PORTLAND, Ore. – The new co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, Jan Edmiston and Denise Anderson, spoke of the 104 weeks in which they will lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – the time until the 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis.
They promised to lead the church both humbly, and unafraid to speak what needs to be spoken. The remarks of all the candidates for co-moderator – Anderson and Edmiston, along with David Parker and Adan Mairena – shine light on challenges ahead for the PC(USA).
Being relevant in context. Asked to describe an experience with failure in ministry, Mairena told of moving from working in ministry at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian church, in the affluent Main Line section of Philadelphia, to the West Kensington Ministry at Norris Square, in one of the city’s impoverished neighborhoods. West Kensington Ministry is in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia, in a zip code where hunger is a daily concern for many.
Mairena said he moved “from a place of abundance to a place of scarcity,” yet “I walked around the neighborhood in a suit and a tie or a sport coat, thinking ‘this is what it means to be a Christian’ ” and a pastor. Staring at him, people asked if he was a developer or from the district attorney’s office. “The mistake I made was in not being relevant” to those with whom he was called to be in ministry, Mairena said.
The challenge: how many Presbyterians are trying to work in ministry with people who are different than they are in economics, race, age, culture, or background? What mistakes of context will they make?
Churches leaving the PC(USA). Asked what they would say to congregations or Presbyterians considering leaving the PC(USA) for other denominations, Parker said he would tell them: “This is one of the very few places where people who disagree can come together and discuss the issues … disagree respectfully,’ and then break bread together, both at the Communion table and in community. He would say: “Please stay, because you cannot discern the will of God unless you hear a voice of disagreement,” a view that’s different from your own.
Anderson said she wants those churches to stay, but understands that sometimes people feel called to go elsewhere. What matters is that “Christ is glorified,” she said. If that happens, “you go with my blessing. … The church will still go on, and Christ will still be its head.”
Racism and inequality. Anderson spoke of the pervasiveness and enduring quality of racism, and the need “for radical reconciliation that can only occur among equals.” Presbyterians need training in white privilege and systemic racism, she said. Share stories of race, and really listen to one another, Edmiston said. Pray with and for each other.
Young adults. Mairena said half his congregation is in their teens and 20s, living in a violent neighborhood, and “young people are hungry for what life means” and for connection. “Let’s read Scripture and let’s learn from each other. Let’s not just give them pizza and take them roller skating. … Let’s give them our personal time and let’s value them.”
Presbyterian churches need to “stop addressing youth ministry as babysitting,” Anderson said.
Young adults are not cute, “they’re really smart,” Edmiston said. Children are “little theologians,” she added.
Patriarchal language. Young adult advisory delegate Grace Segers of the Presbytery of Long Island asked about patriarchal language – how to balance between the patriarchal tradition and a message of inclusion in liturgy and prayer.
Scripture uses a variety of images, Edmiston said, including feminine ones. Saint Augustine writes that God is above and beyond space and time, “God is all things,” Parker said.
Anderson sometimes writes her own liturgies, mixing the images “so we get an opportunity to see God reflected in the feminine. She spoke of her valuing “the mamas, the grandmothers, the aunties and the good girlfriends whose shoulders you can cry on” – how she sees God in that.
And Parker – former chair of the Democratic party in North Carolina – spoke directly of the political. All the rights that have been won by women and people of color, he said, are “as fragile as one Congressional vote away.”
How will being co-moderators work? For the first time, the assembly will have co-moderators, rather than a moderator and vice-moderator. This will be a learning experience, both for Anderson and Edmiston, and for the church. During a news conference following the election, Edmiston said she and Anderson will try to model what the PC(USA) itself is like, “serving as partners” and figuring it out as they go along.
Anderson described their interactions this way: “Jan is the thinker. I am the speaker. Neither of us are strangers to the quill.”
Also, “we expect to make mistakes,” she said.
And: “We expect it to be a blessing.”
And: “We expect it to be fun.”
They always circled back to hope.
“I have great faith,” Edmiston said when asked about the financial and staffing difficulties of presbyteries and synods. “I do not fear what is going to happen in the future. It makes me excited, not afraid.”