— to ask itself about the theological and historical underpinnings of the church’s faith and its divisions, and to ask of Presbyterians to find out what’s happening in their congregations or their denomination that gives them hope or makes them mad. Among the questions they may ask:
• What do you hope the task force will address?
• Has your presbytery, synod or congregation experienced helpful ways of building relationships across divisive issues?
In one concrete action, the task force — which is due to report back to the church in 2005 — did write a mission statement for its work. It states that:
“The task force, led by the Holy Spirit, will seek to discover a basis for peace, unity and purity that advances the traditions of Christian and Reformed theology and Presbyterian government and responds to current issues that divide the church. The task force will use a process of consultation and discernment that can lead the whole church to a renewed sense of identity and mission.”
Part of the difficulty for the task force is that its mandate, given by last summer’s General Assembly in creating the group, is huge: to lead the PC(USA) “in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries and congregations seeking the peace, unity and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power.”
The task force already has set up sub-groups that are breaking off particular issues to examine — and which are working between meetings to prepare resources and study materials for the whole group.
This time around, the task force spent time talking about how ways to check the pulse of the PC(USA) — to listen to the concerns of the people — perhaps through an interactive Web site. Other ideas include visiting some Presbyterian seminaries and colleges or attending youth retreats to talk with young Presbyterians and future leaders of the denomination; initiating conversations and experimental focus groups at this summer’s General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio; and sending some of its members to consultations that John Detterick, the General Assembly Council’s executive director, and Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, already have scheduled with presbyteries and synods across the country.
But much of the committee’s conversation centered on the difficulty of knowing what to ask — figuring out how to focus their work, knowing that they have limited time and much is expected of them.
They did pencil in some ideas for where to go next — deciding, for example, to consider the theological and historical underpinnings of the current difficulties together, because of their connections. Among the kinds of questions the task force might discuss — although these are still being worked on, no decisions were made — are things such as “How do we understand Jesus Christ’s role in humanity’s salvation?” and “How do we live together as a connectional church, trusting governing bodies to make faithful and appropriate decisions for the good of the whole church?”
The theological and historical questions still are being refined, although at its next meeting, Aug. 1-3, the group does expect to discuss the nature of the Trinity and how the character of being a denomination has changed in contemporary life. Many Christians used to count on their denominations to provide curriculum materials and send missionaries and provide almost all the resources churches need — but that all has changed, said Jack Haberer, pastor of Clear Lake church, Houston. Now, many local congregations and renewal groups do their own mission work and people connect outside the denominational structure through interest groups and the Internet. Pentecostal and nondenominational churches are growing, and there’s a rise of secularism and a loss of “brand-loyalty” to the denominations.
At this meeting, the group did Bible study and theological reflection on “Who is God?” and “What is the mission of the people of God?” (“I expect there would be less rancor in the church if we consistently referred to these two things,” William Stacy Johnson, a theologian from Princeton Seminary, suggested.)
Mike Loudon, pastor at First church, Lakeland, Fla., who led part of the Bible study, said the issue of “Who is God?” is “an enormous question. “Not everybody who believes in God seems to know who God is,” Loudon said, with images ranging from a kindly, twinkling guy like Santa Claus to a determined corporate executive, from a Harry Potter wizard to a visionary architect of the universe.
Regularly, the task force broke up into small groups to talk about issues like these — later reporting back on their conversations. Some spoke of strict, doctrinal interpretations of the Trinity reducing the complexity of God, and how Scripture says that God does unexpected things, is bigger than rewarding us when we’re good and punishing us when we’re bad, is powerful enough to surprise us, is full of mystery. Despite our sinning and falling short, they said, God doesn’t abandon us. “God is not indifferent,” said Milton (Joe) Coalter, a professor at Louisville Seminary. Joan Kelley Merritt, and elder from Seattle, said some in her group spoke of “the divine persistence of God.”
