In a time of intense partisan division in the United States, when many people of faith are trying to determine what to say and do, NEXT Church has released a new confessional statement.
It’s a document encompassing lament, hope and conviction – an attempt to speak theologically both to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to the world beyond.
“We are people of hope who confess Jesus Christ is Lord over a Kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone,” the document’s preamble states. “All sit together around a shared table, wolves and lambs enjoy each other’s company, and every tear is wiped away from every eye.”
The authors – eight ministers who work in a variety of contexts (including one, Katherine Lee Baker, from the Reformed Church in America) – met for an intense 24 hours in Sarasota, Florida, in January to craft the statement (following up with a few Skype calls). They say they hope Presbyterians will use language from this new confession, released March 14 and titled “The Sarasota Statement,” to form prayers and shape liturgy in worship.
Another hope: that church sessions and small groups (adult Sunday school classes or youth groups, for example) will study the document, and perhaps use the ideas it presents as a springboard to write their own confessional statements for a troubled time.
The idea came from Brandon Frick, associate pastor at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, Maryland, who wrote an article in the Outlook in November, suggesting that it’s time for the PC(USA) to write a Reformed confession for the 21st century.
“It feels like a time when everybody that I know in the church is really struggling with how to interpret this cultural moment and the human condition,” said Jessica Tate, executive director of NEXT Church and part of the confession writing team.
“The level of division and disconnection in the country seems really high, the level of fracturing into like-minded groups,” Tate said. “It feels important right now to have some kind of common word that is seeking to rise above the fray a little bit and say our faith is not grounded in what’s happening in the democratic process in the United States. Our faith is in Jesus Christ.”
Frick said the idea “had been percolating for a really long time,” all through the contentious presidential campaign, as he thought about how Presbyterians could speak theologically in a time of such political, racial and economic division. The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, a friend whose husband is an immigrant called at 6 a.m., worried about her family and deportation. A friend who is lesbian texted him this question: “What now?”
Frick kept wondering, “What can I as a pastor do to reach out to all these folks this morning who feel rejected, who feel unincluded? Who feel as though millions of people don’t want anything to do with them – and a lot of those people are here in the church.”
At a prayer service at his church the night following the election, 70 people turned up. “There was just so much bitterness, so much anger through the election season,” Frick said, and with hate crimes being reported daily, he thought a confession might be a way to speak a counter-narrative of hope.
“My hopes are that within a local context, that it gives people language,” he said. “This is not like a protest letter against Donald Trump. … It’s meant to address a larger picture than the last six months.”
These eight ministers aren’t attempting to write a confession on behalf of the PC(USA) – that’s a process that would involve the General Assembly and much broader participation. They are, however, asking Presbyterians to think about the idea and the value of writing new grassroots confessions speaking to the realities of the current times. In late 2016, Frick took his idea of writing something quickly to a colleague in the NEXT Church leadership. The NEXT strategy team approved the idea; the Presbyterian Foundation provided funding for the Sarasota gathering.
This new Sarasota Statement is the result.
Why write a confession now? “I think we’re at a pivotal moment,” said Cynthia Rigby, another of the authors and a professor of theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “We’re about to come up on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation,” and in an increasingly globalized and technologically based society, both community and church are changing. “Everyone is carrying their communities around with them on their iPhones.”
There’s a shifting understanding both of how the church connects to the communion of saints through the ages, as well as “all over the world and through space and time,” Rigby said. And the current time is one of fearfulness for many, she said – for some, fearing that the world they’ve known and the prospect of good jobs are slipping away; for others, fear of not having health care or of environmental damage or racial and religious intolerance or not having enough to eat.
In that global climate, what does it mean for the church to speak about hope? First, “we need to apologize for the ways in which the church has caused harm through the ages,” Rigby said. There’s a call “for Christians to live differently in the world.”
Rigby said she hopes Presbyterians will use the Sarasota statement – that they’ll study it, argue about it, maybe disagree with it, pull out pieces of it to use liturgically.
“If it’s in any way helpful for people to think about who we are as Christians, who are part of the community of faith through the ages and at this particular moment, then I think it will have been worth our time and our energy, she said. “I truly hope it models speaking boldly and with conviction, and with humility at the same time.”
Layton Williams, a 30-year-old bisexual who works at Sojourners magazine and who was also part of the writing team, said she wanted to be sure the intent was “not to smooth things over but to really wrestle with how we show up theologically” – that “we’re going to struggle with the hard stuff.”
Williams said she hopes the document will speak not only to Presbyterians, but to those outside the church as well. “My personal opinion is the public perspective on Christianity is not very positive, and I want my church, my denomination, to offer a counter-witness to that, that really comes down on the side of justice.”
Read the Sarasota Statement.