There was a time 50 years ago, when the meeting of the General Assembly in any of the three denominations constituting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today could have, in a certain sense, been considered a ceremony of covenant renewal.
Understandings of the faith, our heritage, our polity, our mission were not nearly so divided then as they seem to be now. In fact, these days we might speak of fragmentation, since there are so many groups operating at so many points on the spectrum. True, there was then the major divide between “liberal” and “conservative,” going back to the latter part of the 19th century, but somehow, at least it seems so to this observer, there was more cohesion, more consensus about who we were and what we were called to do.
Let’s openly recognize it. Along with what was gained in this reunion, some things were lost. General Assemblies, for example, in the context of the much larger reunited Presbyterian Church, are characterized by anonymity. We no longer sense that in our annual meeting we have some representation of the larger family. It seems now much more impersonal, like a secular convention, a three-ring circus, the parts largely disconnected, and always lots of noise.
Hence, the GA last year made the decision to go to biennial Assemblies. A good one? Time will tell; and that decision may yet be reversed. But a strong case can be made for testing the new approach for a time, and offering alternative opportunities for gathering in the off-years, and trying to increase the number of gatherings — formal and informal — at all levels. Perhaps the GA itself, in the off-years, could provide models for the rest of the church on how best to build community, to build up the body of Christ.
There will need to be much emphasis on worship; small groups, Bible-centered and/or issue-related; fellowship activities; reflection times (individual, small groups, plenaries); time for the Spirit to work and to speak through our voices, without the divisive business of constant voting, winners and losers, etc.
There is a time for voting, but there is also a time for nurture and mutual support, and perhaps alternative modes of being together, already modeled in conference centers, could become a significant means for collectively renewing the covenant, with God and among ourselves.
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