How to hear God’s voice, how to know when one truly is being led by the Holy Spirit, was another question the task force explored. Led by Sarah Grace Sanderson, a student at McCormick Seminary, and “Vicky Curtiss, co-pastor at Collegiate church, Ames, Iowa, the task force learned about the process of “spiritual discernment,” an approach of cultivating prayerful attentiveness and sometimes of making decisions that’s used in spiritual formation. (This conversation took part in a broader context — of finding ways for the task force to build consensus and reaching decisions that may not always follow strict parliamentary procedure.)
“Discernment doesn’t replace or substitute for theological or biblical study and reflection” — it’s just one tool to use in trying to follow God’s leadings, Sanderson told the task force members. The confessions speak repeatedly of “the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” she said, and John Calvin wrote of God continually revealing God to people who continue in faith.
Some on the task force expressed discomfort at the approach — with both Jong Hyeong Lee, pastor of Hanmee church, Itasca, Ill., and Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Seminary, asking where the Bible fits in. “We don’t ever want to be seeking an inner voice that disregards Scripture, we are people of the Word,” Sanderson said. “The Scriptures inform us,” Curtiss said. “In silence, there may be a word of Scripture that comes to us.”
So the group spent some time in silence, reflecting on the question of “What are God’s yearnings for our church in this time?” and later sharing some of the words and images that had come to them.
“Repent, respond and renew,” Loudon said.
“We can do all things through Christ,” said Jose Luis Torres-Milan, pastor of Tercera Iglesia Presbiteriana, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
“I saw a vision of people who are weeping and confused,” for whom their church has become a torment, Coalter said. “There is no assurance the Presbyterian church will continue. I believe the church of Jesus Christ is never in jeopardy.”
Afterwards, Johnson said that “I’m not convinced that anything will emerge from an hour sitting and contemplating” without some prior theological and historical work being done. But he does want to focus on some “nonconflictual ways” of making decisions — adding later that there are ways of building consensus even when some differences of opinion remain.
The task force also is clearly aware that the church is watching over its shoulder and expecting things from it.
Already, for example, overtures have been submitted to this year’s General Assembly asking the task force to clarify issues raised by the Confessing Church Movement or that the Assembly declare a “period of grace,” in which people would try to keep actions related to the issues before the task force out of the church courts during the time the task force was at work. Two of the three nominees (to date) for moderator of the next General Assembly — Jerry Tankersley and Laird Stuart, both of California — came to Texas to observe the task force’s deliberations.
“This group has been much contemplated, speculated about,” prayed for, written about, studied and watched, John Wilkinson, pastor of Third church, Rochester, N.Y., told the group.
“I come to these meetings with great joy and hope and anticipation, and a lot of anxiety,” said task force co-moderator Gary Demarest of California. There is pressure from a troubled church to produce something quickly, he acknowledged, adding: “We will leave this room without having taken a single vote, and that seems almost heretical.”
But Coalter cautioned that for the task force to communicate anything to the broader church, it first must decide what its mandate is — what exactly it wants to accomplish — or “what are we communicating about?” Coalter urged the group to develop some clear questions to explore and to establish an order in which to consider them — “a kind of gravity” for its discussion of the controversies within the PC(USA)— and to consider “are there other ways we can live together,” despite their differences.
What the church doesn’t need is another study, another rehashing of the issues — but it does hope for some clarity on fundamental issues, some easing of the tension, Wilkinson said. And “this group I think does not want to propose an amicable separation” of the denomination, he said. “We believe that somehow God wants to hold it together.”
Before closing in prayer, Frances Taylor Gench, a New Testament professor at Union-PSCE, said that Jesus gave his followers, before he was killed, a most difficult instruction: to love one another. Jesus didn’t say to be the same, but to “all be one” in unity with him, Gench said (adding that she’s delighted to know that in heaven, “my father’s mansion has many rooms” — she might be living right next door to those with whom she disagrees, but not have to share the same room).
It isn’t easy, Gench said. But how Christians show love for one another, even when they can’t agree, may be their best living testimony of God’s divine love for all the world. .