I am certain that I am not alone in occasionally wondering whether the whole notion of Protestant denominations is an anachronism; that maybe the elaborate denominational structures and traditions that evolved over the last 500 years or so have served their purpose and should now fade away. An even more disconcerting thought is that maybe trying to hold on to and preserve our denomination actually hinders what the Holy Spirit calls us to do and be.
But even as I start down that road of pondering, my heart – and mind – tell me that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a remarkable and precious institution, the living representation of a unique theological tradition that has had an important impact on world history, particularly the history of the United States of America. Its disappearance would be a tragic loss. Invariably, this reasoning prevails in my ongoing mental dialogue.
My first experience with a General Assembly was an eye-opener and unforgettable. The old Crawfordsville Presbytery in Indiana elected me to be one of the clergy commissioners to the 1970 assembly in Chicago.
I had grown up in a home where going to church, a Presbyterian church, was simply what we did on Sunday morning. I don’t recall that there was ever a conversation about it, nor do I remember learning anything about what it meant to be a Presbyterian. My limited vision expanded a little when I was sent off to summer church camp and met campers and clergy counselors from other Presbyterian churches in the Huntington Presbytery. My vision expanded again when the Princeton Seminary choir visited our church and sang on Sunday morning during worship. Princeton! I was an avid reader of sports pages in our local newspaper and knew that a Princeton football player named Dick Kazmaier had won the Heisman Trophy, meaning he was the best college football player in the country. When the choir visited and I learned that Princeton was a Presbyterian school, I automatically linked Presbyterian with Princeton with football with Dick Kazmaier with the Heisman Trophy. I was suddenly proud to be a Presbyterian! My father patiently explained that Princeton Seminary was different from Princeton University, but it didn’t matter to me. It was just a technicality. We Presbyterians, in my mind, had produced an All-American halfback.
A huge expansion in my understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian occurred years later when my wife and I and our baby daughter first walked through the doors of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The church was located a few blocks from the University of Chicago where I had entered Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary a few weeks earlier. I was stunned by what I saw: English Gothic architecture and an elegant choir singing classical church music as beautifully as a professional ensemble. But it was the racially integrated congregation and clergy – an African American minister and a White minister – that took my breath away. It was the early days of the civil rights movement, and I had never seen anything like it. The word “racism” had just entered the common vocabulary. I got in a nasty and disappointing fight in college when the head of my national fraternity somehow heard that we were about to invite an African American student to join us and traveled from the fraternity’s national headquarters in Atlanta to tell us that we could not do such a thing. “Think of all your brothers in Mississippi and Alabama,” he said. I knew that something profoundly wrong was going on. So, what First Presbyterian Church of Chicago did struck me as very good and important and made me even more proud than I was about that Princeton football player years earlier.
One thing more: Those minsters wore clerical collars and Geneva bands. I had never seen anything like that either. When I inquired about Geneva bands, I learned that the church had a history, a long history, all the way back to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation.
After graduation and ordination, I was increasingly glad and grateful that I was part of a church that spoke clearly and acted courageously about racial justice; glad and grateful to see Presbyterian ministers involved in public demonstrations for justice. And when the head of the church, Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake, was arrested for demonstrating at a segregated amusement park, my Presbyterianism took on new depth, new meaning, new passion and inspiration. My sense of what church means had new content and context. The church is in the world, lives thoroughly in the world, cares deeply about what happens in the world. The Presbyterian Church acted in the spirit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian. In his classic The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer lays the theological foundation for a radical involvement in the world in the name of Jesus Christ, who himself was so profoundly involved in the world that the Roman Empire executed him for what the late civil rights advocate and congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Bonhoeffer wrote, “When he called men [and women] to follow him, Jesus was summoning them to a visible act of obedience.”
Bonhoeffer’s faith and commitment to a “worldly Christianity” led him to resist the Nazism of the Third Reich, and he even became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The attempt failed, Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators were arrested and held in Nazi prisons and Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, a few days before the end of World War II.
I had experienced the opposite of that radical, worldly Christianity. For years, I attended a big evangelical church on Sunday evenings with my next-door-neighbor chums. The world is a dreadful, sinful, fallen place full of temptations, they told me. The Christian life, following Jesus, they said, is lived apart from the world, apart from all those nasty temptations and sin. We sang a little ditty called “O, Be Careful” with verses cautioning children to be careful about what they see, hear, say and do, where they go, whom they trust and what they think, because God is always watching. Even singing along with gusto, I knew in my heart that there was something misguided about that. Besides, I rather loved the world and what I saw and heard.
