host of social policy statements and commensurate actions that, while perhaps less publicized in national media, might make a more substantive impact in the long run on both the church and society.
We acknowledge the paucity of these local conversations in our own ministry experience and claim our share of the responsibility for this dearth of rigorous dialogue. Given this great need, our vision is of an ACSWP that serves as a conversation facilitator that more actively engages more Presbyterians in the important work of developing social witness policy and enables the broad spectrum of the church to participate in the social witness dialogue. In short, we would like an ACSWP that is as “Big Tent” as our denomination aspires to be.
MIKE HOYT is the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He has served congregations in Virginia and Pennsylvania. He is one of the conveners of the GA Reform Group in Foothills Presbytery.