Group Will Go Beyond Gay-Rights Fight, Promote 'Progressive Theology'

Nov 14, 2002 03:00 AM EST

MINNEAPOLIS - While affirming the purpose for which it was founded in 1997 - the inclusion of gays and lesbians in all ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) - leaders of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians said during its recent annual conference here that it will organize in presbyteries around the country and broaden its scope, striving to become the voice of "progressive theology" and "a new ecclesiastical spirit" in the church.

The Network's co-moderators, the Rev. Joanna Adams, co-pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, and Eugene Bay, pastor of Bryn Mawr (PA) Presbyterian Church, said the group will devote itself to "networking, informing and advocating" among "Presbyterians in the great middle of the church" - and will try to do so, in Adams' words, "in a way that does not result in the church dividing."

Adams and Bay said the Network will concentrate on "building up chapters on the presbytery level," and has plans to hire a part-time organizer to work in the southeastern United States.

"I should hasten to say," Bay added, "that this is going to take money."

The conference, whose theme was "Confessing Christ Today: Seeking Common Ground," attracted more than 500 Presbyterians to Westminster Presbyterian Church here - an increase of about 150 over last year's turnout. Organizers said the group included about 180 people who had never been to a Covenant Network conference before.

The meeting featured several sermons and lectures exploring what might be called the theology of inclusion:

The Rev. John Wilkinson, pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY, and a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, spoke of the Confession of 1967 as a roadmap toward reconciliation that demonstrates that "cultural context matters, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow." Copies of "C-67" were included in the conference packet.

The Rev. Shirley C. Guthrie, a theology professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, who retired recently after teaching for 39 years, spoke about "authentic evangelism" in a multi-faith world, arguing that it can only spring from a Christianity "that reconciles people not only to God, but also to other people." In a message he said was intended for conservatives and liberals alike, he added: "Those who say they love God and hate other people are flat-out liars."

The Rev. Anna Case-Winters, an associate professor of theology at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, pointed out that God "is present and active in the world, and not just in the church," adding: "There is more to God than Jesus. ... When we have said all we can say about Jesus of Nazareth, we have not told the whole story." She said God has unabridged freedom to save Christians and non-Christians alike.

In a sermon, the Rev. Cynthia Jarvis, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, made a similar point, noting that the Good Shepherd says in John that he has "other sheep who do not belong to this fold," and says, "I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice." Jarvis told her audience that "God's freedom to be in relationship with other sheep is not bound by what God has done with us."

Another preacher, the Rev. Curtis Jones, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, referred to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Presbyterians as members that "the church has yet to stand with," adding: "It's interesting that our response to difference is fear. ... God made us and said we were good. ... This is a God that doesn't even make the snowflakes identical. ... Never stop fighting for who you are."

Participants took part in workshops on topics including "Being the Christian Church in Faithful Conversation with Jews & Muslims"; "Biblical Visions of a Hospitable and Transforming Church"; "Why Stay? Living with Integrity in the Shadow of G-6.0106b"; and "Christian Ministry in Multi-faith Neighborhoods."

In one workshop, "Interpreting Our Constitution Faithfully: Living with G-6.0106b," attorneys Peter Oddleifson and Doug Nave advised people to "start reading the words" of the controversial provision - which Nave called "a harmful, painful, violent thing to have in the Book of Order " - in order to fight it on legal grounds.

G-6.0106b states: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."

Nave said the language of the amendment leaves lots of room for interpretation of the meanings of such terms as "chastity," "unrepentent" and "compliance."

"This is not gamesmanship," he said. "This is not a game. It is not dodging, being tricky, fancy legal footwork." He said Presbyterian liberals "since 1996 have allowed conservatives to tell us what Amendment B (now G-6.0106b) means," but "there are a lot of interpretive issues in B" yet to be resolved.

Discussing the phrase, "a practice the Confessions call sin," Nave and Oddleifson pointed out that the Larger Catechism identifies 253 specific sins, suggesting that any consideration of sin must take into account "context and degree."

The lawyers distributed a pamphlet titled, "Examination of Officers-Elect: A Resource for Sessions," that contains "sample answers" for candidates for ordination - what Nave called "things gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people can say and be ordained." He said of G-6.0106b, "It's not that bad if we're careful about the words."

