Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Disagreeing, agreeably (PCUSA)

Expand Messages
    CALLED OUT ... February 26, 2003 Disagreeing, agreeably 20 task force members are building trust, becoming community by John Filiatreau, PCUSA NEWS DALLAS -
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 27, 2003
    • 0 Attachment

      February 26, 2003
      Disagreeing, agreeably
      20 task force members are building trust, becoming community
      by John Filiatreau, PCUSA NEWS

      DALLAS - The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of
      the Church spent several hours during its recent meeting here
      discussing the foundational documents of the Presbyterian Church
      (USA) - the Bible and the Book of Confessions.

      In the process, the group's 20 members voiced and heard a welter of
      firmly-held opinions, and discovered many points of frank
      disagreement, which they discussed in a way that all seemed to find

      Barbara Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New
      York City, said one of the group's key discoveries is that the gospel
      "can be powerfully proclaimed by someone with whom you don't agree at

      When Frances Taylor Gench, a professor at Union Theological Seminary,
      spoke of the group's efforts "to understand why people who take the
      Bible's authority seriously disagree about what it says," she implied
      that the task force members were among those who do "take the Bible's
      authority seriously."

      That's a concession many might not have been willing to make when
      they were appointed about a year ago. In those days, some may have
      entertained ideas like the one Mark Achtemeier, a professor at the
      University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, described as "a
      stereotype that cripples the church": the notion that "conservatives
      are serious about scripture, and liberals don't care about

      The members clearly have shed such misapprehensions, if they had

      Somehow, a group that started its work full of apprehension and dread
      now has a hopeful and optimistic attitude, and seems to have little
      fear of the difficult work that lies ahead.

      What has changed? How is it that Co-Moderator Gary Demarest, a
      retired minister from Pasadena, CA, was moved to say, "I feel that
      I'm experiencing the Body of Christ in a new way. Serving on this
      task force has been one of the really fine privileges of my whole
      journey"? (That's a journey of more than 50 years in ministry.)

      The difference, of course, is the year of community- and
      trust-building the task force members have put in so far; the year of
      praying together and having Communion together and studying scripture
      together and laughing together over meals.

      In short, they've come to love each other.

      Even those whose views are diametrically opposed - say, Wheeler, who
      wants to remove the provision of the church constitution that forbids
      the ordination of sexually active homosexuals, and the Rev. John
      "Mike" Loudon, an evangelical who strongly supports that provision (a
      primary cause of the dissension that brought about the task force's
      appointment) - clearly are coming to respect and even like each

      Referring to the group's gatherings, of which there have been five so
      far, Demarest gushed, "Each meeting, to me, gets warmer and more

      The group would like to make it possible for the whole church to
      share its heartening experience. But no one has come up with a quick
      and easy way to make it happen. (OK: Start by dividing the church up
      into 250,000 groups of 10 ...)

      "This is one of the most powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit
      I've ever had," Demarest said, asking whether some parts of the
      process aren't "marketable and transferable." Wheeler said she'd run
      up against "the biggest problem in education - how to replicate
      what's effective in one learning setting ... in another."

      That may be why the group's anxiety level goes up whenever the
      conversation turns to what the members call "the product" - the final
      result of their conversations, whether it turns out to be a position
      paper, a series of videos, a program for presbyteries and
      congregations, new curriculum. Nobody knows what it may be.

      Achtemeier suggested it might be a new confession for the church.

      "I don't think it's inconceivable to envision a scenario where
      something produced by this task force could end up being at least a
      candidate for being a confession," he said. "� In any case, I think
      we should aim at nothing less than that."

      Wheeler pointed out, "We need to be clear on what we're talking about
      when we talk about a new confession. There are capital-c confessions
      and small-c confessions, and there is a procedure for creating a
      capital-c confession. � We haven't been mandated to do that."

      The idea is "worth pondering," said John Wilkinson, the pastor of
      Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, NY, but if creating a
      'capital-C' confession is the group's aim, "then we've all got to
      clear the next decade on our schedules."

      Demarest had pointed out that the group that wrote the Westminster
      Confession was composed of more than 150 people who met for 1,160
      days over six years.

      In the meantime, the group intends to offer resources it has found
      useful - in matters of process as well as of substance on the task
      force Web site: http://pcusa.org/oga/theo-task-force.htm

      The theme of the Feb. 20-23 meeting was "The Bible, creeds and
      confessions in faith and life."

      The task force began by establishing a few "rules of engagement,"
      promising to: commit to work hard together; share their best
      insights; dissent when necessary; keep at it even when it's
      difficult; and "seek ways to live with differences that cannot be

      It then turned to a discussion of three historic models of scriptural
      interpretation: the scholastic model ("the Bible as a book of
      inerrant facts (1812-1927)"); neo-orthodoxy ("the Bible as a witness
      to Christ the Word of God (1930s-1960s)"); and contextual
      interpretation ("a divine message in human forms of thought

      The members' quickly reached a consensus that all three approaches
      are appropriately part of the Reformed tradition, and all three are
      still widely employed in the PC(USA).

