From the PCUSA News Service
Theological Task force Adopts "Roadmap"
Group OKs plan for addressing theological rifts in PC(USA)
by John Filiatreau
LISLE, IL - The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of
the Presbyterian Church (USA) has drafted a "roadmap" to guide its
work in the coming months and years, and settled upon four broad
goals it will keep in mind as it takes on a task that one member has
Sixteen of the 20 members of the group, meeting July 31-Aug. 3 in
suburban Chicago, broadly set the agendas of its next several
meetings, resolving to devote each gathering to a discussion of one
"basic theological topic" and one "basic theme" of Presbyterian
polity, governance and history.
The topics chosen for future meetings of the Theological Task Force
October 2002: The person of Jesus Christ and the identity of his
followers; the current social and cultural context of Presbyterian
life and mission.
February 2003: The Bible, creeds and confessions in faith and life;
how Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians proclaim the faith.
August 2003: The nature and purpose of the church in the Reformed
tradition; how the Presbyterian Church orders its common life and
October 2003: Basic principles of Reformed faith as reflected in
worship and mission; how Presbyterians order their leadership.
February 2004: Basic principles of Reformed faith and principles and
patterns of Presbyterian life to be lifted up and affirmed for our
August 2004 and November 2004: How to address and work toward
resolution of theological controversies; how to address and work
toward resolution of ordination disputes (including questions about
whether gay and lesbian Presbyterians should be admitted to ordained
As it wrestles with these matters, Task Force members agreed to keep
in mind four broad goals:
* to "reintroduce" Presbyterians to important parts of church
* to bring to the church "a range of compelling visions that all fall
under a Reformed banner";
* to make its process accessible to the PC(USA) and to empower
Presbyterians to reproduce it locally; and
* to "bring people closer together across the lines that divide us."
Surveying the work ahead, Barbara Wheeler, the president of Auburn
Seminary in New York City, told her fellow Task Force members, "It's
Herculean in its demands."
In addition to the tasks outlined above, the Task Force also plans to
make interim reports to the 2003 and 2004 General Assemblies; to
produce and test a yet-to-be-defined "curriculum" or "toolbox of
resources" for congregations and presbyteries to use in grappling
with thorny theological issues at the local level; and to present its
final report to the 217th GA in 2006. (The TTF gained a year of
working time when this year's GA voted to hold Assemblies only every
other year; its original target date for the final report was 2005.)
The task force was authorized by the 213th GA (2001) and appointed by
the then-current moderator, the Rev. Jack Rogers, and his two
immediate predecessors, the Rev. Syngman Rhee (2000) and Freda
Gardner (1999). It was asked "to lead the Presbyterian Church (USA)
in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the
21st century ... seeking the peace, unity and purity of the church."
The GA said its task "shall include but not be limited to issues of
Christology, Biblical authority and interpretation, ordination
standards and power."
The group has decided to hire at least one outside consultant, a
specialist in educational-resource development, to help in the
conceptualization of the "resource package" it intends to create for
the church. It also said that it may need other outside help, despite
members' concerns about the financial implications.
Asked about TTF expenses, Gradye Parsons, director of strategic
operations in the Office of the General Assembly, commented that,
"The money this conflict has cost us is much greater than the money
you're talking about."
The TTF budget for this year is $51,730, and the tentative budget for
next year is $47,830.
One theme that emerged during the meeting was that Presbyterians
agree on many more things than they quarrel about. The Rev. Jack
Haberer, a pastor from Houston, TX, noted that 97 percent of
commissioners to this year's General Assembly endorsed "Hope in the
Lord Jesus Christ," a statement of the Reformed view of salvation. He
said that was an indication of the broad unity of Presbyterians.
Haberer said the TTF needs to find "some way for us and the church
itself to articulate that 90 percent of the faith is held by 90
percent of us" and to "dispel the impression that we are just ... two
churches under one roof." He said it must also present "a reason for
connectionalism that works now."
Wheeler agreed. "We have huge richness and depth and strength," she
said of the PC(USA), "and we don't even know we have it." She urged
the group to try to produce "a luminous portrayal of the good of what
we've got." That good, she said, was reflected in this year's GA,
which featured "more cordial, respectful and cooperative conversation
... between what are supposed to be the sides and factions of this
church" than any of the previous 22 Assemblies she has witnessed.
"And it wasn't for want of engagement, either," she added.