The Presbyterian church knows that it is in the world, and that its life is lived not apart from but firmly, intentionally in the world — the world God so loves and into which God sent an only Son.
Fast forward to 1970. That General Assembly marked a real turning point in my growing appreciation for the Presbyterian church. It was a turbulent time, much like now, and everyone’s feelings were raw. The Vietnam War raged on as did anti-war sentiment, erupting in protest demonstrations all over the country. Not long before the assembly convened, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on demonstrating Kent State University students, killing four and wounding nine. The assembly met in Chicago, two years after the riots that occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The demonstrations had turned violent with ugly confrontations between demonstrators and Chicago police, with many arrests and many injuries. Some said it was a “police riot.”
The assembly was also just two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which prompted protests in many American cities that turned violent and destructive. In addition, there was a new awareness and new acknowledgment of poverty in America. Michael Harrington documented deeply ingrained systemic poverty in the nation in his best-selling book, The Other America. Additionally, a presidential commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 and chaired by former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner produced a widely read report observing that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The Kerner Commission Report clearly traced urban unrest to income inequity and systemic racism.
American culture was like a seething cauldron that summer of 1970. The Presbyterian Church dove all the way into it, and, as a first-time commissioner to General Assembly, I was both overwhelmed but also deeply grateful, proud and inspired. Demonstrations happened outside and inside the assembly. African American Presbyterians and their allies insisted that change must happen in public policy and in church structures and programs. Anti-war sentiment and a counterculture movement were expressed by an entity that called itself the Underground Church. A demonstration halted a business session of the assembly as Underground Church members “invaded” and “occupied” the assembly by parading down the center aisle of the large meeting room brandishing and shooting toy machine squirt guns, showering startled and very uncomfortable commissioners; some of the marchers openly smoked marijuana. Tension in the hall was high. The moderator of the assembly, William “Bill” Laws, displayed brilliant leadership and genuine grace by welcoming the “invaders” and inviting a spokesperson to join him on the platform. What ensued was memorable. The moderator gave the young man the microphone and invited him to address the assembly and to air his grievances. Bill Laws’ gentle strength and graciousness were disarming. The young man spoke briefly and Laws responded saying that the Presbyterian Church shares many of the Underground Church’s concerns, particularly about war and peace. The incident ended with a picture I have never forgotten of the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church with his arm around a young counterculture protester.
Assembly committees dealt with racism by listening, learning and recommitting the Presbyterian Church to racial justice. During committee discussions of poverty and the ongoing war in Vietnam, assembly officials invited the Nixon administration to address the church’s concerns. George Romney – former president and chair of American Motors, former governor of Michigan and then-current secretary of housing and urban development in the Nixon cabinet – flew to Chicago to address a special session of the assembly. There were overtures and resolutions and a unique and important response to systemic poverty. That assembly established and funded the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, which continues to do important work to this day.
As a result of my experience at that assembly, I gained a whole new vision of my denomination, new gratitude and, yes, pride in what the church does in the world — being a truly incarnational church, following its Lord in love and service to the world.
In the process, I fell in love with our history and the theological tradition behind it. That the church is called to live in the world is in our DNA. In 16th-century Geneva, as he worked out a Presbyterian way of being a church, John Calvin was, at the same time, deeply involved in the life and affairs of the city. Calvin became a major influence in Geneva’s political, economic and social life. In 1564, gravely ill and near death, he summoned the ministers of Geneva to his bedside for final words and to say farewell. Calvin challenged them: “Let every one consider the obligation which he has not only to this church but also to the city, which you have promised to serve …”
Two centuries later, a Presbyterian minister named John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence. A popular preacher in the Church of Scotland, Witherspoon, along with his wife and five children, left his homeland and church to sail to Great Britain’s North American Colonies to become president of the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton. The year was 1768, and the cause of independence from Great Britain roiled the colonies. Witherspoon, a Scot, was immediately attracted to the cause and became involved in politics. He served in several public positions and was eventually elected to the Continental Congress representing New Jersey. On May 17, 1776, he was in the pulpit of the College Church in Princeton, and a large congregation crowded into the church to hear him say: “At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary [to take a stand on the issue of independence], and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty.”
