Why These Priorities?

With much rhetorical wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, the Presbyterian publications are full of letters and articles lamenting the process and the result by which the General Assembly Council finally got around, 17 years after reunion, to doing some of what we promised to do at the end of the first year.

The results of the priority-setting process are remarkably similar to those that came forth in the consultation after reunion. That process, in which all the presbyteries and synods participated in 3,000 sessions, was carefully and directly ignored in the setting up of our mission work as a reunited church.

Now we hear much moaning and groaning because “spiritual formation” and the “Washington Office” and other social justice aims appear low on the scale. I would dare to suggest, perhaps, that these do not represent either a theological or ideological bent, but that they recognize simple facts of life. According to the reports, these priorities are ranked by impact, not by virtue.

Most of us do not rank the impact of a category and program called “Spiritual Formation” very high, because we find the national structures, as well as many seminaries, are remarkably inept at doing it. What we get in the name of “spiritual” is watered-down Roman Catholic and Episcopalian piety. We get programs aimed at our emotion and our motivation, not at our mind and our will.

We Presbyterians have a lively history of spiritual development. It centers in the hard study of the Word, the discipline of daily prayer, the demands of sacrificial giving, catechetical instruction and plain unostentatious worship of a most Holy God. If that was offered as a resource to our church, it might be the highest priority. Some of us remember “Faith and Life, a curriculum for church and home . . . .” We loved it and no curriculum has been so universally used since. (Some remember “Covenant Life . . .” Pax editor.)

Perhaps our folk could discover the value and uses of small group ministries. Almost every pastor I know realizes how important these small groups are in the development of support and spiritual nurture. But when my session seeks resources for this ministry, do they go to our publications? No, of course not — they’re not there.

Similarly, the arm of the church directing social justice issues, in all its parts, has been so remarkably predictable and so rarely prophetic as to be less than useful. The answer to every problem given to us by the position reflected in Church and Society and the Washington office can always be found on the editorial pages of the New York Times or other establishment journals at least a month earlier.

Forty years later, they have yet to surprise me. I grant you that “The Republican Party at Prayer” was a judgment of our captivity by a tradition that often departed from Christian righteousness, but am I now to believe that the left wing of the Democratic Party always has the best answer to our problems?

Second only to its predictability is the lack of effect of the Washington office. I suggest you quietly speak to the staff of your legislators and see how effective they believe our efforts are on the national level.

In both these areas important work is being done. For example, Centurion Ministries and the Prison Fellowship are doing remarkable things in prison ministries. I do not see our place among them, though many of their participants are Presbyterians.

In the current maelstrom around contemporary worship, have you seen from our family any insightful leadership to pastors and sessions struggling to meet the culture with faithfulness to the Scripture and tradition in which we stand? I have not. I find independent voices offering trenchant criticism and useful correctives, but I still have an 1,100-page book that helps me be an inadequate Anglican. (Caveat: the piece by Kathleen Norris in Presbyterians Today for Advent is an excellent example of what daily prayer and family worship should be about.)

Rather than rant loud enough to make the GAC pour more financial sand down our favorite knothole, let us compliment the council for looking with hard standards at what is helpful, useful, faithful to our confessional stance, prophetic in leadership in the world; and helps us in upbuilding the kingdom in the lives of our people. Let us make sure what we do is competent, before we lament its passing.


CHARLES AINLEY HAMMOND is interim pastor of First church, Salt Lake City.

J. Paul Frelick’s opinion: Grading Evangelism and Discipleship

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