Click here for General Assembly coverage

‘A Sacred Trust’

For more than 50 years, The Presbyterian Outlook and its predecessor publications worked passionately for the reunion of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A./United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church, U.S. -- the Southern branch separated from the main body since 1861. Year after year, patiently and persistently, our editors worked through individual Presbyterians, North and South, and through the governing bodies of the church to make reunion possible.

The quest for reunion of the two denominations was not driven by political motivations, though these were always present. Nor was it driven by hopes of practical advantages to be gained in doing mission as one church rather than as two in the same nation, though these were frequently mentioned in the debates over the years.

No, the real reason that several generations of our forbears labored long and hard for the reunion of most American Presbyterians into one ecclesiastical body — accomplished in 1983 — was the deep and abiding conviction that it was God’s will that there be one, not two Presbyterian churches. This vision, in turn, was rooted in Christ’s words in John 17 (v.22, NRSV), “. . . so they may be one,” and a broader, deeper Spirit-directed impulse to realize the unity of Christ’s church across all boundaries.

Hopes were high in 1983 for the future of the new church, but the last 17 years of living through reunion have been tough going. Enormous resources were poured into bringing two denominational structures together and reorganizing many of the pieces into new patterns — several times. Unfortunately, over the same period ideological/theological battles over issues such as nuclear weapons, Central America, abortion and homosexuality absorbed much of the energy that was left.

The complex mix of perspectives and motives that have driven these ideological/theological conflicts have now congealed to form two organized camps, each vying with the other for the prize of representing the will of the majority of Presbyterians.

So here we are in the first days of a new century, a new millennium, with each side — in fact representing only a minority of Presbyterians — dug in and armed to the teeth, bristling for a fight to end all fights at the upcoming meeting of the General Assembly.

The final strategies remain undecided. Some are hoping to drive their opposition out of the church; some wish to buy them off through the gift of title to church property; others are hoping that their opposition will simply get tired of fighting and leave. At all costs, however, the goal is that one side will win and the other side will lose.

In light of this situation, the current editorial leadership of The Presbyterian Outlook regards it as a sacred trust to communicate to the whole church what is going on, and where it may well lead. Unless those with a different vision intervene, there may well be continued discord and, perhaps, a big, ugly split.

In light of this, The Outlook also regards it as a sacred trust, honoring our mothers and fathers in the faith who so recently struggled faithfully and for so long to bring this church together, to work day in and day out to keep it together — if God will grant us that grace.

None of us has a straight channel to precisely where God is directing us, which, as in so many matters, necessarily remains largely hidden from us. Nevertheless, it is the presumption here that until and unless events prove otherwise, it is God’s will that the ministers, officers and members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stay together; that we are called to work earnestly together in the coming years to hold the slowly unraveling fabric of the church together. We can do no less in this century than those who preceded us in the last century to pray and work and strive for reconciliation — the bringing of all sides of the church together

If indeed it is God’s will that we stay together — and by the light of Scripture we believe it is — then, we are looking at a process of many year’s duration. It will take as long for God to bring healing to this body, sick and dysfunctional, as it did to achieve reunion.

If there is no interest or commitment among those asserting leadership in the church for such a decades-long process — a process that may well last longer than the lives of any of us now living — then the cynics among us are correct that our work for unity in Christ will end in defeat. Perhaps in chastened prudence, we can only concede that defeat now and achieve as orderly and as amicable a separation as possible.

If this be the dismal path we choose, so be it. Yet let no one claim that it has been the gospel his or her efforts at division have been serving.

But if, on the other hand, there be hearts and minds within the church who share the deep conviction that the unity of this great denomination is worth fighting for, if it is possible for a movement of unity to emerge that could lead us toward a higher end, then now is the time to step up and be counted.

There’s not a lot of time left. This is an urgent appeal to that party, if it be present in this house divided — that desires neither side in the present controversy to win at the cost of the other’s demise and, conversely, neither side to lose. We ask you to come forward and to refuse to allow others to put asunder what God has joined together. That party can make itself known and felt in the voting taking place on Amendment O in the presbyteries this winter and spring, and in the 213th General Assembly meeting in Louisville in June.

There is so much more to the gospel than what we are making of it.


Send your comment on this editorial to The Outlook.
Please give your hometown and state the subject of the viewpoint you are replying to.