In another workshop, the Rev. Jack Rogers, moderator of the 213th General Assembly, said he found his year of travel around the church reassuring. "What I heard was a positive message of encouragement and hope," he said. "I discovered that 90 percent of Presbyterians are not upset with the church."

In a workshop on the Assembly Committee on Confessions and Christology during the 214th Assembly, Case-Winters, who served as chair of the committee, said she expected the panel's deliberations to be rancorous and difficult, but they were not. "I still to this day don't know how we came together the way we did," she said. "I think it made a difference that a lot of people were praying for us."

The committee produced a report commending to the church a paper titled "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" that had been written by staff members of the denomination's Office of Theology and Worship. The committee's report was then approved by a 497-11 vote of commissioners to the 214th GA.

"Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ" affirms that "Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him," but goes on to say: "We do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of 'God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all peple are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine."

Wilkinson's presentation on the Confession of 1967, which he called "a theological and ecclesiastical watershed for the Presbyterian family" that "has a timeliness that feels very Reformed to me," set the tone for the conference.

He said the document, with its "litany of ethical and social concerns," speaks powerfully to us today because the issues it addressed 40 years ago - such as civil rights, women's rights, population shifts, war and peace, the decline in the cultural influence of religion - seem scarcely less current now. The document, he said, calls Presbyterians to "Christ's ministry of reconciliation" and makes clear that that ministry must take place in "a context of political give-and-take."

Paraphrasing poet T.S. Eliot, Wilkinson said, "Our fallen selves and our redeemed selves are one. ... The church and its Lord are one."

Part of the Confession of 1967 was actually sung during one worship service, in a performance of portions of "The Spirit That Sets Us Free," by Stephen Paulus of nearby St. Paul, MN, which sets to music parts of C-67 and of the Brief Statement of Faith. "God has endowed us with capacities to make the world serve our needs and enjoy its good things," a choir sang. "Life is a gift to be received with gratitude; a task to be pursued with courage."

Among the performers at worship were the Macalester College African Music Ensemble, the Westminster Presbyterian Church Children's Choir, the Choristers of the House of Hope Choir School, a trio playing Gaelic music on vintage instruments, and the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus.

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the PC(USA), told conference participants that Christians are "called, not only to preach, but to live the Beatitudes," and to "transform the world for the cause of Christ and be agents of God's reconciliation in the world." He pointed out that the scripture says, "For God so loved the world ..." rather than, "For God so loved the church ... "

Guthrie said he imagined that "evangelism is not high on the agenda of members of the Covenant Network," whose foundational documents don't even mention the word. He said that could be because many of us "are appalled by the kind of evangelism we hear on the radio and see on TV," which obsesses about "salvation of individual souls" and implies that "only Christians worship the one true God."

He said "authentic evangelism" differs from "self-glorifying ... Christian evangelism ... which can take a conservative or liberal form," in that it:

  • "Bears witness to God, not to our own personal religious experience"
  • "Bears witness to God, not to the Christian community"
  • "Bears witness to the love of God for all kinds of people, not only to people who are like us."

Guthrie said people are "weary and bored to death with an evangelism of cheap grace," and said Christians must recognize "the presence of Christ outside the Christian community" and witness to "a risen Christ that is alive in the world and not trapped in a church."

The Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, moderator of the 214th General Assembly, prayed for peace in the Middle East and expressed concern about a possible U.S. attack on Iraq.

"I feel that in the United States we are becoming more isolated," he said. "As the only superpower, we think we can eliminate people completely and do whatever we want. ... We are telling the world the gun is the solution." (Jones had said in his sermon, "George Bush, who could not find oil in Texas, has his eye on somebody else's vineyard.") Abu-Akel said hospitality for "the strangers in our midst, the people who are not like us" - the ministry to which he has devoted most of his life and career - is the "No. 1 tool for evangelism."

Case-Winters pointed out that the Second Helvetic Confession says God "can illuminate whom and where he will," and advises that we are "to have a good hope (of salvation) for all." She warned against trying to "exclude any whom God would not exclude," or assuming that the second person of the Trinity is "the only locus of God's activity."

"Incarnation in itself may be redemptive ... might be enough," she said

By John Filiatreau