      They also agreed with author John Burgess' observation that
      "Presbyterians are better at asserting the authority of the Bible
      than at actually opening the Bible."

      Milton "Joe" Coalter, interim president of Louisville Presbyterian
      Theological Seminary, said he thinks many Presbyterians and other
      Christians have come to think of the Bible, "Why give it such a
      privileged place when you have such a hard time saying what it
      means?" and, partly on that account, dismiss the church as "just a
      bunch of people who disagree."

      The Rev. Jack Haberer, pastor of Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in
      Houston, said he attended worship at a recent pastors' conference and
      heard a minister from the United Church of Christ say, after reading
      from the Bible and from "some other literature," "God inspires in all
      these things equally."

      "My hair was standing on end," he said, pointing out that some
      attitudes about scripture "are beyond the pale of what we consider
      OK" in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

      Achtemeier urged the group to "look at the actual attention
      Presbyterians pay to scripture." He said "relatively little attention
      to the Bible has been paid by either side on the questions that bring
      us here � An awful lot of this debate has been shouting unreflective

      Wheeler said the group's first order of business may be to answer
      what she called "an empirical question: Do Presbyterians use the
      Bible, or not?"

      Most task force members seemed to agree with authors Andrew Purvis
      and Charles Partee that, "Today's church needs not a better theory of
      scripture but a better practice of scripture," and with former
      General Assembly moderator Jack Rogers that "the use of scripture is
      more important than debates about its authority."

      Part of the problem, Achtemeier said, is that, in discussions of the
      Bible, many Christians devote themselves to seeking "the 'magic
      bullet' that will prove your point, over and against the opposition."

      Haberer laid some of the responsibility at the feet of the
      seminaries, which encourage "over-against-ness" and scripture study
      as a war of citations.

      Loudon said the church needs to "pay much more attention to the
      practice of engagement in scripture," especially through worship.

      Citing the task force's own experience, Joan Merritt, an elder from
      Newport Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, WA, said, "It's reading it
      together that's truly important."

      The group's discussion of the confessions began with the observation
      that the confessions are even less familiar to most Presbyterians
      than scripture.

      After a few moments, Achtemeier observed, "We could be having the
      same conversation we had this morning - just substitute 'confessions'
      for 'scripture.'" Wilkinson held up a copy of the Book of Confessions
      and said: "Does anybody ever open this book? Does it really matter?"

      Wilkinson, pointing out that "no one statement is irreformable," said
      it may be "the right and duty of a living church to restate its faith
      from time to time." Loudon said making a new confession may well be
      "something the church should do every 30 or 35 years." Haberer said
      he has become aware of "a yearning for a new confession" in the

      When Wilkinson observed that "for nearly a quarter of a millennium
      there was only Westminster" - the Westminster Statement of Faith,
      adopted in 1646 - Curtiss observed, "When we had a single confession,
      we didn't fight any less."

      "The main focus of Westminster appeared to be on scripture as the
      sufficient, authoritative, powerful way we know God and as the rule
      of faith and life, divinely inspired," said Merritt.

      Westminster remained the only purely Presbyterian confession until
      1967, when "C-67" (the Confession of 1967) was approved by the former
      United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. C-67 said
      scripture in some instances was culturally biased, and that Biblical
      interpretation must take into account the cultural contexts of the
      Biblical authors and of modern interpreters as well.

      Haberer said "the traditional Presbyterian key word of
      'righteousness' becomes 'reconciliation' in C-67."

      Loudon said he is amazed at "how much more orthodox C-67 (the
      Confession of 1967) seems today than it seemed then � (and) has
      become much more palatable."

      The task force broke into small groups for studies of those two
      confessions and one other: the Second Helvetic ("Swiss"), written in
      1561 by Heinrich Bullinger. It is markedly ecclesial, emphasizing the
      church and its life and affirming the authority of the scriptures in
      church government and reformation.

      Wheeler, observing that "the confessions really do reward study,"
      said: "If the church ever breaks apart, I want to take Westminster
      with me. I don't care about my property."

      Loudon replied, "We'll take the endowment!"

      Haberer said the proliferation of confessions - The Book of
      Confessions currently contains 11 - may not be such a good thing. He
      said it encourages Presbyterians to choose confessions, and parts of
      confessions, that suit them. "We've got so many options, we've lost
      our bearings," he said.

      The group briefly discussed the concept of status confessionis, a
      Latin expression for a situation that warrants a new confession of
      faith (internal danger, external threat, or an opportunity for new
      insight). That led to Achtemeier's speculation about the possibility
      that the task force itself may create at least a small-C confession
      for the PC(USA).

      Coalter pointed out that the use of confessions, and church members'
      knowledge about them, is not broad. He said the church needs a way of
      making study of the confessions a part of people's lives."

      Send your response to this article to pcusa.news@...

      Do you Yahoo!?
      Yahoo! Tax Center - forms, calculators, tips, more
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.