Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Review of "A Season of Discernment": 1. An invitation to walk a path with fellow Presbyterians

"Gracious God, may we look back upon this time of trouble, in repentance and hope, and see that in coming together to confront our differences, we found a new measure of the peace, unity, and purity that were already ours in our loving Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
- Prayer at the close of Section I of "A Season of Discernment"
Front cover of "A Season of Discernment"On August 25, 2005 the Theological Task Force on Peace Unity and Purity of the Church approved its final report, "A Season of Discernment", to be distributed across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) before it is presented to the General Assembly in 2006. The approval of this final report begins a final year during which the members of the Task Force will itinerate around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to interpret the report.

This report is a valuable gift to the church from the 20 members of the Task Force who have worked together, listened to each other, disagreed with each other, and sought to comprehend our Presbyterian identity over almost five years. Almost anyone who seeks primarily validation of one's own current position will be disappointed by this report, and many already have expressed their disappointment. [See this list of responses.] Nevertheless, the core gift of this report is in the Task Force's agreement and faithfulness in following a process of dialogue and reflection, and not in whether they found a final position which will solve all the problems of the PCUSA.

The formation of the Theological Task Force in 2001 emerged out of deep conflicts within the PCUSA. An annual cycle of polarizing debates at the General Assemblies followed by similarly polarizing debates in the presbyteries had been draining energy away from our common mission concerns, and had been straining the fabric of our fellowship. Even in small membership churches, where members are accustomed to getting along with one another, there has been an awareness of a certain level of tension within the Presbyterian Church at large.

When the 213th General Assembly met in Louisville, Kentucky in 2001, the first year of the 21st Century, there was already business being proposed for that meeting that had the potential for continuing or even intensifying the cycle of divisive debates and votes. Early in that meeting, on Wednesday, June 13, the first day of plenary business when the assembly committees began presenting their reports, the assembly approved a recommendation to form the Task Force by a 91% majority.

The charter for the Theological Task Force was as follows:

The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The members of the Task Force were to be appointed by a group consisting of the moderator of the 213th General Assembly and the two immediate past moderators.[see this] They solicited nominations from across the church and received over 500 names representing the breadth of the PCUSA. [see this] The group of moderators were working together in Louisville on forming the Theological Task Force on 9/11/2001 when the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia shocked the world.[see this] On October 4, 2001 the three moderators appointed a 21-member Task Force, explaining that they had decided that they needed more than the original 17 to reflect the strengths and diversity needed for the task force. [see this] The Task Force began its work on December 6, 2001. [see this]

The Task Force did their work during a time of deep conflict both for the church and the world. In the report's footnote 11, the Task Force lists "the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, a war in Afghanistan, another war in Iraq, polarizing presidential elections, controversies over the nature and scope of democracy in both the United States and abroad, and ongoing racial tension and cultural division over moral and social issues."

The report begins with a description of the theological basis of a Christian identity in the 21st Century. It states and discusses three core convictions: that the triune God loves us, that the triune God saves us, and that the triune God empowers us with a calling and commission. The study guide for this section asks Presbyterians to discuss how the Theological Reflection compares to our core convictions as Presbyterian Christians, and what do we find compelling about our Presbyterian identity. I look forward to being part of such a discussion, and I also hope that some of the participants will be non-Presbyterian Christians. As I think about these core values, I wonder whether the core convictions that we identify as foundations of our Presbyterian identity are not actually core convictions for Christians in general.

I would urge us to take some time to walk with the Theological Task Force. Although the various advocacy groups on both sides are already generating their statements disagreeing with the conclusions in the report, and have tried to fit the conclusions into one side or the other of the big debates, we should consider carefully what the Task Force offers, and begin where they do. Are the core convictions right? They look accurate to me, and they certainly reflect the understanding of the Christian faith that I have acquired in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Let’s take the time to begin where the Task Force began, and to listen to what the Task Force is saying about their experience of dialogue. Let’s take the time to study and discuss what the Task Force offers us, and to have risky dialogue with others. Let’s take the time to follow a process similar to the process they followed, and let’s see whether we do not discover a unifying sense of our identity given by God.

“A Season of Discernment” describes a process modeled by the Task Force that might turn out to be a way off the unmerry-go-round on which the PCUSA has been turning for a few decades. And if it is not a way off, “A Season of Discernment” at least shows a way to live within the current conflicts with a deeper appreciation of one another and of the grace of God in Jesus Christ who has claimed us all.

As we gather at the Lord’s Table this World Communion Sunday, we will gather to receive the gifts of God for the people of God. Let us be ready to trust that the peace, unity, and purity we seek are among those gifts from our loving, saving, and empowering God.

Over the coming weeks I will be looking more closely at various parts of "A Season of Discernment."

Other installments of this review of "A Season of Discernment" are: 1 2

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