The Center Findint Its Voice

Is the center -- the 75-80 percent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) between the theological/ideological ends of the spectrum -- finally finding its voice? The actions of the 212th General Assembly which recently concluded in Long Beach, Calif., indicate a new self-consciousness on the part of the great majority of Presbyterians and new possibilities for moving forward in faithfulness to our calling.

Moderator Syngman Rhee, once pilloried by The Presbyterian Layman as a Communist sympathizer, was nominated by a member of the board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee. This action affirmed that there is no chasm in today’s church that cannot be healed by Jesus Christ to those open to the work of the Holy Spirit. Rhee’s nominator, Rebecca McElroy, whom he named vice moderator, disagrees with Rhee about many issues but nothing can separate the two of them from the love of God in Christ Jesus, their common Lord — and ours. Furthermore, the announcement that individuals associated with the groups involved on both sides of the ongoing discussions that threaten to divide us plan to have a retreat together is an encouraging step.

The re-election of Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick by an overwhelming majority was a strong vote of confidence in our national church leadership. Kirkpatrick and John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council, together are modeling the way a national church bureaucracy can be led effectively by people of faith, competence and good will.

The Assembly’s reaffirmation of its ecumenical commitments through votes of confidence and continued funding of the work of the National and World councils of churches demonstrates the fundamental Presbyterian commitment to ecumenism, at the same time the General Assembly Council’s restrictions on the NCC bailout grant indicate that there must be accountability. The votes to conduct bilateral talks with the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church and the Cumberland churches also indicate a continuing desire to heal divisions within the Christian family.

The resolutions condemning the violence in Indonesia and Pakistan are in the best tradition of Presbyterian statements lifting up pressing concerns of the world.

The referral of the matter of proper recognition of church educators back to the GAC for further work, does not indicate a rejection of the legitimate aspirations of those called to this specialized ministry in the life of the church, but rather a recognition that we must continue to work toward justice for this group, at the same time maintaining the integrity of our theology of ordination.

The discussions and decisions related to human sexuality reveal a church struggling to be faithful to the will of God as expressed in Jesus Christ, Scripture and the confessions of the church, at the same time recognizing that the world is changing — more rapidly than ever — and that the church must re-examine traditional doctrines in light of new realities. The Assembly approved continuation of the current sexuality curriculum, as mandated by the action of a previous Assembly, until a new one can be produced. However, the Assembly directed reference to Scripture and the confessions in the revising of the curriculum.

The decision to delay consideration of all overtures relating to ordination to the next Assembly affirmed the value of continuing the churchwide discussion on the difficult, highly divisive issue of homosexuality, before attempting further legislation on that matter. But as was the case with the so-called Amendment B, embodying the fidelity, chastity requirement for church officers, the Assembly reluctantly — and by a close vote — approved an amendment to the Directory of Worship that would make it clear that same-sex unions are not to be blessed by Presbyterian ministers in Presbyterian churches. This was done solely because the church’s courts have said that amending the Constitution is the only way that the church can make explicit current majority understandings of God’s will in human sexuality.

The Assembly’s passage of this proposed amendment, which must be approved by a majority of the 173 of the presbyteries to become part of the Constitution, guarantees a full year of debate on the church’s understanding of marriage, the blessing of same-sex unions and the appropriate role of Presbyterian ministers and churches in the latter.

The 212th General Assembly made it crystal clear that this church is not about to start talking about schism — yet. The proposal to amend the “Book of Order” flatly to prohibit same-sex unions, however, will test Presbyterians’ will to stay together in the body of Christ — whatever the outcome.

The center of the church is finding its voice. It is not loud and angry, but attempting to be both faithful and compassionate. Church governing bodies, in their search for God’s will, can err. But critical judgments about faith and life must, nonetheless, be made.

In this year of decision, the whole church should maintain an attitude of prayerful humility as together we seek God’s will in our time.

Line What’s your opinion? Please give your name and hometown, and state the subject of this editorial. Thank you.