They argue with passion.
They do so in close proximity.
They hang around after the debate is done.
I wish we could avoid the arguing. I would have preferred that this year’s General Assembly not launch us on a year of arguing for and against a proposed amendment to the Constitution. The new language — emphasizing obedience to Jesus Christ, according to the witness of Scripture — summarizes well the standards that ought to be binding on all church ministers and officers. But its ratification would erase the specific requirement that they live “in fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” That lack of specificity, as they say, breeds “fighting words.”
As a result, in order to rally votes to win their point, proponents and opponents of the change will paint the patina of glory on their own position and exploit all possible flaws in the other position.
That can get ugly. It doesn’t have to get ugly.
We can thank the Assembly for doing us a favor on at least one level. Folks at various points in the debate have argued that the voices in the pew need to be heard. Some believe the folks back home want to retain the traditional standard. Others believe they want to be more inclusive. It has been seven years since our last referendum. Now those voices will be heard.
We also can utilize the art of conversation that we’ve been cultivating these past few years. The efforts of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church (of which I was a member) did pay off. Many of us have befriended ministry colleagues we used to dismiss as opponents. We need not shelve those friendships.
But we do need to make the case for what we believe important, and we need to do so contextually, that is, where the others, the open-to-be-persuaded folks, live. To do so we need to be appealing, not offensive; magnetic, not repulsive; understandable, not obtuse; humble, not haughty. In fact, we need to make more new friends! That’s a very good thing.
So how shall we make our case? Let’s utilize the congressional way.
Listen in to those Capitol debates and you’ll hear the pressing for logic, appealing to the heart, arresting of emotions, quoting of experts, even verses of Scripture — the tools of the passionate persuaders.
But they persuade in close proximity. That hasn’t come easily for us Presbyterians. We’ve cast our votes in presbytery meetings, which gather just a few times per year. Most of our time has been spent in our own congregations, which can drift so far apart that they become islands unto themselves. With the help of conferences, phone calls, e-mail, and the Web, we’ve discovered and aligned ourselves with allies around the denomination, gravitating into ideological continents. We’ve talked to our friends and withdrawn from our opponents. Eventually we’ve arrived at a presbytery meeting, and our for-or-against argument has launched a string of ICBMs — Ideologically Contemptuous Bullet-point Monologues.
Can we not engage in conversations long before casting our votes? Just as the big congressional issues may be discussed for days or even weeks prior to the vote being taken, it behooves us to invest ourselves in conversations and dialogue around the matters at hand. In all probability only a few minds will be changed, but many misunderstandings and misjudgments can be corrected. And a plethora of insights and learnings await those willing to engage such a conversation.
Then there’s that other aspect of Congressional deliberation — they stick together after the debate is done. No matter how high the stakes (and theirs get measured in the trillions of dollars and the waging of foreign wars), they stay put to discuss and debate another day. Some decisions even get reversed. But the losers don’t pick up their toys and stomp out the door. Whether they enjoy the privilege of majority status, or operate as a loyal opposition hoping to reverse direction, they don’t shrug off the others. If that group of folks, with their 19% favorability rating, can muster that level of perseverance and mutual grace, can’t we do at least as much?