Witherspoon mounted his horse and rode to Philadelphia to take his place in the Continental Congress. On August 2, 1776, he signed his name to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which had been approved on July 4.
Caring for our communities and the world around us is in our DNA. Presbyterians have always understood that God loves this world and cares about what goes on in the world and calls God’s people to live fully in the world in God’s name. Thus, Presbyterians have been involved in and spoken our conviction about every major issue in American history right up to the present; not because we are a political party but because we know the church of Jesus Christ is called to live as profoundly in the world as he did. It will happen again, thanks be to God, as the 225th General Assembly of the PC(USA) convenes.
In her widely read book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle proposed that every 500 years the church conducts the equivalent of a rummage sale. Old items are discarded, making room for the new, oftentimes resulting in whole new structures. When things settle down after the rummage sale, a new, vital expression emerges — think Protestantism after the upheaval of the 16th-century Reformation. The older structure, now leaner, is more resilient and newly energized — think Roman Catholicism after the Counter Reformation, for instance. If Tickle is right, and I’m inclined to think she is, we are in the middle of an every-500-year rummage sale right now, 500 years after the Reformation. Something is changing. Something new is struggling to emerge. We can’t fully see it yet; only hints now and then.
My fervent hope and prayer is that whatever comes in the future for Presbyterians will reflect those core values that have emerged over our half-millennium history.
Truth is in order to goodness, as our Book of Order says. We are reminded every day that Truth – with a capital T – is under assault. Conspiracy theorists somehow manage to convince a significant percentage of the population that events happened that clearly did not happen: the election was rigged and stolen; a pedophilia ring operates out of a pizza parlor led by a former secretary of state and presidential candidate. The world desperately needs a church that holds tightly to objective truth and that remembers and proclaims the words of its Lord: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Accessible education is always a priority. The very notion of public education provided by the community for all children emerged out of the Reformation, in Geneva led by John Calvin and in Scotland led by John Knox. Presbyterians built schools as they planted churches in early America — one of the glories of Presbyterianism is how many of the earliest colleges and universities in America were founded by Presbyterians. And one of the most moving experiences in my term as moderator of the 208th General Assembly was to address a reunion of Presbyterian historic Black colleges and universities. It was an impressive – and large – gathering of graduates from our schools, led by their schools’ banners as they processed into the reunion. Many of those schools were organized by Presbyterians after the Civil War to help fill the enormous educational deficit that resulted from slavery. Many are no longer in existence due to public colleges and universities becoming more accessible. But the love for and pride in these precious Presbyterian institutions was palpable, and I was moved to be part of it. The world needs a church that can be counted on to advocate for and support accessible public education for all.
Christianity must be as worldly as Christ was. At a time when it is tempting to withdraw from all the conflict, chaos and noise, the world needs a church that knows how deeply the Creator loves and cares for the world and all its people and is willing to live for and serve the world. At a time of increasing domestic violence fueled by an epidemic of easily accessible lethal firearms, and now international violence at a level that the world has not seen in 80 years, the world desperately needs an institution that prioritizes peace-making, justice and racial and income equity.
Respect and appreciation for the arts and for thoughtful and creative public worship. The world needs a church that honors the human intellect as well as the human spirit, and that provides a means for both mind and soul to engage in God’s adoration and praise.
The world needs a church that is mission-oriented and ecumenical in spirit. The PC(USA) has a distinguished record of ecumenism and supportive relationships with other denominations as well as global partners. Without exception, moderators are given a firsthand experience of the global church and, without exception, are humbled and grateful for the way our forebears literally went into all the world in the name of Jesus Christ. What an honor to bring greetings and briefly share in the lives of and be witness to resilient, faithful Reformed Presbyterians in Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Croatia, Hungary and Korea, and to receive the gratitude these partner churches have for American Presbyterians’ courage and faithfulness.
At a time when our nation is so deeply divided ideologically and politically, the church’s witness to our own unity and the unity of humankind is critical. The world desperately needs a church that reflects in its own life the spirit of its Lord when he prayed for his disciples: “I ask … that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you … that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you sent me …” (John 17:20-21, 23).
The 225th General Assembly of the PC(USA) convenes at a critical time for the world, the nation and the church. My hope and prayer is that commissioners will experience a new sense of who we have been and are as Presbyterian Christians, will listen to one another and to the Holy Spirit and, when the final gavel falls, will return home assured that they have added another faithful chapter to the Presbyterian story and to our future.