A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
A “Deathly Ill” Union?
February 14, 2011
Here I am, writing on Valentine’s Day about a “deathly ill” union, of all things. We know the territory all too well – we’ve been there, or have seen loved ones pass through it. The ties that bind have become ties that chafe, and sometimes all we want is “Out!” When someone comes along with whom we feel a vibrant connection, we long to trade the shackles of a struggling, worn out partnership for the bonds of new love.
I’m speaking not about marriage and romance, but about the church. A group of 45 pastors posted a letter on February 2 that struck a nerve across the PCUSA. Their letter begins with the assertion that the PCUSA is “deathly ill” on several accounts, and proposes a new kind of covenantal union, based on theological and missional affinity rather than on historic common roots and geographic proximity (as is now the case with our system of presbyteries and synods). The old marriage has gone bad, they contend – so bad, that absent drastic reform its demise appears virtually inevitable. In their view, the state of our union must be fundamentally and speedily reordered, or we will need to create a new union.
The extent to which this proposal has generated attention is revealed by the fact that a critical response by Margaret Aymer of Johnson C. Smith Seminary drew more than 11,000 online readers within three days. Countless more have no doubt read the original letter. A vigorous conversation about the letter continues to unfold on the news page of the Presbyterian Outlook. One reason people are taking such notice is that the 45 men who signed the letter represent many of the PCUSA’s largest congregations. But perhaps the main reason people are listening up is that the letter resonates with their own frustrations.
I won’t summarize the letter here, except to say that it credits much of our membership loss over the past forty years to our energies being so consumed by internal debates that we have lost our capacity to accomplish Christ’s mission in the world. Like many of us, these folk are weary of what seems like interminable internal tug-of-war.
To their credit, the writers of this letter aren’t just throwing in the towel on their marriage to the PCUSA. Not yet, anyway. They are seeking a new way forward within the fellowship of the PCUSA. But they make it clear that if no such new way emerges soon, they are prepared to explore forming a fellowship apart from the PCUSA.
The Christian church has been prone to sub-divide into like-minded groups from day one. Hardly had the church in Corinth been established when people began segregating on the basis of their affinity with Paul, Peter, Apollos, or Jesus. Paul’s horrified response still catches us short, “Is Christ divided?” Paul goes on to make an extended case that the church needs to embrace its diversity, rather than run from it. None of us can say of someone different from us, “I have no need of you.” All parts of the body need to be in organic relation to all other parts of the body if the body is to be whole.
Truthfully, I need those different from me more than I need those who are like me. Those who already see eye to eye with me may be more fun to jaw with over morning coffee; but when they simply reinforce what I already believe, they no longer help me to grow.
The vitality of the Body of Christ hangs on at least three fundamental conditions. First, we must all be connected to the Head, Christ himself, taking our orders from him. Second, we must be filled with the breath of the Spirit working the power of God among us and through us. And third, we need to be vitally connected with all the members of Christ’s body, even those most different from us, if we are to be fit for the church’s missionary task. We cannot be whole and thrive if we have just two out of three; all three are necessary. This letter calls us to take more seriously the first of these three conditions, to focus more clearly on Christ’s call to us. I can only say Amen to that call; and I feel compelled to push back with a reminder of the necessity also to be faithful to the third condition for church vitality. The glue that holds both together is the second condition, the living presence of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. Come, Spirit, come!
Yes, this marriage known as the PCUSA is a difficult one. Let’s not pretend otherwise. But is cashing it out for a more compatible one – or even raising that possibility – the best way forward? Does acknowledging that we are already rife with divisions render official divorce a mere technicality? What if, rather than threatening to abandon it, we redoubled our commitment to give our best, undivided, unconditional energies to repairing our beloved but tattered covenant?
I believe that this group, which calls itself “the Fellowship,” wants the church and its witness to thrive. Would that we all would be willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen! Toward that end, Scripture calls us to strengthen, rather than to abandon our life together. This necessarily flows from our mission – we are ambassadors of God’s reconciling work in Christ. When we divide from each other, we nullify the message of reconciliation that God has entrusted to us. If our fellowship has ceased being life-giving, let’s do all we can to renew our covenantal bonds in Christ through the Spirit. This is the cause to which I am committed, for the sake of Jesus Christ and the mission to which he calls us.
Steadfastly with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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