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The Outlook speaks with Robert Austell Jr.

Outlook: In your opinion, what is the most significant matter coming before this General Assembly, and how do you propose that the assembly respond to it?

austell jrRA: Marriage equality? Divestment? Restructuring Mid Councils? Amending our confessions? These are all significant matters, but I believe the most significant matter before us is not in an overture or special report as such.

The most significant matter coming to the Assembly is the same one that lives in our presbyteries and congregations; it is the division among us. And the division in our fellowship has an even more significant consequence — the compromise of our mission and witness for Christ.

In the questions that follow, I will propose how the Assembly might respond to what I believe is a crisis, but I believe the first step is naming and facing the crisis and each of us taking responsibility for our part in it. Truth and justice are vital, but without a living, breathing Christian unity, I believe we have become like the clanging gong of 1 Corinthians 13.

Outlook: What do you believe are the causes of conflict in the PC(USA), and what do you hope this General Assembly will do to help bring resolution?

RA: The problem is not that we disagree but HOW we disagree. Our language is extreme: “apostate … hateful … schismatic … hell-bound … liar … heretic ….” We compound language with behavior, withdrawing into camps and isolating ourselves from one another.

I believe we have misidentified our “enemy.” Our enemy isn’t the person who votes differently; that differently voting person professing faith in Jesus Christ is family. Our true enemy, so says Scripture, is not flesh and blood at all.

What do I hope this assembly will do? Like the talk you will hear of “missional church,” I’m not sure what we will do is the right question, but rather who we will be. Who will we be to each other? Who will we be before the Lord Jesus Christ? Who will we be as one part of the authentic church? Who will we be as witnesses before the watching world?

Outlook: In your opinion, what is the most urgent need in the PC(USA) over the next five years?

RA: Our lack of unity is the underlying issue for the PC(USA). It bears a terrible fruit and that is a poor witness to the watching world. I believe our primary mission is to worship and serve God in the world. In order to do that with grace, truth, justice and love, we must cultivate the “fellowship of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.”

God’s story, from beginning to end, is a testimony of God pursuing a broken world in love. We are called to be part of that, from the Good News we share to the acts of mercy, kindness and justice that we do.

A winsome, evangelistic, mercy-filled WITNESS to God’s redeeming love is our most urgent mission. We need to get re-focused on being the church in the world for God’s sake and glory (It is our chief end!).

Outlook: What are your goals for your moderatorial years, and what strengths do you bring to the task?

RA: As moderator of the PC(USA) I will model the kind of unity that doesn’t sweep debate or dialogue under the rug, but invites it in the context of mutual respect, friendship, and shared mission.

I cherish friendships and ministry partnerships with folks who don’t vote (or look or think) like I do. I invited one such colleague, the Rev. Kate Murphy, to be the leadoff presenter opposite me for our presbytery’s debate over Amendment 10a. We not only spoke respectfully and passionately to the issue, but demonstrated to our fellow presbyters what an honest conversation between friends in Christ can look like. That same year the presbytery asked us to serve as moderator and vice-moderator of (the) presbytery’s council.

My significant hope is that we can grow in maturity and unity to more faithfully serve and honor Jesus Christ in the world.