The Rev. Lonnie J. Oliver, a pastor from College Park, GA, said he
hopes the TTF can find "a mode or model for operating as the people
of God together as a denomination" and help people understand "what
it means to be a Christian and a Presbyterian." He said the group can
help "congregations, presbyteries, the whole denomination and the
world, really ... to discover what God is doing," concluding, "I see
the end result as being obedience to God's will."
The Rev. John Wilkinson, a pastor from Rochester, NY, said the task
force must try to discover "how to be in relationship with people
with whom we disagree," and pointed out, "To be in unity does not
mean to be unanimously agreeable."
The Rev. John B. "Mike" Loudon, a pastor from Lakeland, FL, said he
will feel that the task force has failed if it doesn't provide
"definitive guidance on the ordination questions and issues" and on
"Biblical interpretation and Biblical authority."
The Rev. Gary Demarest, a co-moderator of the TTF, said: "Two words
resonate through all of this: vision and leadership." He said
Presbyterians are hoping "that we will really lead the church, and
lead the church through vision," and answer two important questions:
"What does a disciple of Christ look like in 21st-century America?"
and "What does the community of disciples of Jesus Christ look like?"
Two sessions of Bible study seemed particularly relevant to the work
of the TTF.
One, led by Haberer, concerned the first two chapters of Paul's
Letter to the Ephesians, in which the apostle is writing about
conflict in the early church between Jewish and Gentile Christians,
the circumcised and uncircumcised. "Now in Christ Jesus you who once
were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ," Paul
writes. "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups
into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the
hostility between us."
Haberer said the passage demonstrates that disagreements and disunity
are not new in the church. The Jewish early Christians, he said,
"were Calvinists through and through, who understood election and
predestination ... and understood what it means to be elect, to be
chosen." He said there is comfort in the knowledge that Jesus has the
power, in Paul's words, to "reconcile both groups to God in one body
through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility."
Haberer pointed out that God has the power to "create one new
humanity in place of the two, thus making peace."
"It's a wonderful idea to contemplate," he concluded, "and an ethical
Another session, led by Frances Taylor Gench, a professor at Union
Theological Seminary, had to do with the story of Jesus' walking on
the water, as recounted in Matthew and Mark. The apostles in the
storm-tossed boat are terrified, victimized by "the primal fears that
cripple us," Gench pointed out, but Jesus comes to their rescue
"immediately," with a "challenge to greater faith," directed (in
Matthew) to Peter: "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" And
when they "have the Lord back in the boat," she noted, the wind
Gench pointed out that Jesus' reassuring cry, "Take heart, it is I,"
would have been, to the early Christians, a clear echo of the Old
Testament name of God, "I am who I am," and would have been
recognized as "language only God could speak."
She compared the PC(USA) to the apostles' boat, "beaten" by the wind
and waves, noting that the church in Matthew's day also was full of
conflict. And she pointed out that Matthew's Gospel concludes with
Jesus' promise, "I am with you always."
Much of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of what the task
force should produce as a vehicle for sharing its reflections and
discoveries with the whole church - whether it is termed "curriculum"
or "resources" or something else.
The members agreed that it wouldn't be enough to merely turn out a
printed document, but were unsure how best to proceed. The Rev. Sarah
Grace Sanderson, a pastor from Lowville, NY, said her "biggest
caution" was "not to let this task swamp our basic task." Another
member noted, "We could spend the rest of our shelf life" talking
about the materials to be conveyed to congregations and governing
"Making things happen at the local level is the hardest leadership
challenge in the world," Wheeler said, adding: "People don't just
automatically buy things you put on paper for them."
"This is the problem with task forces," said the Rev. Joe Coalter, a
professor of library and information services at Louisville Seminary.
"It's like going to a revival and you have a wonderful experience -
but how do you convey it to someone else?"
"We need more help on this than we have around the table," said Scott
D. Anderson, director of the Sacramento-based California Council of
Some members of the task force reiterated frustration and discomfort
expressed at previous TTF meetings to have to do the group's work in
the presence of the denominational press, which they said discourages
candor and raises fears about coverage of what Anderson said "is
going to be a messy, risky process."
In its foundational "covenant," the task force members vowed to "work
in good faith within the open-meeting policy of the General Assembly
and welcome the press and other observers present at our meetings."
They add that they "trust the press to perform its part of this
responsibility by reporting on our work in accordance with the
published ethical standards of the Associated Church Press and the
Evangelical Press Association."
The task force's next meeting, in October, will be held at Louisville
Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
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